V.M. Straka is a mystery. His true identity is unknown, though there are many theories ranging from the believable (another well known author of similar style) to the fantastic (a young girl channeling the spirit of a dead nun). His final book is The Ship of Theseus, translated by the only-slightly-less-mysterious F.X. Caldeira.
The question of Straka’s identity is a matter of great speculation in certain literary circles, and all the more significant for the impact his books have had. It is rumored that all of his books are intentional exposes of the wicked acts of some of the world’s most powerful people. And Straka himself is suspected as having had a hand in some of the most high profile assassinations of the 20th century.
The mystery of V.M. Straka and the meaning of The Ship of Theseus become the common ground for two individuals – a disgraced doctoral student still bent on solving the mystery, and an undergrad who finds his copy of Ship of Theseus and begins communicating with him through notes in the margins.
This is the setup of S, by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. There are really two stories in one book – the story of The Ship of Theseus, and the story of the characters communicating through the margins. Abrams and Dorst should be applauded for taking a very different approach to story telling and actually pulling off a story that hangs together. Linear thinkers will probably struggle to make sense of either story, though, as reading this book is more like putting together a puzzle than following a storyline.
The main story of The Ship of Theseus was interesting but murky. It had every bit the feel of the TV series Lost, with a story that spans a wide time-frame, supernatural elements that are never really explained, and a main character who is always just outside of understanding what is really happening to him. It is a somewhat compelling story, but I felt it dragged at points, and it was distracting trying to focus on that story with the many scribbles and underlines that appear on almost every page. The ending was anticlimactic, and while that serves the other story in its own way, it left me unsatisfied.
The other story is told through a combination of margin notes and inserts that include personal letters, postcards, newspaper clippings, and other little bits. These led my wife to dub it “The Jolly Postman for grown ups,” but I’m not sure how Abrams and Dorst would feel about that description. The notes unfold a scattershot conversation between the two, who passed the book back and forth without ever having met each other (they leave it in an obscure location on a college library shelf). The notes don’t follow a linear order, but the color of pen the characters use helps establish a chronology. It feels very scattershot at first, but over time one can get a grip on the flow and make sense of things.
Like the Ship of Theseus itself, the story in the margins drags at times and ends without much of a climax. The overall theme is a sort of “carpe diem” kind of notion. The characterization is strong, though, and by the end I felt a genuine sense of interest in who these people were and how the situation was affecting them.
Overall, it was a fast and interesting read. Anyone who likes a mystery or a truly creative approach to storytelling will probably enjoy it. Readers should be warned that there is a fair amount of vulgarity in the margin notes, and while it is usually fitting for the story, sensitive readers might find it frustrating. All in all, I give it 3 stars.