Some thoughts on S. – The words

So after all the gushing of my previous article on Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams’ meta-bonanza, S. an important question remains unanswered – is it a good book?

The problem here is that all of the ambition which makes for such an incredible artefact comes back to bite Dorst and Abrams. They neatly demonstrate one of the real risks with writing meta-anything which is this: it’s all too easy to sell empathy and emotion short in the pursuit of complicated architecture. You still need a good story and characters, or you’re screwed.

What it all comes down to is that, of the two key stories at work – The Ship of Theseus, and the relationship between Jen and Eric, the two students writing in the margins – only one commands any empathy. Straka’s masterpiece, which supposedly has hypnotised readers and critics alike for decades, feels sterile. Perhaps this is because it is made first and foremost to provide the roots of all the other narratives, but Dorst’s adopted style feels staid, denying any real access to S’s inner world. Add in the pervading mystery of who S is and you start to hear the echoing tones of hollowness.

The Ship of Theseus takes a while to really get going, and when it does you find yourself looking back at the opening chapters and wondering why they’re there. As far as I can tell they are there to establish S’s amnesia, one mostly absent character and not much else. S’s amnesia is integral to the meta-story so it becomes the tail wagging the dog. Somewhere along the line Dorst lost site of Straka’s work being a book in its own right.

Once you start juggling potential identities for Straka you then have lots of names (handily codified into acronyms just in case you were keeping up), dates and events outside the book to manage as well. Now I’m not normally one to complain about asking the reader to do some work, but it started to feel like a bit of a chore.

It’s something I suspect Dorst realised as well though, because one of the possible identities for this Straka chap is that of a pirate. No one takes it seriously but Jen says at one point that she likes the pirate idea best. It’s exciting, it’s engaging and I agree! Ok, ok, it’s not as considered or meaningful as the actual resolution, but it would have been less wearying to read.

In fact, some considerable mental agility is also required to successfully read S. because the marginal notes are everywhere and most pages require you to hold The Ship of Theseus in your head whilst you catch up with Jen and Eric. The only other things that made me work that hard are William S. Burroughs and The Illuminatus! Trilogy, both of which try to replicate narcotic dissociative experiences (AKA being reeeeeeeally fucking high) on paper. But it’s also only a matter of time before you start thinking how conveniently arranged the marginal notes are in terms of understanding their story. There are a few notes that jump ahead to tease, but mainly it’s all laid out for you. In such a meticulous work it acts as another brick in the barrier between you and an empathetic connection.

The other major issue I have with The Ship of Theseus is its ending. For one thing it’s a massive tease without the meta-story, banging the final nail in the coffin of its chances as a standalone work. For another, it smacks of an anachronistic populism. It’s hard not to read the book today and think, ‘Hey, that’s a hip message. I can get on board with that.’ Except it was supposedly written in 1949. Ok, admittedly it’s the same year as 1984 was published, but it’s just a little too convenient, you know?

All of that said, Jen and Eric are very real creations, leaping out of the page at you (literally, if you open the book too quickly) and the strongest parts of the book are undoubtedly their confessional moments. The anonymity of writing notes allows them to confront their demons together. There is a very real sense of two people meeting, coming to know each other and then peeling away the layers of their defences. There is something genuinely intimate – perhaps even to the point of feeling invasive – about their story. But these moments are over far too quickly.

So there you have it. Maybe this makes me a churlish bastard but however wonderful I think aspects of S. are the whole left me dissatisfied. It’s a real labour of love and I can appreciate how elegant the structure is, how much thought went into it and that if nothing else it is A Beautiful Thing. But part of me wishes Dorst and Abrams had taken the time to leave it alone, then come back to it and realise, ‘You know, I’m not sure I care about this S guy…’

Some thoughts on S. – the paper

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.

Ambrose Bierce and The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce is a figure worth of some attention. Whilst I haven’t yet delved into the details of his life, from the examples given below, you’ll see that he was a man possessed of a fearsome wit. Further, anyone who manages to shroud the circumstance of their own death in mystery, whilst in the company of Pancho Villa and in the vicinity of Chihuahua can be taken to be an interesting character.

I came back around to one of his more famous works, through the ever intriguing Drabblecast. This work is The Devil’s Dictionary and it is available in ever-convenient website format. In the website’s words:

Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary was a newspaper weekly first collected as a book in 1906. While the book represents diabolical appetites, and derides pretense, it should be noted that Bierce generally reserved his severest ridicule for those who benefit most from the status quo. It’s easy to imagine him a century later relying less on casual political incorrectness, to pay better tribute to those who couldn’t overindulge enough on the prosperity that took place.

