Often, the books I read are enjoyable just for the duration of the reading process. I’m not often terribly sad when a book ends because I feel satisfied with the story and with the characters, and after reading and replacing it on the shelf, it becomes a fond sort of memory. Very rarely does a story burrow its way into my life like S. has. I read this book from start to finish a total of five times to glean all the minutiae of the story within the novel, the footnotes, the four rounds of margin notes, and the clues and notes tucked into the spine, and still, I felt this frantic, obsessive need to know more. I Googled, I flipped through the book, I joined fan sites, and had vivid dreams with theories churning through my brain that woke me up in the early morning hours. I can’t stop. Not since I was nine years old and reading Harry Potter has something consumed me like this. And now, writing this review, I feel this profound need to express all my thoughts about it perfectly, because I truly don’t know what it is about S. that has me so completely enthralled. I want to claim it as mine, because it’s become so special to me. Why?
Yes, the book is beautiful as an object, and it’s perfectly executed down to the last detail: I mean, the effect is so convincing that the design includes printing the bleeding of the pen’s ink through the page. But the story itself is so rich and seems real: there is a shadowy, secret society called simply “The S” that may span centuries. There are a half dozen writers who were supposedly in The S and whose deeds include everything from assassinating the Archduke in 1914 to kidnapping Countess Olga. The whole “true story” of The S is presented in allegorical form in V.M. Straka’s last novel, The Ship of Theseus. The novel’s main character is a thinly veiled stand-in for Straka himself, whose identity nobody knows. And then there are Jen and Eric, two students who write to each other, meet, and fall in love within the margins of the book, trying to figure out the mysteries The S left for posterity, and finding themselves victims of a centuries-long struggle for power.
If you don’t know much about mythology, “the ship of Theseus” is a philosophical paradox: if you replace all the components of an object, does the object remain the same? This theme runs throughout the entire story-within-a-story-within-a-story and also raises the question of identity: the main character in the novel is an amnesiac. Is his previous life important? If everything about him has changed, who is he really? Does it matter? This theme also applies to the two “real” characters, Jen and Eric, who struggle with their post-grad identities and their futures.
The novel itself also freaking weird and mystical, often to an unbelievable degree that nevertheless is believable. There is a real “ship” and it’s crewed by men who have had their mouths sewn shut. Time on the ship occurs ten times more quickly than time on land. Often, dialogue between characters happens inside the mind, with no concrete explanation. It’s up to the reader to figure out the allegorical/metaphorical meaning of many of the events in the novel, which means solving the mystery yourself, without the “help” of Jen and Eric. In that way, the reader becomes an integral part of the story, placing you within the narrative and thus creating another, entirely different layer of story that is unique to each reader. My theories and conclusions may not be shared by anyone else. But I think I’m right. 😉
But the story doesn’t even stop after you’ve analyzed every page. Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams also created several websites that tie-in with the book and which also serve as clues for those eager (like me!) to continue the story and learn everything the book leaves ambiguous (which is a lot). There are Twitter accounts for Jen and Eric, events alluded to after the timeline of the book ends, a radio station called “Radio Straka” with vague clues and shadowy dealings, and photographs released by the authors to the fans. Fansites treat S. with reverence and obsession, treating the whole story as if it’s real—because it feels so real. I think that’s why I’ve become so obsessed. I think that’s why stories have such power.
S. pushes the boundaries of what a novel is, raises huge expectations about the story’s value, invites critics who dismiss it as gimmicky, and yet, it has exceeded all of my wildest expectations and has, I think, set a new precedent for what a book is capable of achieving. This nested narrative leaps off the page, literally. The clues and paraphernalia tucked within the pages are necessary, and make the experience that much more immersive and vividly real. This book is why I love books, and why artists should be innovative and push boundaries and do anything to tell a good story. This book should be studied and parsed and emulated. It’s done something so profound and rare: it’s become truly real in my eyes.
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