Love and the Right Conditions: “S.” by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Did they love each other? Were words enough? Would words have been enough…? Or did they need more? Think about: love and the right conditions.

S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
456 pages; Mulholland Press; October 2013
Literary fiction

When I heard J. J. Abrams was coming out with a book, I knew I’d read it. Even though I feel a little like J. J. Abrams is a bit of a tease: he has very little followthrough. He sets things up beautifully, then…I don’t know, kind of forgets where he’s going with them and then you get the end of Lost. Or Fringe. (Although the end of Fringe didn’t make me almost rupture my eyeballs with rolling like the end of Lost.)

It’s a book that’s maybe a bit of a gimmick, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it falls flat…but somewhere in there it caught me, and I couldn’t stop reading. Abrams knows how to hook people. He’s got the flash. He’d have made an excellent carnival barker, back in the day: he knows how to get the rubes in the tent.

An undergrad workstudy librarian at an east coast university finds a book in the stacks. She reads a couple of chapters, writes a quick note to the book’s owner, and leaves it where she found it. The next day the book is still there, a note replying to her underneath her own. This is how we meet Jen and Eric: Jen, the undergraduate, and Eric, the graduate student and owner of the book. Jen and Eric start a correspondence in the book, discussing the book itself, their lives…and then starting a tentative flirtation that not knowing each other, that distance and anonymity, can make safe between two people.

Photo via allnerdity.com

The book itself is as much of a mystery as Eric and Jen are to one another. Written in the late 40s, Ship of Theseus is about a man (S.) who has lost his memory and therefore his identity, and is wandering, trying to find himself and the woman he thinks might hold the key to his past. He gets pulled into a revolution, and sails on the eponymous ship: a ship manned by silent sailors and a gruff captain which may or may not be a real ship, after all.

To layer the mystery, the author (V.M. Straka) has had the literary world abuzz for years – no one seems to know quite who he was. His translator, F.X. Caldeira, knows him better than anyone else, but has never met him, either. Through the translator’s footnotes, we get to know both Caldeira and Straka to some extent – and their relationship, which is another layer in itself.

It’s a mystery wrapped in a mystery with the additional mystery of Eric and Jen’s relationship…which is only compounded by the fact that there are people working against the two of them as they attempt to solve the authorship question. People watching them. People who have no issues setting very large fires.

It sounds like work, doesn’t it? It is. I’m not going to tell you it’s not. I struggled with the first…oh, hundred pages? Hundred and fifty? I was ENJOYING it, but the reading of not only the book, but the footnotes, and attempting to solve the ciphers and then read all the notes from Eric and Jen…it was taking me a lot longer to read than normal, and I was struggling.

Then Abrams worked his magic, and I found my way in, and I couldn’t put the book down until I finished.

Abrams has said the book is a love letter to the written word, and he’s right; it is. It’s about the power of words: not only the words in the book itself, but the words between Caldeira and Straka, and the words between Jen and Eric. Can you fall in love with someone based on words alone, without ever having known them, or seen them? Are words enough? Or does it get to a point where you have to move past the words and put those words into action, see what happens in the real world, if your words only spark between each other on paper (or on a screen – the comparisons between online relationships and the relationships in this book can’t be overlooked) or if they’ll have as much weight hanging between the two of you as you breathe the same air?

Photo via theguardian.com

As I said, it wasn’t a flawless book. Design-wise, it’s a wonder: set up to look like an old library book, with the annotations by Jen and Eric in different penmanship and ink colors, and ephemera tucked between the pages (a map drawn on a napkin, an old obituary, postcards from Brazil, an aged photograph.) The book itself is fairly dry and by far the least interesting thing to read. The notes between Eric and Jen are excellent; there are times, however, that they’re a bit circuitous (to add to the layers, there are multiple sets of notes from Eric and Jen – one set the first pass through, then additional sets as they re-read certain passages.)

The relationship between the two of them (and between Caldeira and Straka) is worth the read, however, as are the questions these relationships raise: how well can we ever know someone else? Can we save someone, or do we need to save ourselves first? And, always, the question of words: how much power do they have, exactly? They can start a revolution, incite a murder – can they bring two people together? Can they make two people fall in love?

I know that, for me, they can. It was my way into the book, into the world of Eric and Jen and Caldeira and Straka. I know about the power of words. And that’s what I loved about this book: that Abrams and Dorst understood that power, as well, and wanted to share that with their readers.

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14 comments

  1. Charleen

    When I first heard J.J. Abrams was going to be involved in a book, I wanted to read it. I’m not really familiar with his work except that I love the new Star Trek movies. They really grabbed me and made me want to go back and explore the entire Trek universe. (Which I haven’t really done yet… it’s kind of huge and intimidating, you know?)

