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S. cover

My thought as I took this book from its slipcase was: "by Paxman's Beard, this must have cost a royal ransom to produce!" I mean, the book itself, the actual artefact. Physical copies of S. represent a meticulously faked University Library copy of a novel by "V. M. Straka" called Ship of Theseus (1949), complete with a peel-off sticker with a catalog number on the spine and a much-stamped "Return On or Before Latest Date Stamped Below" sheet on the inside back cover. The text of the novel—supposedly the nineteenth and last production of its reclusive European writer, translated into English by a certain "F. X. Caldeira," fills 456 pages. The margins of this work are chock full of handwritten annotations, in half a dozen different colored inks and two recognizable hands: one a man's (we discover he is called Eric), all caps; the other a woman's (Jen), a more elegantly lower-case script. These two are present-day readers who have been swapping the book between them, leaving it in a certain spot in the university library and replying to one another's marginalia with more marginalia. They are both fascinated by the novel, and the various mysteries associated with it—who was Straka? Was his name the pseudonym of one of a half dozen common suspects, or was he actually the translator Caldeira in disguise? Was he involved in an actual conspiracy during the first half of the twentieth century? Murdered by fascists? Did he commit suicide?

The different colors speak to different layers of annotation: grey pencil for the oldest (just Eric alone, annotating the book sparely as he rereads it); then Jen's blue and Eric's black for their first run through, in dialogue with one another; then Jen's orange and Eric's green after they have been conversing for a while, and when Eric has traveled to Europe and Brazil to uncover aspects of the mystery. Finally Jen's purple and Eric's red, after they have finally met in person and (it's no spoiler to say this, since it's obvious from early on this is where the story is going) fallen in love. These color-coded scribbles are all jumbled up, of course; comments take their cue from passages in the text, and especially from hints in Caldeira's many riddling footnotes, rather than from any chronological imperative, and it takes a while to get the order-of-events sorted in one's head. But Abrams and Dorst don't make it too hard: the earlier chapters of the book contain a preponderance of blue and black marginalia, the later chapters red and purple. And it's easy enough to tease out the narrative of these interactions. Jen is a student at the fictional Pollard State University, though she is finding it hard to meet her class requirements. Eric was working under a certain Professor Moody, a Straka expert who has unscrupulously stolen both Eric's insights and his girlfriend, and who plans to reveal to the world his own solution to the Straka mystery. Eric, a troubled soul still ridden by guilt at his uncle’s death, had a breakdown, vandalized the English department, and has been expelled. He is still researching Straka, though; obsessively. He still sneaks into the library to swap the copy of Ship of Theseus with Jen, and write annotations in answer to her annotations, as she does with his.

Printing this multi-colour text must have been expensive enough (the weeping budget-manager at Canongate presumably said); but in addition to the marginalia the book is stuffed with additional items: various handwritten letters running over many pages and all on different color paper; postcards from Brazil with enigmatic messages on the verso; photostats of key documents relating to Straka's life; pages from the Pollard State University student newspaper; color photographs of graffiti; a paper napkin from the university coffee shop with a detailed campus map drawn on it in ink; yellowing newspaper clippings of, for instance, an obituary for Caldeira written in Portuguese (but one that gets the translator's gender wrong); small gift cards with lines from Straka printed handsomely upon them. All these items have been tucked in between the pages of the book.

To repeat myself, I cannot begin to imagine how much it cost to produce so opulent a product, or how the publishers can possibly hope to recoup the investment (not to mention: how to reproduce all this in paperback, e-book, or talking book format? Impossible!) The overall effect is not a million miles away from Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), except more so: where Danielewski limited himself to typescript and parody footnotes, S. goes the whole multichromatic, multi-codex hog. Other reviewers have namechecked Nabokov's Pale Fire (a formally simpler but artistically much more complex work).

Actually, I'm being disingenuous: I know how the publisher hopes to issue the book in other formats. Here's the webpage for the talking book edition. They simply dispense with both the many inserts and the marginalia ("Please note: In S., J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst conceived of a multi-layered novel-within-a-novel that involves handwritten notes in the margins and physical objects slipped between the pages. Because an audio edition is unable to recreate those innately visual pieces and thus the full experience of S., only the text of Ship of Theseus, the novel at the heart of S., has been recorded here").

The reader has to decide how to read this excitingly unusual format, and will probably opt for one of three strategies: either to read Ship of Theseus text and annotations in tandem as she proceeds; or to read the whole of the Ship of Theseus text ignoring the notes, and then to re-read the whole thing again concentrating on the margins; or to compromise, read the core novel a chapter at a time pausing to return to the notes before going ahead. I started with the first of these but found my progress agonizingly slow—necessarily so, I fear, but I am used to reading more fluently. So for a while I tried option two, only to find the novel alone dull and underpowered without its commentary. So I ended the book vacillating between the first and third strategy here.

