Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: 'S.' by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

It's hard to make a case (outside of nostalgia) for physical entertainment in an increasingly digital world. Books withstood this electronic assault for a longer period of time than either music or movies but with the ubiquitousness of eReader platforms and eBooks, those have started to fall, too. So what do you do to ensure that people have - want, in fact - an actual object in their hands? Do what JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst have done with S., arguably the most original reading experience in some time.

Now, S. has an eBook version, but consider this: S. is actually several stories in one. There's the novel Ship of Theseus, written by fictional novelist V.M. Straka; there are margin notes by college students Eric and Jen, whose narrative includes making their way in the world, their relationship with each other, and their quest to discover the true identity of the mysterious Straka; and there are accompanying props to flesh out that world. So, while there is an eBook version of S., I can't help but feel that it would be...sterile. There's something to be said for holding a postcard or a photograph in your hand or spinning a decoder wheel or reading a clipped newspaper article or unfolding an actual napkin with a map sketched on it. Yes, it is all very detailed and very faithfully reproduced. The main thrust of the work (I'll refrain from calling it a novel, because the whole experience involves so much more) revolves around people and world events from the beginning half of the 20th century, and having the book and everything else it includes and your hands to sift through feels appropriately analog.

That speaks to the biggest strength of S., which is its inclusiveness. If you've followed Abrams' other (film and television) work, you know it's all about going big or going home. Whether it's the multiple, multiple layers of Lost or the comprehensive in-universe background behind Cloverfield, Abrams has a way of making the things he's involved in feel very real. S. is no different; the aforementioned newspaper reproductions and photocopied papers really make you feel like you're discovering treasures. The book of Ship of Theseus itself comes complete with library checkout stamps, stained pages, and a Dewey Decimal sticker. Then there are various blogs, Tumblrs, and Twitter accounts from Eric and Jen that let you be involved in their research on an intimate level. Whatever faults people have with Abrams, making whole worlds isn't one of them; its why his shows have been so engrossing and why he's been handed the keys to two of the biggest pop culture franchises of all time.

Of course, it helps when something is good, which S. certainly is. Ship of Theseus, written by Doug Dorst, uses mystery as its main thrust, but is in turn funny and suspenseful and action-packed: it revolves around an amnesic man, S., who is kidnapped by eerie pirates and is soon set against world-changing events, all while trying to find his identity and a woman who keeps popping up in his life. The book necessarily mirrors the "real world" story of Straka, and at times the events of Eric and Jen.

Speaking of those two, they're our window into the world, where we learn about the backdrop of the events of the book thanks to their convenient academic setting, constantly annotating and explaining allusions and references. Their story is just as interesting as the others; Eric has been obsessed with the "Who is Straka?" mystery for so long that we see him have to work through his social deficiencies with Jen, who is about to graduate and going through her own metamorphosis, similarly learning how to deal with the changes happening in her life. When S. and Straka's lives revolve around so much mystery on such a grand scale, having Eric and Jen there to keep things grounded is a huge boon.

It's hard to talk about S. without the most dreaded of pop culture demons - spoilers! - and to do so would be a disservice to potential readers. If you like things that wrap up neatly by the time the last page is turned, you'll be disappointed in S.. It doesn't answer all of the questions it asks, which is part of the fun. There are message boards and blogs dedicated to the puzzles that aren't solved in the text; it truly is an experience, and how much you enjoy S. will largely depend on how much you want to invest in it. If you do pick it up, though - and I really think you should - do yourself a favor and get it in glorious hardcover. You may not have bought an actual book in a while, so now's a perfect time to start.

Whatever you do, don't get the audio book.

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