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