A man arrives in a strange town by the sea, wet through, with no idea of where or who he is. He meets a woman in a bar, is drugged and abducted, and wakes up on a strange boat with a crew of zombie-like sailors whose lips are gruesomely sewn together. His further adventures – joining a set of partisans in their fight against an oppressive regime, becoming a secretive assassin – go to make up the novel Ship of Theseus, by enigmatic author VM Straka, which is part of the book under review, but only part.
Ship of Theseus is, in fact, the basis for a splendidly inventive puzzle-book, S., conceived by JJ Abrams (creator of TV show Lost), written by US novelist Doug Dorst, and produced as a breathtaking piece of immersive design: a slip-cased faux-retro hardback book, which when you open it you find has been scrawled all over inside by a pair of Straka-obsessed students, Jen and Eric.
They use their shared copy – stashed in the university library – as a kind of dead drop and open-source document. They detail their Straka research in the margins, answering each other's questions and flirting, and slip pieces of evidence between the pages: photocopies, postcards, a code wheel and even a paper napkin from a café with a map drawn on it in felt-tip pen.
What you get, then, is a bracingly three-dimensional reading experience, with an intricate layering of narratives resolving largely to three strands: the story of Ship of Theseus; the conspiracy theories around Straka, who, it seems, was part of a secret order of writer-agitators – "The S" – that has existed for centuries, in battle with the forces of corporate evil, and of which Ship of Theseus, Straka's final book, may be a coded history; and the blossoming relationship between Jen and Eric, even as the enemies of The S seem to be closing in on them.
In these terms, then, S. is a literary paranoia thriller, in the manner of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, crossed with the postmodern high jinks of Nabokov's Pale Fire. There is a clear indication that Jen and Eric ("generic"?) have got only so far in their code-breaking and truth-finding, with plenty more in the footnotes and ephemera for you, the reader, to decipher.
The success of the book comes down to how much you are willing to commit to it. There are some glaring mis-steps (would Jen and Eric really go on detailing everything in this book, left in the library, if they thought their lives were in danger?) but their love affair is undeniably compelling, and the mid-20th-century pastiche of Ship of Theseus very well pulled off indeed.