This will be the third time I have written about JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., a metafictional puzzle book that comes in the form of a faux-retro hardback of a novel, Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by one JM Straka, and that carries further sub- and supra-narratives in its editorial notes, and in the marginalia scrawled on its pages, and inserted between them, by a pair of obsessed students who, improbably, conduct a flirtation using the book as a dead letter office, even as come to fear for their lives.
First I wrote about it on my Friday Book Design Blog, where I commented on its exquisite presentation and sense of fun, and noted its debt to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, before ending with the slightly sniffy enquiry:
What is at the heart of S? I’m not sure anyone knows, yet. Would the first person to solve it please report back and let us know if the destination’s worth the journey?
Left to my own devices, I would probably not have continued the journey. However, I was then asked to review it, for The Independent, and happily took back up the gauntlet, reading through to the very last page (something I wasn’t entirely sure Mark Lawson did for his rather general review in The Guardian).
This time I concluded that, though I was sure I had penetrated only partway to its mysteries, the journey was rewarding nevertheless. Sure, some aspects of the project remain hard to accept:
- in practical terms, that Jen and Eric would keep scribbling in the margins of the book rather than, y’know, texting each other, especially when THEIR LIVES WERE IN DANGER because of it;
- in conceptual terms, that the narrative of their relationship ran more or less chronologically through the book, from front to back, whereas any fule postgrad knows that the text is a two-dimensional space, rather than a temporal continuum, and their notes should have been a lot more confusing to read in tandem with the plot of the novel;
- and, in literary terms, that we were actually supposed to believe there was a clan of dissident-writers fighting evil throughout history in our ‘universe’, whatever we were willing to believe about the ‘universe’ of Straka’ fiction.
Despite all this, then, the ‘novel’ (not a novel-within-a-novel, as some have said, but the opposite: a novel-around-a-novel, over-a-novel, above-a-novel) was kept alive by two things: the positively charming romance that grows in the margins between the two students, Jen and Eric, and the quality of the pastiche of ‘Ship of Theseus’, which reads like a sort of tough existentialist take on the Conrad/ Hemingway tradition, though it keeps slipping towards the fantastical.
If the underlying, background text hadn’t been worth reading – despite the fact that you know its primary, surface meaning is not what you’re supposed to be there for at all – then I’d have had a hard time keeping on with it.
Looking back on my reading experience, now, though, what occurs to me is this: that while Dorst is pastiching a certain strain of mid-century hardboiled quasi-philosophical literature, Abrams (as conceiver-in-chief) is pastiching something else entirely.
He is pastiching, or otherwise playing on, the very postmodern take on meaning and interpretation that has grown up in the past half century, following on from the post-structuralists of the mid-late 60s, that sees intertextuality, marginality and undecidability as central to the literary-critical enterprise.
Postmodern literature loves to play with the possibility of extra- or meta-textual work dominating and even crushing the work-at-source (Pale Fire); it loves the idea of the reader as detective, set loose in the drifting, numinous, authorless world of novel (Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose); in fact it loves this so much it romanticises it to the point where, laughably, ferreting around in dusty libraries becomes a supremely heroic act, and even a dangerous one (Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum [a book I must re-read], Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, and, eventually, as Eco loves pointing out, The Da Vinci Code).