A story within a story. I remember many a professor in college telling me this was called a “microcosm” as I scribbled into my notebook about some 19th-century poet or Shakespeare. As a post-grad I don’t normally miss being in a classroom, writing papers, and studying, but reading S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst made me nostalgic for those undergrad, English-major days.
Jen and Eric meet for the first time in the pages of a book at their school’s library named Ship of Theseus by infamous author V.M. Straka. Writing notes to each other in the margins, their interactions with the text and with themselves start out as you might expect – one undergrad (Jen) and one grad student (Eric) conversing about the merits and mysterious of the book. In their fictional universe, Straka’s true identity is unknown to the world, leaving Jen and Eric even more invested in uncovering who this author is. They have clues: they know Straka was part of a radical group in the 1930s and ’40s that opposed the dangerous “Bouchard,” a tyrannical figure akin to some real-life leaders in World War II, and that the book’s editor – Filomela or FXC – was also involved in the group.
The book gives equal weight to the concrete text and the written correspondence, but without Jen and Eric’s words within the margins, this book would not be nearly as magical and powerful. I found myself more drawn to Jen and Eric’s storyline than the actual Ship of Theseus story, because even without the traditional prose, their relationship is so intimate and complex, and the fact that the characters are writing their own “dialogue” makes their voices that much more distinct and lovely. That’s not to say that Ship of Theseus wasn’t great, as well, but Dorst succeeded in matching a mid-century style that manages to both be rich and ambiguous. SoT (as Jen and Eric call it) tells the story of S., a man with amnesia who finds himself a savior figure in a global conflict that traverses time and place. His vehicle from place to place is a miserable pirate ship where time stands still as chaos ensues on land. His only clue to his past? A woman, of course, who is no less mysterious than S’s mission and the rest of the book’s conflict.
I loved this book, but it is a beast to get through. At 400+ pages it’s long, but including the written notes between Eric and Jen, there’s much more volume to read. The book also includes lots of additional notes in between the pages – longer letters from Eric and Jen, postcards, maps, even a a faux university newspaper. For me it took a while to get a rhythm between reading the margin notes and reading the actual text, but it was so worth it in the end.
I can’t recommend this book enough for any serious book worm. It combines a modern story with classic lit, young adult romance with fantasy, and so many mysteries that your head will spin in the best way possible.
Five out of five stars