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Much Ado About S – part I

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The new book production simply called S has received a lot of hype in its first days.  S is the concoction of J.J. Abrams, Doug Dorst, and Mulholland Books, which is “an imprint of Little, Brown and Company devoted to publishing the best in suspense fiction.” Most of the hype has been focused on the concept and the remarkable production values of S, drather than the literary content.  S comes housed in a slipcase and secured by a belly-band. The bulging volume that emerges is a rather amazing replica of a mid-20th century book called Ship of Theseus by V.M Straka, fitted out with a full set of library markings, endless notes scrawled in the margins, and all manner of stuff literally crammed between the pages: photographs, post cards, newspaper clippings, photocopies, handwritten notes, a napkin from a coffee house, some sort of decoder device, and much more. The handwritten notes belong to two students who “converse” throughout the book about its meaning and possible mysteries buried within, as well as their own potential involvement with each other. Here’s the plot description from the publisher’s website:

A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.  The book: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V.M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.  The writer: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumors that swirl around him.  The readers: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears. 

Abrams,  television and movie producer (Lost, Person of Interest, Almost Human, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and much more) told National Public Radio about the genesis of S:

The idea came from a very simple place, which is that I was at Los Angeles airport about 15 years ago or so, and I saw a paperback book … on a bench, and I opened it up and someone had written inside, ‘To whomever finds this book, please read the book, take it somewhere else and leave it for someone else to find it.’ I still have this book. I’ve never read it, frankly. And I’ve never left it for anyone else, but I’ve kept this thing. It began a thought process for me, which was, what if someone found a book that had extensive notes in it and responded to some of those notes and left the book back? … And what if a conversation began strictly in the margins of a novel? A wonderful author named Doug Dorst heard this pitch and his eyes lit up and I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s crazy too.’ And we literally thought that no one would really get it or be interested in it.

Dorst Surf Guru

Why Dorst?  Possibly because Dorst already has a bit of a track record for inventing fictional manuscripts, complete with illustrations and annotations. Dorst is the author of Alive in the Necropolis (a mystery novel involving a famous San Francisco cemetery, which I have not read) and The Surf Guru, a book of short stories that came out in 2010. Inside Surf Guru is a long story called “Splitters,” which purports to be an edited selection from an unpublished manuscript left behind by American botanist Hartford Anderton Quilcock on his death in 1931. Quilcock, of course, is a figment of Dorst’s imagination and so is the odd manuscript, which originally bore the title Botanists in the Age of Quilcock: A Field Guide to Frauds, Fools, Thieves, and Demagogues, In Quilcock, Dorst does a nice impersonation of an angry, paranoid outsider who who a chip on his shoulder toward the “fops and frauds” who inhabit the ivory and ivy towers of academia (much as Quilcock himself did).  “Splitters” gives us a dozen or so of Quilcock’s vicious – and viciously funny – profiles (several of which would probably be libelous had they portrayed  a real person).  Each profile begins with the reproduction of a photograph of the supposed subject, and the profiles are littered with the copious and opinionated footnotes provided by the “editor” of the manuscripts, a certain professor of botany who grudgingly inherited the responsibility.   In the Acknowledgements for the The Surf Guru, Dorst tells us that all of the portraits of the faux botanists are actually photographs of real botanists of the past.  (“Splitters,” by the way, are “vile, irredeemable self-servers and pretenders to the divine”who insist on splitting plants with insignificant differences into completely separate species, and thus – according to Quilcock – are guilty of pumping out needless publications and gaining the god-like opportunity to name “new” plants after themselves and their friends.) All this is to say that it isn’t surprising that Dorst saw the fictional possibilities in Abrams’ concept.  

Dorst Quilcock

One thing that Abrams definitely brought to the table as “co-author” of S was the ability to create exceptional promotional pieces and garner lots of press. On YouTube there is a promo video for the book worthy of a major horror/sci fi film and another video that briefly shows some of the contents of S.  My favorite piece of publicity appears in The Hollywood Reporter (see what I’ve been reading lately!), which tells us that some librarians have felt they were deceived by the publicity campaign and are “enraged” by the actual nature of the book they’ve found themselves ordering:

One group unimpressed by the literary theater are librarians, who have been complaining to one another on message boards that the loose material is easy to misplace and reporting they have canceled orders — 50 copies at Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County libraries alone. Many are irked that an elaborate Hollywood-style marketing campaign, complete with stylized trailers and a strict embargo, left them clueless about the contents of the relatively pricey book.

Ship of Theseus[To be continued…]

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