    Speaking of intimidating, when I saw what this book really was… I just don’t know that it’s for me. I like to read a story, beginning to end. It doesn’t have to be a linear narrative, but I need to be able to read it linearly. This just seems to have so much to it that I’d get myself lost.

    So… I still kind of want to read it, but it’s fallen down a bit on my priority list.

    • lucysfootball

      I’ll have to check out the new Star Trek movies sometime. I never got into the Star Trek franchise much, but I’ve heard such amazing things about his take on it.

      I’m very much a linear book person, myself. I can handle some flashbacks/flashforwards and such, don’t get me wrong, but “experimental fiction” as a rule is just not for me. So I was immediately worried about this. But once I got into it, and I guess…got into the whole contruct? I guess? I really, really enjoyed it. I just loved Jen and Eric’s story, and them discovering each other and their relationship developing…it really worked for me.

      If you do read it, let me know what you think? I don’t know anyone else who’s read it, and I’d love to talk to someone about it!

      • Charleen

        I went into the first movie knowing next to nothing about Star Trek. I knew who most of the characters were, but I’d never watched the original series and had only seen bits and pieces of one of the earlier movies (IV, for the record; it was my mom’s favorite so she’d always stop to watch it if she caught it on TV). I think not being familiar with it actually helped more than anything, because I had no expectations going in, no “they got this wrong!” moments, I could just sit back and have a good time.

        I didn’t like Into Darkness quite as much, but both were very enjoyable.

  2. JillP

    Hi Amy! Yay for your new blog! I look forward to the reviews of all the books! I have such a huge TBR pile right now and not nearly enough time to read but this book intrigues me. I might as well order it now and add it to the stack because I’ll keep thinking about it until I do. 🙂

    • lucysfootball

      Thank you! I totally understand the huge TBR – mine’s out of control. I have one huge paper TBR…and then an ADDITIONAL huge Kindle TBR…sigh. I’m sure there are worse problems in the world, but it does make me sad that I might never get to the end of the list because I just keep adding to it!

      I hope you enjoy it – if you do read it, check back and let me know what you thought! (I found a blog that solves one of the mysteries, which I’ll share, if you want!)

    • lucysfootball

      It was absolutely both of those things. I was worried for a while I’d never get into it – it seemed too smart for me – and I’m sure I missed some things, here and there. But once I found a way to connect, I really, really enjoyed it.

      I noticed that it’s currently sold out on Amazon. Already! It just came out at the end of November! I think they underestimated the demand!

  3. earthandink

    This book sounds great for a bunch of reasons.
    First, I think it would be a good present for my brother, if he hasn’t already bought it, which is a worry with my brother.
    Second, I love J.J. Abrams. Now, I am a Trek person, but I think he’s done well by the franchise with the new movies. I really loved LOST and I have to be the only person on earth who didn’t mind the ending because that’s basically what I figured. (LOST SPOILER:)

    Purgatory.

    Anyway, I like this idea. It’s a rather cool conceit. I have to admit, I have a fascination with experimental fiction, but the experimental part has to have a purpose and move story. Not just be there to be there. On the other hand, a movie producer should know a bit about moving story.

    Good review. Thanks.

    • lucysfootball

      Well, it IS already sold out on Amazon…maybe he didn’t have a chance to buy it before it sold out? You could kind of hint about it?

      I think Abrams has a brilliant mind. I think there’s a possibility it moves so quickly he can’t keep up with it, hence the letdowns of the endings. (I know a lot of people didn’t mind the Lost ending…and I didn’t HATE it. I just expected more, and he’d PROMISED, over and OVER, it wasn’t purgatory…then it was. Total letdown.)

      This does have a purpose, plus it’s just so damn pretty artistically. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better produced book in I don’t KNOW how long. It was just so damn pretty and well put together. The imagination behind it made me really happy.

      • earthandink

        You won’t believe it, but my brother bought this for me for Solstice! Isn’t that crazy?

        I think it will be my first book of the new year, as I’m mid-book at the moment.

        • lucysfootball

          That is so awesome! I can’t wait to hear what you think of it! You’re going to think it’s beautiful. The inserts and the marginalia are going to FLOOR you. I just know it! But plot-wise, all the plot-lines coming together…I’m curious!

          • earthandink

            I actually love things that have inserts and art … that’s the reason he got it for me, the marriage of art and words that he knows I have a weakness for.

            So far it is wrapped in its cellophane … the first book for 2014.

            I will definitely let you know what I think.

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