The story you walk into, he has learned, is always more complex than it first appears (352).
Having finished J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., I’m not sure there’s a clearer way of summarizing the experience than with a line from the book itself. In my previous post I alluded to the complexity of this endeavor: the complementary narratives; the way the comments in the margins exist simultaneously in the past, present, and future; the supplementary material (some of which can be seen in the above image) that deepens the lives of Jen and Eric, the student readers. But I unfairly dismissed the main narrative – The Ship of Theseus, by fictitious author V.M. Straka, the book through which Jen and Eric are communicating – as Pynchon Lite. In the first sixty pages, which is all I had read at the time of my last post, I didn’t realize that what Dorst (and make no mistake: S. might have been Abrams’ idea, but it’s Dorst’s book) has done is write a book that could very easily and satisfyingly stand on its own. And this means, of course, that the entire experience is richer and more impressive than I realized a week ago.
As I plowed through S., I couldn’t help but think of Richard Linklater’s masterful film Boyhood.
In that movie, which is every bit as audacious as S., writer/director Linklater charts the growth of a boy into a man, capturing him and his family in bits and pieces over the course of twelve years. We watch the boy – Mason – grow up, but we do so selectively. We see, at most, one or two representative days from each year (which Linklater actually shot with the same cast), and we’re made to fill in the blanks that we don’t see. Some of this is accomplished through the characters’ dialogue when they allude to other events (a divorce, a date with a girl), but there are, unavoidably, many things we don’t see. Even so, we get a strong sense of who Mason is through these narrative fragments: what he values, how he relates to and interacts with his family, what he wants to do with his life. We know some of this through simple intuition and inference, but most of it comes from those well-chosen glimpses of Mason’s life we see in annual intervals. Linklater gives us just enough to know the story.
There’s something similar going on in S. in the way Jen and Eric’s relationship develops, but it works to different and – for my taste – even greater effect. The book begins, as I mentioned last time, with Eric, a disgraced grad student, and Jen, a senior about to graduate, attempting to unravel the mystery of Straka’s true identity, which they do partially by attempting to decipher a code they believe is buried in the text of The Ship of Theseus. This is all conducted through comments in the book’s margins, and for much of the beginning of S. their remarks to one another are purely – or mostly, at least – academic, innocuous, random observations on Straka’s style and life. As the book progresses, however, it becomes clear that the plot of Theseus is an extended metaphor for Straka’s real-life acts of sedition, and Jen and Eric quickly find that their search for his identity – whether he’s a specific individual or a composite of the members of a secret literary society – is embroiling them in a conspiracy larger and more dangerous than they bargained for.
But of course there’s no point where Eric says to Jen, “Holy cow, new friend whom I’ve never met, this is one dilly of a pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into!” Instead, it’s all done through their obliquely paranoid references. Jen mentions that someone seems to be following her. Eric warns her to be careful covering her tracks when she removes things from the library archives. As they get closer to the heart of the mystery, someone burns down the hotel Jen is staying in. Like Boyhood, we learn all of this in small shards of narrative, those brief comments left in the margin. And in that way it makes their story even more suspenseful. Eric warns Jen not to break into the office of his former faculty advisor, and then Jen doesn’t write any comments for several pages. How do we read that silence? It actually made me nervous, which is sort of ridiculous but also sort of awesome.
Dorst has written a standalone novel imbued with an increasingly claustrophobic sense of menace. But the truly remarkable thing, and the reason it all hangs together so well, is that he’s created two distinct (and distinctly believable) characters in Jen and Eric. I was able to easily buy into their early friendship, their halting flirtation, their immersion in the mystery of the book, because their individual voices are so strong. It’s a rare feat to create a world as vivid as this through a device as minimal as a series of largely disconnected statements made in response to a completely unrelated text.
I’ve purposefully left out most of the nuts and bolts of the plot – both in The Ship of Theseus and in what becomes of Jen and Eric’s amateur sleuthing. The reason, I hope, is evident. One of the very real pleasures of the book is having no idea what’s coming next. It’s rare (for me, at least) to feel like I’m experiencing something brand new when I flip the pages of a book. S. gave me that in spades. It’s something special, in the very best sense of the word.
On to Book #2 in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.
Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)