This morning, over breakfast, I finished reading S. the singular and vastly ambitious work of Doug Dorst, based on J.J. Abrams concept. This genuinely is one of the most interesting and exciting books I have seen in a very long time and it deserves attention for some important reasons.
Trying to describe S. is something of a minefield, where every step you take explodes into a fistful of questions that you don’t want to answer because, well, you need to experience it for yourself. What I can tell you is that S. is the story of a fictional tale (that’s near to being a tautology I realise, but bear with me), The Ship of Theseus, written by one V.M. Straka. The protagonist is the eponymous (of the overall work, if not the story he inhabits) S. who has no idea who he is, and who is promptly Shanghaied into service on a mysterious, and nameless, ship.
The problem with this (fictional) V.M. Straka is that no-one knows who he really was and his identity was a closely-guarded secret up to and beyond his death. As you can imagine, academics (in the world of S.) have a great interest in discovering who Straka really was, indeed his identity is posited as a grail of contemporary literary studies.
So far, so linear, right? However, this is just the first thread because the artefact you hold is presented as a library book printed in 1949 (first edition, none the less), complete with Dewey decimal reference on a spine sticker, withdrawal stamps and the lot. There are footnotes throughout from the translator, who may or may not have amended the text of The Ship of Theseus. And critically, in the margins, on and around all of the text you have notes left by two student Straka-philes who want to know his real identity just like everyone else. Pretty cool, eh? Except that there’s more – these two students come to know each other through this book, leaving notes, postcards, photos, newspaper clippings and even doodles on napkins. Meta, meet the twins Meta-meta and Meta-meta-meta and their mother Recursion.
There are a lot of things about S. that interest me, so much so that this will be the first of two articles. Whilst the artefact and story are intrinsically intertwined there are two key discussions. One is the how it works as literature, which I will come to later. The other is what it represents for publishing.
The first thing to acknowledge is that as a piece of physical production it’s incredible. This is hardcore book porn of the filthiest kind: a debossed hardbound book with slipcase, 4/4 printing with each page designed to appear stained by time and with 20-odd inserts (including one (what meta-joy!) that is an insert into an insert). Lord knows how they’ll make any money off it when Amazon are selling it at half price, but bless them for making it.
Once you are past the inevitable craven moments of stroking that come with first opening it, however, the thoughts begin. What have they made here? How am I meant to read it? Do I start with the story then go back and do the footnotes? What about the photos? Does it matter that I don’t know who is writing the notes at the start? Or how many of them there are? And why does it feel like I’m reading the internet?
Because that’s what this book is: It’s hypertext fiction finally being produced with gusto and a full budget. Except it’s a physical book, not a website. In fact, I can’t really see how it would work as a digital format. It’s futurist but dependent on its traditional routes, swilling the meta-irony round its mouth with gleeful hedonism. It’s hard not to think of David Foster Wallace disappearing down the rabbit hole of footnotes within footnotes and digressions that subsume the narrative, mining the depths of literary form for something irreducible. However it feels like this is a lifeline back to reality, to a place between the real world and the prodigal depths. This isn’t Infinite Jest, S. is a tightly controlled work, intricately planned and surprisingly open to interpretation but also concise, coherent and contained in its own right.
It’s hard to shake the feeling you are browsing through a private wiki or Google Doc – especially as the marginal notes get more personal and confessional. I also find it hard to think of it in any other terms. When you are flicking ahead 50 pages on the instructions of one of the marginal notes, where you can’t help but glance around, you realise you’ve just clicked on a link before you finished reading the article you started at. In part, the result is that to read S. successfully requires a greater tolerance for tension and uncertainty than most books I know. You are tapping a stream of information, of multiple stories, not reading one book.
After all, these marginal notes aren’t chronological, so the story of the readers comes at you from all points of their story. Think The Time-Traveller’s Wife without the handy date references. In fact, you start to feel very grateful that they had different colour pens. You start to notice that the red ink is more faded than the black so it must be older. You become an archaeologist without realising it.
This is the single greatest joy of the book, the way it puts you into a range of positions without any coercion or effort. It throws four narratorial voices at you, a bunch of missing identities, gives you no help with chronology and teases you with huge unknowns right from the outset. Yet as you read you accept all of this. Your relationships with the literary and physical are simultaneous. You read words that explain one mystery, another is unfurled in the texture of a napkin.
That napkin really is something else by the way – all of these inserts are produced on appropriate stock, made as authentic as possible. The napkin really is two-ply loose weave, the ink over-saturating the paper. The photo really is glossy with the watermarks striping the back. Newspaper clippings are aged and ragged-edged. Everything speaks as an artefact, the medium embraces the message.
All of this gushing does have a point. Both within the publishing industry and without, there has been a lot of discussion about what the growth of ePub and digital formats means for publishing and ‘The Book’.
For a while now I’ve been telling people that the mass-market paperback will go the way of the dodo and that digital will take over. Maybe it won’t die out, but at some point reading devices will become ubiquitous and the mountains of unsaleable second-hand copies of E.L. James and Dan Brown books will turn in to un-accessed files taking up space on every burgeoning hard drives.
I’ve also been telling people that print won’t die any time soon. Instead it will become the preserve of high-end and beautiful works. Coffee table books, photography collections, graphic novels and gorgeous hardbound books, to name a few – the neophytes can’t deny that we will always enjoy creating and owning beautiful things.
Hypertext fiction, enhanced ePubs, augmented reality and all the other blurring lines between technology and interaction are coming. Our artistic relationship with these mediums is in many ways nascent, first fluttering its eyelids open to play with new ways of interacting. S. may well be remembered as one of the first books that transcended the format of The Book.