Dull and underpowered? Harsh words, but to the point. Ship of Theseus concerns a protagonist, "S," who does not know himself and has forgotten his past. The first thing he knows is that he is walking through a port. Then he is shanghaied by a weird Ancient-Mariner-y ship, where the first mate addresses him in a wincing nautical idiom halfway to double dutch ("Rise y'proper sunnydags, we're nigh to nudging y'ship, ye'll want t'viz it, assure" and so on) and the crew have all sewed their mouths shut, a notion I suspect Abrams-Dorst lifted and adjusted from The X-Files. The ship is destroyed by a waterspout, and S washes up in another port, in a nameless Kafkaesque state where power is held by a fellow called Vévoda, the owner of many munitions factories. A restless crowd of workers agitates; a bomb is thrown; S falls in with a revolutionary cell, and escapes the city by fleeing over the mountains. It's all non-specific and vaguely magic-realist, but in a way that never gels with the estranging imaginative solidity of the best Fantastika.

S injures his foot, and after various adventures finds himself back on the ship, somehow magically restored to seaworthiness. There, although he thinks only a few days have passed, his injured foot has long since healed to an old scar. The ship seems to move through time, docking at various ports in various states of social or political upheaval. The characters talk in weightily portentous terms, and have names like Osfour and Sola and K. Stylistically, it's a weird mélange of cod-timeless mythic pretentiousness and labored 1940s specificity ("They keep to the shadows when possible, spring across the open moonlit spaces they can't avoid. S. hugs the valise to his chest with one arm, notices with odd detachment that his fingers are still gripping the barrel of the pen. The aeroplanes are back and forth, carving tighter circles around the city"). It reminded me several times of Phyllis McGinley's brilliant little poem about a Chagall canvas, "On the Far Wall, Marc Chagall":

One eye without a head to wear it,

Sits on the pathway, and a chicken,

Pursued perhaps by astral ferret,

Flees, while the plot begins to thicken.

Two lovers kiss. Their hair is kelp.

Nor are the titles any help.

Nor, in this case, are the chapter titles any help; and neither Abrams nor Dorst is ready to include anything so bourgeois in the Ship of Theseus as a plot resolution, or final explanation.

On the other hand it's at least in period. There were loads of these sorts of books published in the '40s and '50s, some of which (the English translation of Kazantzankis's huge verse sequel to Homer's Odyssey, for instance, of which S. occasionally put me in mind) were acclaimed as masterpieces in their day, though they have almost all failed the test of time. Not that there's any shame in that: almost all books fail precisely that test, after all. So it's not inconceivable that this is part of the larger plan, here. What it never does, though, is achieve the power of Borges, of Titus Alone, or Rex Warner's Aerodrome.

I did debate with myself whether Ship of Theseus is just the work of a not-very-good novelist, or the work of a very clever novelist carefully pastiche-ing a not-very-good 1940s sub-Kafka yarn for aesthetic ends. But, you know. I'm reminded of Laurence Olivier's performance in The Entertainer, where he has to play a clapped-out, never-very-good song-and-dance man. Friends were amazed that Olivier was able to act "singing badly" so very convincingly; evidence of his breathtaking thespian range. The truth, Olivier sheepishly confessed, was simpler: he had never been able to sing well. Singing-wise, his performance was the real deal.

The novel, then, makes at best only a fair-to-middling standalone. The second onion-layer of text works rather better, I think: Jen and Eric are deftly characterized, cleverly and in an impressively confined textual space; and their slow-burning romance is convincing and even moving. Less convincing is the core conceit: they come to believe that their lives are in imminent danger from the shadowy S conspiracy, and yet continue to swap the book via a public drop-point, writing out all manner of incriminating and endangering things, even whilst they warn one another to be careful in what they write. This strains credulity, and in fact speaks to a more fundamental fuzziness of conception. Partly this book wants to be a satire on academic infighting, with unscrupulous professors plagiarising clever grad students, the stakes being "celebrity in academic circles," which is (I hardly need say) vanishingly small beer. But partly the book wants to be a larger scale Crying of Lot 49 or Foucault’s Pendulum, where the conspiracy being uncovered is global and cosmic and life-and-death. The two modes don’t mesh terribly well, and matters aren’t helped by the evident feebleness of Straka as a writer, at least on the evidence of this one text.

The coding is a game, of cryptic-crossword or word-sudoku type, that will appeal to some readers more than others. Many of the coded messages are braided into the book's footnotes as messages from the translator to the writer; Jen and Eric translate some of these in the margins; others are left for the diversion of the reader—and the Internet being what it is, readers have filleted and sushi-rolled all the "unsolved" codes in short order.

