S. is not what you think it is.
From the moment you slit open the slipcase—the same slipcase that bears the only explicit admission of J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s involvement—and slit it you will, in an act of introductory destruction that implicates us in the worst impulses of the characters we’ll meet in a moment—from the second, then, that we see what waits within, there is the suspicion that S. is not so much a novel as it is an object. A lavish literary artefact.
But also an artefact of art. Of passion. Of intellect. Of ambition. Of all these things and so much more, in the form of a metafiction so meticulous and considered and meaningful, finally, that House of Leaves may very well have been bettered—and I don’t make that statement lightly.
What awaits, in any case, is an unassuming clothbound book called Ship of Theseus. The author: a V. M. Straka, apparently. On the spine is stuck a library sticker, complete with an authentic Dewey Decimal reference. BOOK FOR LOAN is emblazoned on the endpapers, and on the backboard, below a record of the dates it’s been borrowed on—Ship of Theseus has been untouched, we see, for thirteen years—an apocalyptic warning from the library to KEEP THIS BOOK CLEAN; that “borrowers finding this book pencil-marked, written upon, mutilated or unwarrantably defaced, are expected to report it to the librarian.”
The title page makes a mockery of all this. Lightly pencilled in is an instruction to return the book to such-and-such a workroom in the library of Pollard State University. Then, in pen, a note from Jen, who responds as follows:
“Hey—I found your stuff while I was shelving. (Looks like you left in a hurry!) I read a few chapters + loved it. Felt bad about keeping the book from you, since you obviously need it for your work. Have to get my own copy!”
Suffice it to say she doesn’t. Instead, Jen and the other scribbler, who eventually introduces himself as Eric—though that’s not his real name either—compare their notes about the novel, making an immediate mess of the margins. See, irrespective of the resulting small caps scrawl, Ship of Theseus is something of a puzzle. It purports to be the nineteenth (note this number) and final novel by “the prolific author of provocative fictions, novels that toppled governments, shamed ruthless industrialists, and foresaw the horrifying sweep of totalitarianism that has been a particular plague in these last few decades.”
[The world] knows him as the most nimble of writers, one whose mastery of diverse literary idioms and approaches was on display from book to book, even chapter to chapter. But the world never knew Straka’s face, never knew with certainty a single fact of the man’s life.
Predictably, though disappointingly, the mystery of Straka’s identity has become more intensely studied than his body of work. Interest in his life story is understandable, certainly, as he is widely acknowledged as one of the most idiosyncratic and influential novelist of the first half of this century. His appreciative readers wanted to know the man who created the stories they loved, and his enemies wanted to know who he was so he could be silenced.
It is this mystery, the question of Straka’s identity, that Jen and Eric are interested in; this, and only this, to begin with. And they believe the key to unpicking it is secreted somewhere in the pages of Ship of Theseus: a surreal, noirish, nightmarish narrative about an amnesiac anti-hero assassin professedly published in 1949 at “considerable personal expense (financial and otherwise)” by Straka’s long-time translator F. X. Caldeira.
But by putting their heads together, despite their initial differences—they manage to fall out annotating the first page, and are at cross purposes often afterwards—Jen and Eric discover that there’s far more to the pivotal mystery than this. Caldeira is crucial too: his or her relationship with the enigmatic author—or authors, for some suggest Straka is a collective—clearly goes deeper; certainly, it is as personal as it is professional.
In fact, in the frequent footnotes, our investigating academics—a sad undergrad and disgraced Straka scholar—find a number of fudged facts. And sometimes, amongst the superficial fudging: a sequence of unusual numbers, or a couple of characters in suspicious superscript, or a series of microscopic dots. These are codes, of course, and thanks to Jen and Eric’s tireless efforts—the increasingly complex arguments they have in the margins go on for many months, and though they are not all chronological, we can guess at which expands on which because of differently-coloured conversations—they do decipher several of said ciphers.
There are, it seems, messages embedded in the book, from the translator to the author—and back again, perhaps. But why? What agenda could this, the first of S.’s many metatexts, be in service of? After all, Straka is almost certainly dead. In the foreword Caldeira explains how he or she—another of the book’s innumerable ambiguities—saw “two men in police uniformed loading a blanket-rolled body into the back of a truck and carting it away. And after that? Nothing except for the truck’s exhaust and a few sheets of onionskin paper fluttering about.” These pages form part of the last chapter, which Caldeira has seemingly completed. What, then, does that mean for the fiction? Is Ship of Theseus a Straka novel at all?
Don’t read S. expecting easy answers. What we have here, as one of our Straka students suggests, is “a war of narratives—the ones written by the powerful + the ones written by those who posed the biggest threat to that power.” You’ll need—no kidding—to take the experience completely seriously. At points, you’ll pore over individual pages for ten minutes or more. You’ll check and recheck references, flip backward and forwards in search of some sign, or a conversation continued. In short, S. asks an awful lot, and if you’re not prepared to give every inch, to examine each and every one of the napkins and postcards and newspaper cuttings appended to various artificially aged pages, it’s probably for the best if you don’t bother.
But though this is often a difficult novel—or object, or artefact—to follow, it is an equally easy one to become comprehensively lost in, as I was during the week I dedicated to reading and rereading it. In the final summation, I found S. impossible to forget… though there are bits, I admit, that I don’t get yet. Eric again: “Maybe you don’t solve the BIG MYSTERY, but you find smaller truths. That’s not a bad thing, is it? Fewer sacrifices. More time to just be with the books, yourself, someone else…”
Absent all the elaborate annotations, Ship of Theseus might make for a weird reading experience; not completely meaningless, but more worthwhile, I would warrant, in the early going than later on, when Straka’s references to events outwith the core story are most evident. Complete with the Caldeira-centric metatext, however, S. comes alive, resonating incredibly, and regularly; the merely good becomes great, and with Jen and Eric’s tale layered betwixt this, what was great results in real revelation.
I’ll not talk about the plot—for me at least, the puzzle of it represented a large part of the pleasure I took from the book—but S. reveals itself to be so much more than a gimmicky bit from the man got us Lost and the PEN Award-nominated author of Alive in Necropolis—a neat 2008 zombie novel, as I recall, that hardly hinted at this sort of masterful metafiction.
At the last, S. is a love story, not dissimilar to Ship of Theseus, which can be read as a letter of lamentable intent, and/or an expression of lifelong romantic regret:
We create stories to help us shape a chaotic world, to navigate inequities of power, to accept our lack of control over nature, over others, over ourselves. But what do you do when you have no stories of your own? The story S. most wants to tell—to these people, yes, but even more to himself—is of Sola, and it is one about which he knows nearly nothing. Just two scenes: one in the Old Quarter bar, the other in the city of B——, and no way to tell if these come at their story’s beginning, middle, or end.
As Straka’s translator foregrounds in a footnote, this is “absolutely central to Straka’s theory and practice of writing.” Obviously J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s also, for it is in the interplay of its many metatexts—the immensely clever and heartfelt way these reshape the chaos that the book seems to be off the bat—that S. comes together. To become… what?
The kind of book that reminds one what books, at best, can be.
You really must read it. And please: believe.
S. is available now from Mulholland Books
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.