If you think of a book as words on a page, think again. S. is a novel with a difference, stretching the limits of what a book can be. You pull it out of a black slipcase with a paper seal that you have to break—a hardcover library book with the dust jacket removed and a spine label. It’s called The Ship of Thesus by VM Straka, written in 1949. Judging by its printing and slightly yellowing pages, it looks like an old volume. Open it, and you are pulled into the story right from the flyleaf, which is covered with notes in two distinct handwritings—one cursive and loopy, and the other with neat capitals. And it is filled with inserts: old press cuttings, postcards, handwritten pages and even a map hand-drawn on a real paper napkin!
There are three parallel stories here: one is The Ship of Thesus itself; the other is about two college students, Eric and Jen, who write notes to eachother in the (very wide) margins of the book that they leave for the other to find; while thethird story is contained in footnotes inserted by the book’s translator, FX Caldeiro, which provide clues about the writer himself.
The central mystery in S.—and there are many—is the identity of its fictional author, VM Straka. No one is sure who he is—or whether he existed at all as an individual and the name is simply a pseudonym used by a writers’ group. What does appear to be true is that Straka (or the person or persons using his name) had been part of a group of writers called S. who had stood up to Bouchard, a brutal corporate magnate. They may have done more than write, though—there were rumours that they had gone as far as killing Bouchard’s henchmen. Eric and Jen are convinced that the book’s footnotes carry coded messages from Caldeiro to the author and hold the key to finding out what really happened.
The Ship of Thesus is Straka’s last book. Its main character, also known as S., has lost his memory and is shanghaied onto a ship with a bizarre crew. S. has no idea why he is there, and no one will tell him. But it becomes clear that he is there for a purpose. He stumbles through a series of strange events, and as the book moves on, the connection between these events start to get a little clearer. It is possible that S. was really Straka trying to leave a record as Bouchard’s people closed in on him.
And finally, the story of Eric and Jen. Eric is a disgraced graduate student who had run into problems with his PhD supervisor, Moody. Jen is a college senior trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Eric stole the book from a library when he was a teenager and made notes in pencil in the margins. Jen finds it years later and writes to him on the flyleaf, leaving the book for him to find. And so a relationship starts between these two people who, for most part, only meet in the pages of this book. They try to untangle the narrative and the codes in the footnotes, and sometimes use phrases in the book as springboards to talk about themselves. As they get close to a possible truth about Straka, they find themselves being threatened by a shadowy figure, most probably Moody, who is determined to be the first to reveal Straka’s true identity and will stop at nothing to make sure no one else gets there first.
The entire novel is brilliantly conceived. I know it sounds really complicated from my description—I had a hard time writing it—but it carries you along. The Ship of Thesus, written in the style of the 1950s, is a strange, almost surreal, work. It is juxtaposed with the present-day story of two people falling in love in the pages of the book. Neither story can stand by itself but feeds off the other. The book itself (and the story in the footnotes) is used as a framework to hang Jen and Eric’s story on. And their notes on The Ship of Thesus help to uncover the many layers of the novel.
What all three stories have in common is a sense of events that have been set in motion by some unknown forces that are impacting the lives of the characters. There is a sense of murkiness, of important details being just beyond what is visible. The only thing that comes through clearly against this murky backdrop is the growing relationship between Eric and Jen. All youknow about these two bright people is from their notes to each other, and they are the book’s clearest characters.
In terms of actual production, this book must have been quite a job. Just getting the layout right, making sure the printed text is where it’s supposed to be so that the notes can be placed correctly, getting the inserts into exactly the right place—none of this is easy, even with the technology available. And the concept is impressive—being able to think through all the different elements and keep all the stories going. None of them flags, although I have to admit I couldn’t keep track of the different theories about Straka’s identity, which were too convoluted to try and unpick.
JJ Abrams (known for directing the Star Trek movies and doing pretty much everything on the TV series, Lost) came up with the idea when he found a book on a park bench with a note that said: “to whomever finds this book please read it and take it somewhere and leave it for someone else to read”. He contacted Doug Dorst, a writer, and the rest, as they say, is history. To quote the blurb at the back of the slipcase, “This is their love letter to the written word”. And to the physicality of books.