This year I’ve read highly forgettable, beautifully written, distressing, hilarious and puzzling books. For me, S., by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, takes the Prize for Weirdest Novel and the one I found most physically difficult to read. J.J. Abrams is in the news right now as the director and co-author of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), but fans might not know of this book, published two years ago. There are many books with extremely short, abbreviated, or one-letter books titles, a practice which is unpopular these days due to the prevalence of Internet marketing in which a title has to be differentiated in order to be found by search engines. Authors now tend to go for long, descriptive names, rather than ones with one letter or an abbreviation. But the short title of this one is misleading. It is a long book which is a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle, a novel within a novel within a novel, and the short title is only on the slipcover. There is another title inside.
S., a.k.a. Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka, by Doug Dorst and J.J.Abrams
The book itself is designed to look like an old public library book, titled Ship of Theseus, that’s been written by someone called V.M. Straka, complete with different publishing details, like “Winged Shoes Press”, and a Dewey Decimal library sticker on the spine (813.54 – Fiction written between 1954 and 1999). The actual book, called S., after the lead character, is explained only on its sealed slipcase as actually conceived by filmmaker J.J. Abrams and written by novelist Doug Dorst. If you didn’t have the slipcase you would probably be fooled. I was.
Construction of the book
The novel has “normal” text, the primary narrative, footnotes by the fictional editor/translator, “F.X. Caldeira”, which make up a sub-narrative, and then handwritten notes by various people, also fictional. These people’s notes, in different handwriting styles, make up a separate, second narrative. There are also all sorts of clues inserted into the pages of the book – letters, postcards, notes on tissues and airmail letter paper, photocopies, etc., painstakingly printed to look authentic, from the choice of paper to the finest little details on the postcards. These make up a third narrative about the origin of the book itself.
The book is, itself, part of the clues to the identity of “V.M. Straka” and the “S.” who is the main character, who could be the same person as the mysterious author, and possible killer, V.M. Straka. (In other words, the text could be partially autobiographical, though fictional.)
From briefly looking at the “notes”, I could deduce there is a love story or mystery going on. However, it was such a nuisance to read the book with the distracting graphics and the clues falling out all over the place, that I never got further than reading the actual novel – the plain, printed text. I had bought it at the end of 2013, when it was published, but frankly, I found the look and feel so daunting I could not get into it until now.
Meaning of the title
The book title, Ship of Theseus, refers, as all well-read readers would know, to Theseus, the mythical king of Athens who was the son of Aethra by two fathers: Aegeus and Poseidon (which is a biological impossibility, which makes him mythical). Theseus’s adventures are on par with other famous Greek fictional heroes, like Perseus, Cadmus, or Heracles (Hercules), who all battled and overcame foes that were identified with religious or social orders. He famously killed the Minotaur. In the novel, the reader finds out a few pages from the end what specifically the hero, “S”, has been battling. Throughout though, the evil nature of the social order is made clear.
The myths surrounding Theseus, his journeys, exploits, and family, have provided material for fiction throughout the ages. According to Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, the ship Theseus used on his return from Crete to Athens was kept in the Athenian harbour as a memorial for several centuries. The ship was preserved by the Athenians by taking away the old planks as they decayed, and putting in new and stronger timber in their place, so as to maintain the seaworthiness of the vessel over the ages. This is exactly what happens to “S.” when he travels from mission to mission, city to city; he lands up in a ship that is constantly being repaired so that it looks like the worst mish-mash of parts imaginable, and hardly sea-worthy.
Due to this replacement process it has been unclear to philosophers over the ages how much of the original ship actually remained, giving rise to the philosophical question whether it should be considered “the same” ship or not. (It is a familiar theme in the arts, for instance, in 2012, the movie Ship of Theseus was directed by Anand Gandhi – with a totally different plot from this novel.) Such philosophical questions about the nature of identity are sometimes referred to as the “Ship of Theseus Paradox.” Indeed, “S.” looks for his identity all through the book, as well as the identity of the ship on which he travels and her crew, and the woman, “Sola”, whom he met at the start of his adventures. He frequently comments just how “fragmented” the ship appears, and finally, a similar, but new ship appears on the horizon to continue the journey and the struggle.
“Looking out over the port rail, he will see something he has not seen in a long, long time: another ship. Not a ghost ship, no; she is a ship with flags flying and sailors working on deck, sails trimmed and humming in the wind, a glorious wake churning out behind her, and what looks like two people standing on the quarterdeck and sharing the wheel.” (p. 456).
“S.” becomes both an assassin and a writer, and finally he realizes the point of his existence:
“And this is the key, he realizes, the thing that makes the purpose of all that work on the ship and in El-H—…come into focus. All that ink, all that pigment, all that desperate action to preserve that which has been created – it is valuable because story is a fragile and ephemeral thing on its own, a thing that is easily effaced or disappeared or destroyed, and is worth preserving. If it can’t be preserved, then it should be released and cycled. To write with the black stuff [voices and narratives, re-absorbed into the ground on which we walk] is to create, and, at the same time, to resurrect. We write with what those who’ve come before us wrote.” (p. 451)
The blurb on the slipcover says the book is the authors’ love letter to the written word, and this paragraph perfectly expresses that idea.
