S comes in a sparsely adorned slipcover, the kind you sometimes see when purchasing limited editions. Within the slipcover is a novel that that looks like it was pulled straight from a dusty old library, bound in brown leather and titled Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka, and stuffed with insets ranging from ticket stubs to letters. Open the pages and beside the typed prose you’ll find the margins covered in hand-written notes.
Not what you’d call your common novel.
S was conceived by film and television producer J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. As any viewer of Lost knows, Abrams likes puzzles, and that is exactly what S presents. V. M Straka is a fictional author but Ship of Theseus is a novel that stands on it’s own. In the world of S, the novel is found in a library by two university students, Jen and Eric, who pass the book back and forth, having a conversation via notes in the margins. Eric is a graduate student working with a renowned Straka expert whose certain the secret to Straka’s true identity is hidden within the pages of Ship of Theseus, and Jen ends up being his accomplice.
There are two stories here. The first is Ship of Theseus, which is a novel that stands on its own. Dorst mimics old-fashioned prose brilliantly, while still weaving together an engaging story. Ship of Theseus follows a man (referred to simply as ‘S’), who wakes without his memory. A chance encounter with a strange woman drives him and he sets out after her. His journey takes him aboard an eerie, otherworldly ship, has him joining a radial group, and eventually turns him into an assassin. S’s tale is surreal and sometimes ambiguous, but always compelling.
The central theme is that of identity, hinted at by the title which refers to a well known thought-experiment generally credited to Plutarch, where he asks whether a ship that is restored by replacing all of its parts remains the same ship. It’s a question that haunts S as he finds his identity stripped away at the start and then rebuilt, piece by piece.
The novel is itself the set piece for the second story, Jen and Eric’s hunt for Straka’s true identity. Ship of Theseus is rife with Straka’s supposed eccentricities, most interesting of which are codes hidden within the prose. An ambitious reader might even try to ignore the margin notes and decipher them themselves, though Jen and Eric do the work for us.
Adding to the intrigue are footnotes written by V. M. Straka’s supposed translator, F. X. Caldeira. F. X. becomes the key to the second storyline as Eric believes she holds the key to Straka’s true identity, and that she hid a way to find her through her footnotes.
Jen and Eric are more than literary detectives. Their lives intrude onto the edges of Ship of Theseus. Both are lonely for different reasons, and eventually they meet in person. It’s astonishing how real their relationship, gleaned only from scribbled notes, becomes.
S occupies many genres. Ship of Theseus has the trappings of literary fiction, touches of fantasy, and a lot of mystery. Jen and Eric’s story is as much romance as mystery. To me, the way S defies genre only makes it all the more interesting. It’s a puzzle begging to be unwrapped, analyzed, studied.
Most importantly, it works as a story. I cared about S. I cared about Jen and Eric. I finished the novel months ago and I can still feel them rattling around my head. This is a novel I’ll recommend to anyone, though I warn you I found it takes more focus than most. Still, it’s the most memorable novel I’ve read in the past few years and I believe that effort will be worthwhile.