'S' by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst: a meta-fictional masterpiece

The story in the margins heightens the mystery plot in a wonderful work of sensory and literary bombardments


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Any lover of literature knows the experience of leafing through an old book that conveys, simply by its weathered cover, yellowed pages and musty odor, a history all of its own; a book that chronicles within its pages not only the adventure held in the text, but also the experiences of anyone who has ever immersed themselves in its well-worn pages; a book with notes scrawled haphazardly in the margins that are as enthralling as the book itself. This is the experience that awaits any reader of “S.” by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.


"S."
By J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.
Mulholland Books ($35).

“S.” is, quite simply, a meta-fictional masterpiece. Conceived by director/producer J.J. Abrams (of “Lost” and “Alias” fame) and written by Doug Dorst, “S.” expertly combines their respective backgrounds into an unprecedented piece of fiction.

Aptly referred to by Mr. Abrams as a “love letter to the written word,” this is not a book that can be experienced outside its physical, written format, due mainly to the “handwritten” annotations with which the margins are covered, as well as the supplemental documents filling its pages. The result is a book that would be better described as an interactive experience — one that fully immerses the reader in its interweaving plot lines.

Once the reader removes the old-fashioned slipcover in which the novel is packaged (a black box inscribed with the titular scripted “S”), the reader will encounter a worn-looking book titled “Ship of Theseus,” written by the fictional author V.M. Straka — a man whose politically deviant actions are well known, but whose identity is shrouded in mystery.

This book chronicles the story of a man named S, picking up his tale as he tries to piece together vague scraps of an identity recently lost to amnesia. Throughout the novel S finds himself involved in everything from kidnapping to political scandal, all the while navigating the complex themes of life, identity and trust.

The book also contains a foreward and footnotes written by Straka’s fictional translator, F.X. Caldeira, whose identity is also in question. These footnotes encompass a second storyline that serves to deepen the mystery surrounding Straka’s identity and the dangerous activities in which he may have been involved.

A third layer of complexity is added to the plot in the form of handwritten annotations in the margins of the novel. These annotations take the form of a conversation between graduate student Eric and undergraduate Jen, who — through a shared interest in the novel — begin working together to decipher the text’s hidden meanings, and discover the identity of V.M. Straka.

In the process, their research puts them at odds with some rival literary scholars, turning their academic intrigue into real-life danger, all the while bringing them closer together. The annotations (as well as the postcards, photocopied documents and pictures tucked between the pages) serve to supplement the book itself, through discussions and critiques of the book’s content, as well as to tell Eric and Jen’s story as they work to uncover the mystery behind the novel’s authorship.

Through all of this, the reader is pulled along in a whirlwind of adventure and mystery that, despite its complexity, reads with surprising ease. It draws the reader in, creating its own historical context that gives the novel a sense of significance that does not typically accompany works of fiction.

Mr. Abrams’ intriguing concept, combined with Mr. Dorst’s mastery of language and aptitude for capturing the multitude of voices that make up this novel, produced a work that takes the reader on a journey that will not soon be forgotten.

“S.” celebrates the ingenuity of modern storytelling, while simultaneously displaying the continued appeal of the classic novel; proof that in a world dominated by technology, the written word is still relevant.

Katerina Sarandou is a writing major at Chatham University (ksarandou@chatham.edu).


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