So why am I telling you about all of this? Well here are some examples:

BACKBITE, v.t. To speak of a man as you find him when he can’t find you.

BAROMETERn. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.

CONGRATULATION, n. The civility of envy.

CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

QUORUM, n. A sufficient number of members of a deliberative body to have their own way and their own way of having it. In the United States Senate a quorum consists of the chairman of the Committee on Finance and a messenger from the White House; in the House of Representatives, of the Speaker and the devil.

HERSpro. His.

TRUCEn. Friendship.

TYPEn. Pestilent bits of metal suspected of destroying civilization and enlightenment, despite their obvious agency in this incomparable dictionary.

Mr Bierce, I salute you. I’m off the read The Meaning of Liff again.

Something I learned in 2011

UPDATE – 13th January 2012: I’ve tracked down some of the easier ones (i.e. they were in the Apple dictionary). Some of the obvious portmanteaus stand out now, such as embranglement. I’ll check on the rest as soon as I get near my Compact OED and magnifying glass.

Nick Cave knows a lot more words than I do. Having just read And the Ass Saw the Angel (intensely graphic and atmospheric like the more recent, and excellent, Death of Bunny Munroe, but also more formless and difficult to keep a grip on) I have discovered that Nick Cave has quite a wide vocabulary. F’rinstance:

Adumbrate – ˈadəmˌbrāt; əˈdəm-|

verb [ trans. ] formal

report or represent in outline : James Madison adumbrated the necessity that the Senate be somewhat insulated from public passions.

  • indicate faintly : the walls were not more than adumbrated by the meager light.
  • foreshadow or symbolize : what qualities in Christ are adumbrated by the vine?
  • overshadow : her happy reminiscences were adumbrated by consciousness of something else.
Afflatus – |əˈflātəs|

noun formal

a divine creative impulse or inspiration.

Anhelations
Cachinnations – |ˈkakəˌnāt|

verb [ intrans. ]

poetic/literarylaugh loudly.

Caducity – |kəˈd(y)oōsitē|

noun archaic

the infirmity of old age; senility.

Caliginous – |kəˈlijənəs|

adjective archaic

misty, dim; obscure, dark.

Caxechic
Chaogenous
Claque – |klak|

noun

a group of people hired to applaud (or heckle) a performer or public speaker.

  • a group of sycophantic followers : the president was surrounded by a claque of scheming bureaucrats.
Conceptus – |kənˈseptəs|

noun ( pl. -tuses ) technical

the embryo in the uterus, esp. during the early stages of pregnancy.

Corvine – |ˈkôrˌvīn|

adjective

of or like a raven or crow, esp. in color.

Defluxions
Dumfusion
Egesta
Embranglement
Erumpant
Flocillating
Formication – |ˌfôrmiˈkā sh ən|

noun

a sensation like insects crawling over the skin.

Fremitus
Fritinancy
Frot
Gloriole
Glossa
Horripilation – |hôˌripəˈlā sh ən; hə-|

noun poetic/literary

the erection of hairs on the skin due to cold, fear, or excitement.

Hyalescent
Hypertrophia – |hīˈpərtrəfē|

noun Physiology

the enlargement of an organ or tissue from the increase in size of its cells.

  • excessive growth.
Impennous
Murgeoning
Murine – |ˈmyoŏrˌīn|

adjective Zoology

of, relating to, or affecting mice or related rodents.

  • Murine rodents belong to the family Muridae, in particular the subfamily Murinae of the Old World.
Mussitation
Nutant
Paludal – |pəˈloōdl; ˈpalyədl|

adjective Ecology

(of a plant, animal, or soil) living or occurring in a marshy habitat.

Pavid
Perfervid – |pərˈfərvid|

adjective poetic/literary

intense and impassioned : perfervid nationalism.

Rebarbative – |rəˈbärbətiv|

adjective formal

unattractive and objectionable : rebarbative modern buildings.

Remugient
Riggish
Scumbured
Stridor – |ˈstrīdər|

noun

a harsh or grating sound : the engines’ stridor increased.

  • Medicine a harsh vibrating noise when breathing, caused by obstruction of the windpipe or larynx.
Theophany – |θēˈäfənē|

noun ( pl. -nies)

a visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god.

Trogle
Virescent – |vəˈresənt; vī-|

adjective poetic/literary

greenish.

Granted, I suspect a percentage of these are portmanteaus, deliberately malformed constructs produced by the mute and self-educated narrator. I still find myself in a uniquely piqued position, however, so that I will endeavour to identify all of them over coming weeks and update the list here.

It is entirely possible that I will then start using them in conversation, intentionally or otherwise. For this I apologise in advance.