Maybe this appeals to you, and certainly the ludic paratext is handled with more panache and intelligence than in—say—Dan Brown's novels (that sets the bar pretty low, I know). But it is fairly arid stuff, nonetheless. The Da Vinci Code, howsoever drivelly it is as a novel, at least forms riddles and mysteries that relate to actual life: the Catholic Church, the European social order, the position of women in society. Abrams and Dorst's made-up riddles can be decoded, after much labor, to reveal messages passed between made-up characters about a made-up pre-war literary world and a made-up contemporary conspiracy. That is bound to lack bite. For example: the code embedded in the footnotes to chapter six leads us, eventually, to the message: "MAC WAS JUDAS NOT TIAGO." This in turn lets us know that one of the characters in the book was betrayed by another character in the book, and not the third-mentioned character; data that can hardly help but lack impact, given our minimal investment in the goings on of these long-dead, made-up individuals, an investment pre-minimized, as it were, by the fact that they only appear in the novel as intermittent background references in a set of marginal notes. Minimally entertaining hokum, which decodes (of course) into MEH. Cryptic crosswords are equally airless, of course, in terms of the larger resonance of their coded games, but there the pleasure is in the mental test, in stretching one's mind and flexing one’s codebreaking muscles. Since most of the coded messages are pre-solved by the two main characters, the result approaches the entertainment appeal of a crossword where three quarters of the grid has already been filled.

Abrams's reputation precedes him, here. So, the number nineteen crops up repeatedly in this novel: Ship of Theseus is Straka's nineteenth novel, S is the nineteenth letter of the alphabet, Straka's eighth novel was called The Black Nineteen, a tucked-in obituary dates F. X. Caldeira's death to 19 May, the place in the library where Jen and Eric swap the book is room B19, and so on. Is this a significant number, or is it a Lost-number? The latter, as if you don't already know, are the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42, that appeared in myriad guises throughout Abrams's long-running mystery serial. Whilst the show was ongoing, fans speculated ingeniously and fulsomely about the "meaning" of these numbers, and of the number to which they sum (108). The finale revealed nothing useful about them.

In subsequent interviews the show creators Abrams, Lindelof, and David Fury have been prone to saying such infuriating things as "your guesses are as good as mine" when asked what the numbers meant ("we placed them as a kind of Easter egg hunt . . . it wasn't about the answer to what the numbers meant, it was really about: 'How did I feel while I was watching Lost?'"). Are the clues in this book of a similar kind?

It's not just numbers, either. There's a wealth of bird references, which may or may not add up to a coherent thematic underpinning with meaningful semantic content: actual birds, people with bird-names, pictures of birds on the tucked-in postcards. There are actual birds and birds that resonate with ancient myth. The F in F. X. Caldeira, we discover, stands for Filomela: perhaps her relationship with Straka has something to do with the myth of Tereus, the barbarous king, and Philomela, so rudely forced—and turned afterwards into a nightingale. (Jen is writing a term paper on The Waste Land for much of the novel.) Does the "J. J." in J. J. Abrams stand for "Jug Jug"? Who can say?

There's also a monkey, who reappears in various guises, although I suspect this was misdirection. Keeping with the troweled-on mythological references, there are many caves, grottoes, and subterranean corridors, all evocative of the labyrinth of King Minos, in which the Minotaur lurked. Theseus navigated this maze by means of a ball of string, and maybe "string" is what the S in Abrams/Dorst's title stands for. The "ship" has a different mythological referent; as he sailed away to fight the Minotaur, Theseus promised his father, King Aegeus, that if he triumphed he would hoist a white sail as he sailed home to signal that he was still alive. But on the actual return journey Theseus simply forgot to change the sail; grief-stricken Aegeus, seeing the returning ship's black sail, committed suicide by hurling himself off a cliff into the sea. In Abrams/Dorst's novel Straka is supposed to have killed himself by jumping from a bridge into the river. Is this significant? Or is the titular reference to a later story about Theseus's ship? According to Plutarch's Life of Theseus, the Athenians maintained Theseus's actual ship in their harbor, and always in a seaworthy state: "the ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalareus for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place." This in turn led to a famous philosophical question. If ten percent of the timber of a ship rots and is replaced with new wood, we would have no trouble referring to it as the same ship as before. But what if all the timbers were replaced, one by one, over time. Is it the same ship, even though it contains none of the original elements? Such philosophical questions about the nature of identity are sometimes referred to as the "Ship of Theseus" problem, and by British philosophers as the "Trigger's Broom" problem.

See? Already I've wandered from Lost and Alias to Only Fools and Horses. That's symptomatic. It's almost too easy a dig to say of an Abrams project like this: "the conception is strong and the visuals and consummately and often brilliantly rendered, but there's nothing behind the spectacle, it's all empty calories artistically speaking." But there's something of that about this project. What is this particular serpentine reviewer's judgment? Sssss . . .

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
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