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Much Ado About S – part II

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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…]