As reviewed by Michael Stirm, a Library Assistant at our Egg Harbor Township Branch.
What happens when you put J.J. Abrams, quite possibly this generation’s Steven Spielberg, and Doug Dorst, author, Jeopardy champion, and professor of creative writing at the Texas State University, in a room together? Well, you get S. -- one of the most unique and lovely works of literature that this reader has had the pleasure of experiencing.
Unique: S. is unlike anything you’ve probably read before. It comes packaged in a black cover slip with a huge “S”—the signature “S” which appears again and again throughout the book. But S. is not the title of the book…it is the title of the package. The book, just one of 23 literary objects that make up S., is called The Ship of Theseus, supposedly published in 1949 by a supposed V.M. Straka. There is a lot of supposition here, and that’s because—no surprise for fans of Abram’s show, “Lost,”—there is a huge mystery element to S.
There is the mystery of the actual identity of the author, Straka. There is the mystery of the identity of the editor of Ship of Theseus, Straka’s last work. And there is the mystery of the messages that are encoded in the editor’s footnotes, messages that are intended for the real V.M. Straka, whoever that may be.
“S” is also the alias of the main character in Ship of Theseus, a man without an identity, without a memory, who, near the beginning of the story, finds himself prisoner on a boat as ghastly as “The Flying Dutchman” in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
When you open Ship of Theseus, you will notice extensive marginalia written on nearly every page… and this is supposed to be a library book! Tsk! Tsk! The individuals responsible for the marginalia, and for unraveling the mysteries surrounding “S,” are a college undergraduate English major named Jen and an expunged graduate student named Eric.
What you have here is two texts, then: the book, Ship of Theseus, and the dialogue (and eventual romance) that develop between the two “real-world” characters, Eric and Jen. Abrams has called S. his “love letter to the written word.” I call it one of the most strangely-fascinating and gripping things I’ve read; the only thing that comes close to it, for me, is probably the film, The Neverending Story, where one character’s reading of a book has a direct influence on how the story unfolds. In this case, it is the mystery of “S,” its author’s identity, and the implications of unmasking this famously controversial persona that are tied to the scholarly efforts of the two readers. Ship of Theseus comes in at 456 pages. There’s also the folder of supplemental materials in S., including handwritten letters between Jen and Eric, clippings from newspapers, and yes, even a real napkin with a map drawn on it.
If you can put up with the occasional bizarreness of the main text and “S’s” story—which at times strays into and beyond Twilight Zone territory-- you’re in for a real treat.
Be aware, however, that this is not a beach read. S. is more suited to cold winter nights, when you can curl up, settle in, and commit to reading a good book. But S. is more than just a good book; it is, in the truest sense, a reading experience.
One of Michael Stirm's favorite reads is The Prince of India (1893) by Lew Wallace, former Civil War General and also the author of Ben-Hur. When he isn’t reading works published before the 1900’s, he likes books that include topics on mythology and religion as well as, no surprise for an English MA, literature. Right now, he is doing his best to chip away at the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series before the EHT branch event, "A Night of Ice and Fire," happening on March 13, 2014, which he is coordinating and hopes will be a big success!