Meaning of the novel
In terms of the struggle of “S.” against the evil empire of the arms dealer “Vévoda”, as representative of the social order, the reason for its existence and the struggle are explained in the death speech of Vévoda’s son and heir: “We [the Vévoda empire, representing all that is evil in society and commerce] will thrive”, he continues, “for as long as you choose extraction over creation, as long as you mistake commerce for art and destruction for progress, as long as you remain drunk on the juice that issues from the crush of a thing or place or person.” (p.444)
I suspect that neither of the authors have any fondness for an industry that does not support the arts, writers in particular.
The names of the main characters all have double and triple meanings and are clues to the characters. Note that the editor’s name, “F.X. Caldeira”, refers to a “caldera” or in French “caldeira” which is a cauldron-like volcanic feature. Thus, his name is a play on a special effects (F.X.) volcano. This, I believe, is an up-front tip to the reader that the narrative is designed to be fictional, explosive and cinematic in style. “Vévoda” simply means “duke” in Czech. “Straka” is a Czech and Slovak nickname from “straka” meaning “magpie”, a thievish or insolent person – which fits a disreputable author like V.M. Straka. It could also, and quite likely, given the Grecian reference in the title, refer to the Greek “strakas”, a nickname for a dandy, literally meaning “crack of the whip”, used metaphorically to denote someone concerned to impress with his appearance – but also the crack of the whip used on sailors in ancient times, for instance on Theseus’s ship which had thirty oarsmen.
The “normal” text, is quite well crafted, at times quite beautifully put, and certainly original. It reads very well, and the plot is engaging, despite the fact that the main character suffers from amnesia and does not know who, what, where or when he is. However, this makes for many (unnecessarily) rhetorical questions and a lack of detail – just nameless seas, cities with only one letter in their names, unidentified peoples and countries, vague hints about jungles, winter worlds, deserts, and a constant sense of confusion and fogginess. There are also many unexplained occurrences and themes – the sailors sewing their lips shut, for instance, or the mysterious, ancient tales of “Arquimedes de Sobreiro”, all of which would probably be explained by delving into the other narratives, which I never got to.
While the text is extremely evocative, and easy to visualize – I could see the filmmaker’s vision at work here, the descriptions often read like mise-en-scènes from a script, ready for filming. Typically, the chapters or main sections start with a list of elements present in the scene: “Dusk. The Old Quarter of a city where river meets the sea.” (Chapter 1); “The cabin is much as it was then S. left it. The hammock. The fetor. The musty vacuum.” (Chapter 6) I think the novel is just a few steps away from Abrams and Dorst turning it into a film.
Perhaps it is too cinematographic, with the basic elements of the novel, characterization, voice, pace, plot, theme, etc. sublimated and perhaps weakened by the graphic devices. I can imagine it would have been very difficult for Dorst to put words to Abrams’s concept. It is nevertheless highly creative. It is both a classical sea-novel and Science Fiction (like China Miéville’s Railsea), but analyzing it as either genre would take even more writing than I have done here.
Would I go back and try to read, chronologically, the notes, or the footnotes, to discover the other stories in the story? No, probably not. By not reading the notes I have probably missed a whole lot of explanations of the plot, and a whole other story. Just figuring out the base text was hard enough as it is incredibly dense with clues to the meaning in the form of themes, literary references and numerous doubles-sens. For instance, the references to places where Vévoda’s armaments have been deployed or his forces have repressed workers, which reminded me of real places of historical and political importance.
There is an unwritten, but sacrosanct, pact between the text of a book and the reader. The reader can make of it what they want. The words speak for themselves, and as much as the author would like to directly appeal to the reader, or try to influence the reader, it is simply impossible in a novel. If the author tries too hard, the novel becomes preachy or overly sentimental. If the author isn’t skilled enough to use the tools at his disposal well, the message is lost in any case. Either way, a novel can only be judged on its own merits. Have the authors tried too hard to communicate their “love letter to the written word”? Perhaps – probably. But I enjoyed it nonetheless.
About the authors
“V.M. Straka”: “The world knows his name, knows his reputation as the prolific author of provocative fictions, novels, that toppled governments, shamed ruthless industrialists, and foresaw the horrifying sweep of totalitarianism that has been a particular plague in these last few decades.” (“Translator’s Notes and Foreword, by F.X. Caldeira”, p. V) – Just joking, he is not real.
Doug Dorst: Doug Dorst is an American novelist, short story writer, and creative writing instructor. Dorst is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He is the author of the multiple award-winning Alive in Necropolis (2008), and a well-received short story collection, The Surf Guru (2010). S. has garnered him pages and pages of critique, analysis, speculation and comment since its publication in Oct. 2013.
J.J. Abrams: Jeffrey Jacob (J.J.) Abrams is an American director, producer, writer, and composer, best known for his work in the genres of action, drama, and science fiction. His directorial film work includes Star Trek (2009) and
its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Mission: Impossible III (2006) and Super 8 (2011). He also directed and co-wrote Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). In his career, Abrams has been nominated for seven Emmy Awards, winning two for Lost: Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Drama Series.