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Book review: S. by J J Abrams and Doug Dorst


If ever a book had the wow factor, it’s this one. If S., “conceived” by the filmmaker J J Abrams and written by the author Doug Dorst, doesn’t win every book design award going, I’ll eat my review copy.

An elaborate literary puzzle, a novel within a novel, a piece of teasing meta-fictional madness, S. is all these things but it’s the physical appearance of the object that really takes the breath away.

Inside the black slipcase is what appears to be an old library book, a novel called Ship of Theseus by V M Straka. The pages are authentically weathered and browned, and the thing even has a musty smell as if it’s spent many years hiding on the shelves of some long-forgotten library.

Between the covers almost every page has long annotations scribbled into the margins, notes written by two students, Eric and Jennifer, who have been exchanging ideas and thoughts and replacing the book back on the shelf of a university library for the other to read. Initially their thoughts are about the identity of the mysterious author Straka, but gradually the pair fall for each other and their notes become more personal.

Added to all, this we have countless items inserted between the pages of the book, campus newsletters, postcards, hand-written letters, photographs, telegrams and my personal favourite, a map apparently hand-drawn on a coffeehouse napkin.

The whole thing must have cost a fortune to produce, and it has the feel of an elegant riposte to the modern world of ebooks and digital ephemera – this is a physical artefact to treasure.

But what of the content? Fans of Lost, Abrams’ first television success, will be on familiar ground here. There are endless codes to break, puzzles to unlock, mysteries to solve, and Abrams and Dorst are adept at squeezing every last drop of intrigue out of their set up. The title Ship of Theseus refers to Plutarch’s paradox on identity – if a ship has every plank replaced over time, is it still the same ship? These days we know the same thing happens to the cells of our body through death and regeneration, so what makes us who we are, and how much do we change over time?

These are the questions S. examines. Ship of Theseus is something of a shaggy dog story, where a protagonist S. boards a pirate ship and embarks on a number of fantastical adventures that defy space, time, and logic. Although it’s supposed to be an overlooked literary masterpiece, personally I found it pleasantly engaging rather than earth shattering. Very quickly, the tale of Eric and Jennifer in the margins begins to dominate the reader’s attention. At one point they even seem to be in serious physical danger from rival academics or other nefarious forces, or are the pair just being paranoid?

Much like Lost, I’m not entirely convinced that the parts of S. add up in quite the way they could, but the storytelling journey along the way is certainly worth the taking.