S belongs to that trickiest of genres, the experimental novel. It is a lavishly faithful reproduction of a library book called Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by (fictional) reclusive novelist V.M. Straka. The book is annotated in various colours of ink by two academics, undergraduate Jen and disgraced graduate student Eric, who pass the book between them via a drop point in a library.
So there are two stories going on here: the one in Ship of Theseus, in which a man who’s lost his memory becomes embroiled in a bitter feud between an arms dealer and the resistance movement that opposes him; and the story of Eric and Jen’s relationship, unfolding in the margins before us. Between them the two texts create a third one, the story of Straka, his translator and admirer F.X. Caldeira, and an organisation called S that may have been an artists’ collective or a resistance movement of something else entirely. Eric and Jen are trying to figure out Straka’s identity and the truth behind S, using various clues and codes that Caldeira has embedded in her translation of Ship of Theseus. As they pass the book between them, they leave other things in its pages: long handwritten letters, greetings cards, photocopies, newspaper clippings.
So the principal effect of this dizzying sprawl of texts is to draw our attention to the book as a form, to the way we experience books. There’s a moment when Jen’s upset and we read a note from Eric that says, “I’m here” – a statement that is literally and precisely true. Eric is there, on the page, and he is only there. Jen is there, on the page, and she is only there. That is, their relationship exists only on paper, and yet as readers we hypothesise a reality beyond the page, we fill in the blanks between the annotations, between the words.
Which is an interesting process, and I really enjoyed having my attention drawn to it. I relished the experience of reading S and the ways it forced me to consider how we read, and how I in particular read. For instance: a reader of S has to choose when they’ll read the annotations in relation to the main text of Ship of Theseus. Go back at the end of each chapter? At the end of each page? Read the annotations in “real time”, alongside SoT? How do we deal with this intrusion into The Book, which in Western mass-market society is usually a single authoritative text, unplagued by dissenting voices?
Okay, but. I hankered for more. There were things about S that didn’t ring true for me. For instance, its attempt to convince us of the deadly importance of Straka’s identity and S. Someone is setting fires to frighten Jen, and it’s implied that it has to do with her and Eric’s work on Ship of Theseus. Which is ridiculous. And their hunt through the text for clues as to Straka’s identity and the details of his life is hardly advanced scholarship; in fact, it’s the kind of biographical criticism that’s so old-fashioned even the most wizened Oxbridge English scholar doesn’t do it any more. For people who are apparently university literature students, both Jen and Eric seem to find it incredibly hard to grasp that Ship of Theseus is fiction, not an autobiography in elaborate code. (Actually, it’s probably the novel’s creators, J.J. “Star Trek” Abrams and Doug Dorst, who find this hard to grasp.) Basically, they’re both terrible academics who deserve their poor marks/career-destroying disgrace.
And it’s all too…chronological. The comments in newer, brighter inks are overwhelmingly towards the back of the book; those in older, more sombre inks are towards the front. When you read real marginalia in real library books, you’re witnessing a sort of temporal collapse, everyone’s comments made at once, a chorus of babbling voices. When you read Ship of Theseus, you watch Jen and Eric’s relationship unfold more or less linearly. Perhaps to do it any other way would have made S unreadable. But, this way, it feels unsatisfying and a little dishonest, given its commitment to physical verisimilitude. It wants to look and feel like a real library book. But it doesn’t want to do the conceptual work of one.
Oh, also, Ship of Theseus is a terrible novel: ponderous, deliberately obfuscatory and less profound than it thinks it is. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not; I’m not even sure that being deliberately bad is a valid thing for a novel to be.