One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace, and desire.
A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.
The book: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V.M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched onto a disorienting and perilous journey.
The writer: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumors that swirl around him.
The readers: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts, and fears.
S., conceived by filmmaker J. J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand, and it is also Abrams and Dorst’s love letter to the written word.
You can add this one to the list of “unfilmable” novels - which is perhaps odd, considering a movie director had a hand in it. (Or hang on, maybe you could adapt SHIP OF THESEUS for the screen, put it on YouTube, and convert the margin-scribbled discussions into comments, either below-the-line or attached to specific frames? Straka becomes the director, Caldeira becomes the editor, rather than the book’s translator? But but but this is a book about books, writing about writing… but but but it’s not like there haven’t been movies attempted about books and writers and writing before.)
Elements of this put me in mind of Jeff Vandermeer’s CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, but a lite/easy mode version: where CITY has a whole section in cipher and expects the reader to solve it, S has lots of coded messages, but the margin-writers have got there first and solved them all for you. Likewise they hold the reader’s hand through a lot of the job of thematically interpreting the “core text”, SHIP OF THESEUS, although they didn’t make the comparison that leapt to my mind, which is with HALF-LIFE 2 and its follow-on episodes. I won’t spoil either one, but I see definite parallels between S and Gordon Freeman.
Thankfully you have to work a little bit harder to fill in the gaps of the margin-writers’ own story. If I didn’t have a giant to-be-read pile teetering ready to collapse and cave my head in while I sleep, I might be tempted to go back and try to read all the margin notes in chronological order (they’re helpfully and quite cleverly colour-coded; in some places I even identified the exact note where one pen runs out and the writer switches to a new colour; the attention to the detail in the production of this book, this artefact, is some serious and astonishing business, and it’s not to cover up shabby writing either; I admit I went in expecting a gimmick book, and with those lowered expectations I was surprised how much I enjoyed the central SHIP OF THESEUS narrative. I won’t say I wept or that it’s greatly changed my life, but I definitely believed it as the kind of book academics would spend their whole careers dissecting and arguing over; it definitely had layers, is what I think I’m saying).
I think Abrams and Dorst are probably guilty of perpetuating that old assumption about writers writing what they know, novels being default autobiographical, characters being unavoidably based on people in the author’s life. The margin writers certainly seem to take that as self-evident (though in the world of the book, they’re building on years of other people’s Straka scholarship; and it would get tiresome if they just kept refuting each other’s arguments and theories with “what if it’s just a novel?”). Or actually, maybe it’s more a point about literary academia than anything; that if you study an author and their work in as much depth and for as much time as tenured academia demands, you can’t help starting to conflate the person with their fiction?
Here’s an experiment I sort of wish they’d tried, though I can absolutely see why it would have been an awful idea from the publisher’s point of view (though having said that, I dread to think what they must have sunk into this book and all its ephemera in production costs): publish the book as SHIP OF THESEUS, and only include the marginalia in half the copies. Or at least somehow give people the option of reading SHIP without its authorial/biographical baggage first if they like. (Oh, wait: I had that option, I could have skated over the marginalia the first time, I just didn’t know I wanted that option until I’d closed it to myself…) Are books automatically more interesting/rewarding when you know something about the author, and/or the author themself is interesting? Is the metanarrative of critical interpretation always a positive addition to a work of fiction, or can it detract as well? Makes you think.