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Review: S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

I was instantly gripped when I saw this book’s teaser trailers that surfaced earlier this year. They were mysterious, intriguing, and when fanboys saw J.J. Abrams’ name pop up they could not help squealing in delight.  As it happens, some were disappointed and dismissive when it turned out that this mystery project was a book.  To them, I say get off your Xbox and give it a bloody chance!

I didn’t pick up this book because of the authors; I had never heard of Doug Dorst and to me J.J. Abrams has always been that guy who thought it was a good idea to give Lost an inconsistent plot line and directed that Star Trek film I only watched because of Benedict Cumberbatch.  No, I picked up this book because it looks incredible.  I’m not talking about the strength of the blurb here, I’m referring to the book’s physical appearance.  Just look at this damn trailer, it is like book porn.

This book-within-a-book is the interactive story of two twenty-somethings called Jen and Eric who enjoy the works of the mysterious V.M. Straka, in particular Ship of Theseus, which is Straka’s last book.  Our protagonists leave messages for each other in the margins of the book, simultaneously getting to know each other while trying to decipher codes within the book leading to clues about author Straka’s identity and his unknown fate.  May I just mention again, the book is bloody gorgeous.


Now if you’re the type to lose sleep over a paperback’s broken spine or an annotated paragraph, you may want to approach this one with caution lest you succumb to an aneurysm.  But for me, this shit is sexy.  It’s a book-within-a-book within art, that’s how I feel about it.  It’s a beautiful artificially aged hardback that even comes with that gorgeous old book smell (aaaaah).  Every margin is filled with incredibly realistic-looking notes from our two protagonists in different colours to distinguish between the time periods.  Stories are told, segments of the book are underlined and analysed, there are even inserts like postcards and newspaper clippings that, by the way, do fall out and get lost.

Reading this book is like studying for your English A Level; the printed Straka book is reminiscent of James Joyce – very style over substance in my view – but nevertheless it’s one of those books you have to learn to enjoy while spending ages marking the ellipses and alliterations and picking at the meaning behind the metaphors in the prose.  But imagine if all that got interesting. Consider you’re bored in class and start writing notes to your classmate in the margins ofDubliners, but suddenly you notice something out of place in the text, something that could be a code.  You’re taking a History A Level too; you enjoyed the lesson about the code breakers during World War II and even had a crack at writing your own code or two.  You may have only mastered the pig pen cipher, but you now fancy yourself some sort of detective extraordinaire, a young and sexy amalgamation of Poirot and Sherlock.  You can take on any challenge, and you can do it without the aid of an unflattering moustache.

So with the help of your new-found BFF, you do your research, crack the codes, and start figuring out an incredible secret about James Joyce that is still unsolved, even so many years after he died (or did he..?).  At only sixteen you and your friend are close to unveiling a secret for the history books, a feat which promises you eternal recognition!  But that bitch Karen, you know the one who sits in the back row and smells of coconut shampoo, she also has her eye on the prize. She doesn’t have the wits however, so she likes to steal your notes and use less-than-honourable methods to solve the puzzle first and you will be damned if you let that cow succeed! Your work is too important for that, this journey you have undertaken has taught you more about yourself and the true and undeniable literary genius that hides within James Joyce’s pretentious prose. THIS IS YOUR LIFE’S WORK AND YOU WILL FIGHT TO THE DEATH FOR THE GLORY THAT IS RIGHTFULLY YOURS!

That is what it’s like to read S.

It’s a tough read, it’s long and confusing but it’s good.  The interactive nature of the book makes the story feel real, and it doesn’t end there.  You can immerse yourself in the world Dorst and Abrams have created by checking out the Straka website, listening to Radio Straka and spending time on the S files blog as you try to solve the final mystery of S.

You may not like the Ship of Theseus novel itself (I don’t), and you may not like Jen and Eric (again, I don’t).  But that’s not why the book appeals to me.  It’s one big massive puzzle all wrapped in a story like an overly decorative Christmas present.  It’s the same reason I loved Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder; it’s a philosophy textbook disguised as a novel and it’s fantastic.

If you fancy yourself a code breaker, or if you love a good puzzle and a tough challenge, I would recommend this book.  As long as you go into it with the knowledge that it’s all about the puzzle and the story is just the sweet but slightly disappointing icing on a massive novelty cake, you’ll enjoy the taste just fine.

Review originally posted at Insatiable Booksluts.


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