18 December 2013
S. by J.J. Abrams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I remember reading some column earlier this year about being older and not having your mind blown as often when it comes to music or books or general experiences because you've gotten so much experience and so much time with your surroundings that it becomes more difficult to be fully impressed. I found that pretty compelling, in part because it's true - my own personal mental exhaustion on a lot of things I used to have all sorts of energy for back in the day has certainly made it harder for me to truly be wowed by something the way, say, Kid A or High Fidelity or Sideways resonated with me years earlier.
I've read well over 300 books this year. A few, most notably Night Film and 2012's The Mirage, really impressed me beyond being simply enjoyable reads, but nothing I've read for quite some time has really stuck with me in a while.
Then came S. The product of a collaboration between media mastermind JJ Abrams and author Doug Dorst, it's a love letter to research, to conspiracy theories, to actual physical books. It's pretty brilliant.
There is not one story here. The book itself is by a fictional author, mysterious in an of himself. The book is a full, 400+ page novel called The Ship of Theseus, a frankly meandering tome that kind of goes all over the place. The story that goes along with it, however, are the margin notes of Eric and Jen, the former a disgraced graduate student who has spent nearly a decade on the authorship conspiracy and the latter a senior at the college looking to graduate soon but gets involved with Eric and the authorship issue.
Oh, and the authorship question? It may or may not be involved with a major international conspiracy .
Every inch of the book is a hint. The book itself is supposed to be a translation with coded references, the story of Jen and Eric takes place in the form of changes in the color of the ink in the margins, meaning we're watching two separate timelines unfold along with their relationship to the text and each other. They also litter the pages quite literally with different notes, printouts, postcards, pictures, and so on. All of these things add to the entire story as weird little found materials along the way. As someone who loves finding little funny quirks in research, having these little extras around was an absolute joy.
The book is certainly an all-time favorite for me. I grabbed it from the library, but I had bought a copy before I was even halfway through this read. It's not without its flaws, of course - the conceit requires a significant suspension of disbelief to start, and the timeline issue (there are occasionally four different tales happening at the same time on the same page) can be confusing from time to time. With that said, there's so much happening with it that I'm tempted to read the whole thing again when my own copy comes in the mail right away. It's that good, and I'm not one to reread books often at all.
A word to the wise - if you have an opportunity to get this from a library, be careful, as your library edition might have the pieces taken out of the book and thus they won't make a lot of sense unless you know what they're referencing. If you do, however, have an opportunity to read this at all, don't pass up the opportunity. I'm positive it's not for everyone, but this is one that's going to stick with me in terms of a fun, crazy read for a long, long time. Don't miss out.
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