S. // by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

So in a way I have no idea where to start with the review for this book. It’s so complicated and my feelings for it were really mixed. It was a somewhat daunting book to read and is also a daunting book to review. But in the end I think it was worth it, even if it did fall flat for me in some ways.

S. is a book within a book, a story within a story. There are so many layers to this book that it verges on impossible to read. The book itself comes in a slipcover, which gives the actual information about the book (title, author, publisher, etc.) because the hardcover book within that slipcover is designed to look, feel, and read like a stolen library book that has been read and reread by two individuals – Eric – a disgraced grad student – and Jennifer, a senior in college. We know that the book has been read by them because they have left notes, annotations, and arguments within the margins of it, all sorts of handwritten discussions in various colors of pens. Throughout the pages are also multiple inserts – postcards, letters, copies of important information, maps, etc.

//published 2013//

The book itself is titled The Ship of Theseus and was written by a man known as V.M. Straka, and was translated by an individual who is almost as mysterious – F.X. Caldeira. Published in 1949, the book genuinely feels like a tome from that era. It’s clothbound, and the way that it was printed, the type of paper used, the font within the book – it all feels incredibly authentic. There is even a sticker on the spine with the library call number.

The book’s introduction, written by the translator, informs us of some of the controversy and mystery surrounding Straka, who was a revolutionary using his books to spread ideas and information, hated by many governments and businessmen for his wild ideas. No one knows who Straka really was, although there are several theories. Caldeira tells of some of them, although he seems to view most of them as somewhat ridiculous.

The story itself is a fictional tale about a man who wakes up on a beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Throughout the story, he wanders from place to place, frequently being forced (and later choosing) to travel on a boat with a disturbing crew, a boat that does not seem particularly tethered in time or space. This man is drawn into a revolution of sorts, and also is desperate to find a woman whom he saw on the first night of amnesia, a woman who he sometimes sees in the places he visits. The entire plot is very vague and dreamy with a lot of moving parts and is somewhat difficult to describe.

In the margins, different notes are written in different colors, so it becomes apparently which ones were written first. I.e., there are Eric’s original thoughts from before Jen read the book, written in pencil, then Jen’s first notes in blue pen with Eric’s responses in black. Later additions are written in yellow, green, red, etc. so you can usually tell when notes were written. Hypothetically, if you were a much stronger person than me, you could probably read the text of the book, and then go through and read just Eric’s pencil notes, then the blue/black, then the next set, and so on, and have a much more linear concept of how Eric and Jen’s story is unfolding. But, if you’re like me, you want to read all the words on every page, meaning that you are reading Straka’s story, Caldeira’s footnotes, Eric’s thoughts, watching Eric and Jen get to know each other, and learning about the mystery and even danger they find themselves in later – all at once. It’s confusing, but not impossible.

Eric is determined to discover who Straka really was, and believes that the key can be found in Ship of Theseus, Straka’s final work. Eric originally discovered Straka in high school, and became obsessed with his work. In grad school, he decided his thesis would be on Straka’s true identity, but ran into trouble when his advisor stole his work, accused Eric of stealing his work, and got Eric expelled.

As the story unfolds, Eric and Jen continue to piece together clues from the text and from Caldeira’s footnotes – and later from other sources – to determine who Straka was, racing against time, Eric’s old advisor, and other experts around the world who want to know the same thing. In the meantime, are menacing events just coincidence? Or is it possible that a secret society known as “S” during Straka’s time continues to live on?

Okay, so, if you’re still reading – there is a LOT to like about this book. The experience of reading it is honestly amazing, and I’m still boggled by the amount of work put into this thing. The postcards are real postcards. Copies are made on thin paper that feels like copy paper. Old photographs feel like old photographs. A map Eric draws of the campus is drawn on a legit napkin from the cafe where he and Jen hang out. A page from the campus newspaper is on newspaper paper. The detail here is amazing and emersive.

HOWEVER this story does become confusing, and not just because I was reading all the threads at once. There are way, way, WAY too many names. Nine specific individuals are listed in the foreword as possible Strakas, each with a different background/reasons for possibly being Straka. From there forward, these individuals are referenced frequently in the footnotes and extra material, and it’s quite difficult to keep them all straight, especially since they all knew one another (at least obliquely) so they become things like, What if Straka was actually Durand pretending to be Feuerbach when Feuerbach met with MacInnes in 1918?? Etc. It’s super confusing, and if I reread this, I would take more time to (ironically) make my own notes about each potential Straka.

My other negative for this one was that I didn’t really agree with Eric or Jen’s life philosophies. They both had “horrible” parents (i.e. parents who are worried that their children are making poor life choices…) and in the end their conclusion was basically “screw them” instead of any attempt to understand who their parents were or why their parents were doing what they were doing. Eric’s parents are also “Christians” so all of their actions are automatically labeled hypocritical, selfish, unscientific (Eric says multiple times that his break with his parents began when he began to “realize science existed” … excuse me while my eyes roll out of my head), etc. This really got on my nerves, especially the repetitive “my parents just believe in fairy tales and a sky daddy but I believe in REAL SCIENCE” over and over and OVER with honestly zero explanations (what science, exactly, do your parents not believe??) – sorry, not necessary. You are free to disagree with your parents and their religious beliefs, but mocking them repeatedly and acting so superior is not an endearing character trait. Jen’s thoughts about her parents were very similar – “They’re so selfish because they want me to have a career.” Yes, parents wanting their children to have a secure financial life is definitely a sign of how much they hate you?? In some ways, I guess Eric and Jen come across as authentic stupid college students who need a decade or so of real life to realize that maybe their parents weren’t as dumb as they always thought.

All in all, if you enjoy convoluted stories with complicated layers, and can get past Eric and Jen frequently whining about their parents, this was a fun and immersive story to read. I can definitely see myself revisiting it and taking more time to read the footnotes in the order they were “written” to see how the story unfolds from that perspective. While this book was the perfect story I wanted it to be, it was still a great deal of fun and overall I recommend it.