Book-review: "S", Doug Dorst / J.J. Abrams


September 2014

ometimes you come across a story that is deceiving and confusing, but does it in a convincing and attractive way. „S.” is such a book. Written by J.J Abrams (Director, Producer, screenwriter of for example „Star Trek: into the darkness”, „Mission Impossible lll” and the television serie „Lost”) and Doug Dorst (Writer and three time ‚Jeopardy’ winner). The cooperation of these two men resulted in a book that tries to transcend the way we (traditionally) read books. Nothing seems what it likes, ranging from the layout, its appearance, to the story itself.

„S.” can be placed in the same tradition as books such as „House of Leaves” from Mark Z. Danielewski (2000), or „Tree of Codes” by Jonathan Safran Foer (2010). These experimental books challenge our perception on how we perceive and read a story, and questions who is the writer. Danielewski experimented with multiply story lines, through the footnotes of the book. In „S.” we can find even more story lines; in the footnotes made by the translator of the book and in the discussion of two people who literally wrote in the margin of the book.

To start of easy, the book of „S.” consists out of the book „Ships of Theseus” which is the last novel of the (fictive) writer V.M. Straka. In this story we follow the protagonist S… who suffers from amnesia, in his search for answers to his past and identity. A second story line can be found in the writings by the translator F.X. Caldeira. Through the footnotes and her translations she tries to communicate with Straka, who is presumed dead, but not by here. She does this through codes and alternations in the text.

Scribbled Notes:
The story does stop not here. A young student (Jenny) finds this books in the library and noticed that someone has scribbled notes into it. She reacts on them and a new storyline develops in the communication between Jenny and Eric (a literary researcher, who is searching for proof for the identity of Straka). What develops is one of the more interesting elements of the book; the non-chronological reading of these notes. Through differences in pen colors you understand that Jenny and Eric are actively studying this book, rereading it and adding layer after layer of their thoughts and findings. This creates the situation where different periods in the storyline are projected on top of each other and become available from the start. Reading and understanding the book therefor requires the reader to skip through the pages, reading it backwards, forwards and also rereading sections to re-construct the story.

A second interesting element of the book is its presentation. It does not only claim to be a library book, it does so in all its representation. The pages are brown and old, the borrowing slip is stamped, and the external communication through postcards, photo’s and napkins are really postcards, photo’s and napkins placed inside the book. Everything is done to actually make you believe you possess a library book and that this is a real document, from a real story.

As an architect, i am fascinated by one of the questions that this book addresses. In the book Jenny ask „At what point does the book stop being Straka’s alone [and] becomes theirs?”, and with this line she is questioning the aspect of authorship. No longer can we read the „ship of Theseus” as a story written by one man (Straka), but all the characters outside the actual story contribute; the footnotes from Caldeira and the scribbled notes from Jenny and Eric, to how we as a reader interpret the story. I feel that these are relevant questions since they are also true for architecture. Not merely is authorship edged in stone but it has become fluid and changeable.

What also strikes me is the effect these new ‚authors’ have on our understanding of the protagonist. Because of their relations with each other I read the story of „S.” as a love story. One where the protagonist S. is the embodiment of their love. He exist merely by the grace of the love between the authors, which has no past and no concern with the future, and only act in the present, just as S. has no past, future and only lives in the present. Even through the timeline of the story accumulating on each page, the book itself reads without past, future and only acts in the now, which all add up to the mystery of S.

„S.” certainly is a very entertaining and fascinating book. If you like experimental books such as „House of Leaves” or „Tree of Codes”, than this book is to be recommended. Its representation and style are very convincing and contribute to indulge the reader into a world of secrecy, and its theme is addressing important questions about authorship. I only have one point of critique; In my opinion, the story could benefit from less mystery and secrecy, but this probably is probably to be expected from one of the writers of the series „lost”.

Official trailer of the book "S"


Mike Schäfer