Order for £28 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. Canongate £28

A literary thriller and 3D puzzle book to get lost in

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.

'See inside 'S.' in the Friday Book Design Blog: a monstrous meta-fictional conceit that, at best, will keep the internet forums buzzing for years'

 

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own