Reading S, the new book by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, presents some challenges. Ultimately, it helped me to think of the book in my hands as two books. The original book, shall we say, is Ship of Theseus by one V.M. Straka, “published” in 1949 by the poetically named Winged Shoes Press. S, on the other hand, is the ex-library book in which two students of “Pollard State University” have written extensive annotations and personal notes and left countless loose items accumulated during their research into the book and the identity of its mysterious author.
I chose to read Ship of Theseus as a tongue-in-cheek joyride through the landscape and tropes of mid-20th century noir and pulp fiction.
Reading Ship this way makes it is possible to see that Doug Dorst has successfully written a “bad” novel, but he’s done so in such a way as to avoid both simple mimicry or outright kitsch. Although there were certainly stretches when all I could do was scratch my head, groan, and keep turning the pages, Dorst has found a voice that makes Ship of Theseus palatable and often a real kick. Just ignore the plot and enjoy the moody atmosphere that Dorst constructs. The book is loaded with wonderfully evocative sentences like this one:
The sounds came at him in a kind of Möbius of whispers; the words are indistinct, but the tones – of rage and lament, of burden and cataclysm, of dissent and vengeance and grief – are as sharp as blades.
Then there are passages that truly tickled me when Dorst parodies the chopped, hardboiled prose of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, like this exchange between the man who is known as S and a woman in a cafe:
He stops several steps from her table and gestures toward the empty chair opposite her. “Might I ask if you’re waiting for someone?”
“It depends on what you mean,” the young woman says. Her voice surprises him. It sounds as if it belongs to a much older woman.
“I mean, here, now, this evening, are you expecting someone to join you?”
“I thought you might.”
“May I sit?”
“You’re awfully wet.”
“I know,” he says. “It appears to be my most salient characteristic.”
“Surely there’s more to you than that. You must be someone when you’re dry.”
“I can’t remember the last time I was dry.”
“Why don’t you take off your coat?”
“I would prefer not to,” he says. He hopes she won’t ask why. He doesn’t have a reason, just a fear.
“Perhaps you’re the sort of person who often has to leave places quickly,” she offers.
I faced two challenges in reading S, the meta-novel, by which I mean the sprawl of handwritten notes that cover the pages of Ship of Theseus and the contents of the many items stuffed between the pages. For me, this is where the book turned into a bravura production and packaging object and when it lost control of the content. I simply couldn’t find myself caring about the sophomoric detective work and coy repartee between these two college students. After a while, their running commentary became so irritating that it detracted from my efforts to read Ship of Theseus seriously. I tried to read their commentary as if that, too, was tongue-in-cheek spoof of two college students who think they are much smarter than they really are, but nothing could redeem their annotations for me.
The same was true for the plethora of extraneous loose items crammed within the pages of Ship of Theseus, left behind by the two students: photographs, post cards, newspaper clippings, photocopies, handwritten notes, a napkin from a coffee house, a decoder wheel. Each one adds to the awesome production values and each one provides a clue to the set of mysteries that the two students are trying to solve. But if one fails to become enamored of the mystery, as I failed, then these loose clues simply become a kind of useless tour-de-force. Furthermore, I discovered too late that these loose items, which appear to have been stuffed into the pages rather carelessly, are actually placed quite carefully and their content is tied closely to the page where they are found. Unfortunately, these items tend to fall out easily and I started putting them back inside the book at random.
S is yet another demonstration that my term “photographically-embedded literature” is becoming inadequate as a descriptor for works of fiction and poetry that include photographs as an integral part of the “text” or content. When I first began using this term a decade ago, all of the examples I knew involved the placement of photographs between the lines of text on the pages of novels or poems. In S, all of the photographs and other illustrative material are physically separate from the text and yet these loose materials clearly interact with the text in essentially the same way as photographs embedded within the page of a book by a writer like Sebald. In fact, in S, the loose illustrative matter and the handwritten annotations actually transform one text into another, performing a sort of intertextual linkage between a book and itself. [More on this at a later date.]
There are precedents for a book production like S. I’m thinking primarily of the books of writers like Nick Bantock and Barbara Hodgson (although there are other authors one might name, as well). In the 1990s, Bantock’s landmark Griffin & Sabine trilogy, along with several other books (like The Forgotten Room and The Museum of Purgatory), used actual collaged materials and envelopes filled with letters and loose documents to expand the narrative. Between 1995 and 2004, Hodgson created four such novels (The Sensualist, The Tattooed Map, and Hippolyte’s Island, and The Lives of Shadows), complete with fold-out maps, collaged materials, and countless photographs.