The4thDave Reads: “S.” by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

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I’m a sucker for footnotes, especially footnotes in novels. For example, I was tickled by the implied history and imaginary academic research cited in Susanna Clarke’s splendid Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a work of Victorian urban-fantasy featuring dueling wizards and fanciful creatures during the Napoleonic Wars.

Until this year, the most unique novel-reading experience I’ve ever had was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a sprawling, labyrinthine psychological-haunted-house story with layers of meta-commentary in its footnotes and editorial asides, bewilderingly cryptic typesetting choices, and a rabid fan base that was active online when I finished that novel several years after its publication.

That book is the closest analog I can think of for Abrams and Dorst’s novel S., which was published in late 2013. At that time, it seemed to be warmly received by the critical press but quickly forgotten. It was the first book I ever bought as a result of a “book trailer” (which I assume was a pretty novel [no pun intended] concept in 2013). I started to read it and stopped 2 different times in the last 4+ years, before finally buckling down to read it to completion last month.

Why the false starts? Because, like House of Leaves, this is a book within a book, but ratcheted up to the next level. When you removeĀ S. from its slipcase, you find that the book you’re holding is a old high school library book (complete with library accouterments and stamped labels) called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka. The story of SoT is a surreal work of mid-twentieth-century European literature, following an amnesiac protagonist on an exploration of identity, political extremism, and metaphysical confusion. It’s…weird, but weird in a compelling way. However, the base book would be incomplete, if not a bit nonsensical, without the meta-novel.

The meta-novel consists of 3-4 layers of “handwritten” margin notes between two readers, Jen and Eric (written at different times in their “story”), along with about 2 dozen pieces of inserted materials–things like postcards, newspaper clippings, letters, a wheel for decoding ciphers, and a hand-written campus map on a napkin from a university coffee-shop. In the meta-novel, the reader meets these two characters: Jen, a senior at Pollard State University, and Eric, a former graduate student and TA at Pollard who was expunged from the school’s records due to an academic controversy. The conversation between these two correspondents drifts back and forth between their personal lives and their shared interests: a scholarly debate about the true identity of SoT‘s author and a worldwide conspiracy that may be working to keep that fact a secret. (I’m pretty sure this is meant to bring to mind the debate about Shakespeare’s true identity, which is referenced in the book as well.)

Over the course of the novels, these layers of commentary (which sometimes address the text itself and other times are merely inspired by a word or phrase on that page) reveal the second story, a story of two people trying to make sense of difficult life experiences and struggling to connect with each other (a story that is echoed in the novel’s subtext and footnotes, as explained by the readers). The element of time is part of the trick here–we as readers are teased early on by “future” Jen and Eric making veiled allusions to events in their story that we don’t hear about for several pages or even chapters. (Confession: The whole “layers of marginalia” mechanic breaks down a little bit if you really think about the logistics, because usually [though not always] it reads like a conversation instead of a series of passed notes. I recommend treating it as one of those charming elements that one just happily accepts. Makes the whole enterprise function more smoothly.)

So the vital question, then: Does it work? And my answer is: Mostly, yes. Both storylines are at times quite gripping, though not at the same time, which works to its advantage. There are a few slow spots and the endings felt a bit abrupt, but the whole concept is so bonkers that I hung on for the ride and was not disappointed. I took the approach of reading through each new chapter of SoT, before tackling the layers of notes for that chapter. It doesn’t take long to figure out the chronological order of the notations, thanks to the different color inks for each set of interactions. I’ve heard of other approaches to the reading of the book(s), but I think this one keeps things flowing pretty well. The footnote story includes lots of foreshadowing in its references to the primary text as well, so not having read Straka’s book all the way through yet made these references all the more tantalizing.

[Content note: Other than some occasional strong language in the footnote-story and an unnecessary “boo, intolerant Christian parents” subplot, I can’t recall any offensive or off-putting content. Nothing comes to mind, at any rate.]

In the end, I’m very glad I read this novel. It’s not a perfect story, and I don’t think I need to reread it anytime soon, but it was a unique reading experience that I will enjoy referencing to others in the future. Whatever shortcomings the plot(s) may have had, the gonzo approach to challenging storytelling conventions made it a winner for me.

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