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…’