S.: A Most Unique Novel

When I picked this book up from the library, I thought it was a mistake. It is a worn, old looking (circa 1950’s) library book titled Ship of Theseus, authored by “V.M. Straka”. I was confounded. It wasn’t until I opened the book and peered at the yellowed, occasionally coffee stained pages, and saw the different colors of ink and pencil adorning the margins of the book that I saw that yes, indeed it was S. which I had put on hold a few weeks prior. The graphic design of this book is just that good. The attention to detail is mesmerizing. I love the dates stamped on the back page and the “BOOK FOR LOAN” words stamped in red ink on the very front page. Even my husband asked me at one point what I was reading. “It makes you look cultured,” he said. “I thought you were reading a classic.” Beyond the beautiful presentation S. is quite the tome. Written by J.J. Adams (yes, that one) and Doug Dorst (literature teacher at a University and writer by profession), S. contains three stories. The main one Ship of Thesus (fictionally by V.M. Straka) is really good and I found honestly to be the most compelling. This story centers around an amnesiac who finds himself imprisoned on a ship – yet ends up going back to the ship again and again – docking here and there to “take out” people then ending up back on the ship again. Each time the ship is constructed differently – yet the crew remains the same (although dwindles as the years go on). Yes, this story is basically the Theseus Paradox – if a ship is deconstructed then reintegrated using the same parts is it the same ship? The second story is of Jen and Eric. Eric is a recently expunged grad student studying V.M. Straka and trying to figure out his identity – which still remains a mystery in the world of literature. Jen is an undergrad who is working in the stacks and comes across this well loved, and annotated book when she starts writing in her own comments. Eric writes back and what ensues is the story of Jen and Eric – as they get more engulfed in the mystery of V.M. Straka and the difficulties Eric is having with a professor trying to steal his work. (And Jen’s challenges with school). Their research gets more dangerous, and leads them to places they are not prepared to go. The third story is the story of Straka and the translator who wrote his book – Filomena X. Caldeira. There are many clues and codes in her footnotes sprinkled throughout the book. To say this book is multilayered would be a vast understatement. I had to work pretty hard to unravel it and there are many things I feel I missed and would only gain upon a second or third reading. It truly is up to the reader how she wants to tackle it. I read the main story first then went on to only read the black and blue writing by Jen and Eric. Then went through again and read the rest of the colored inks. I recommend reading all of Jen and Eric’s writing at once after reading the main story. I am glad I read the main story first as it gives the backdrop to the common thread for all the characters, and sets up the mood and metaphors that are influencing the stories. I enjoyed the main story the most – breezing through it. I was fascinated by the character of S. I wanted to find out who he was and why he was doing what he was doing. I enjoyed coming up with my own theories and was in tears in the end when all was revealed. It was a little more difficult for me to get into Jen and Eric’s stories. Not for lack of interest but I think because it is tricky following several threads simultaneously. Their story is more mysterious and less straight forward , and its not always linear. The reader has to do a lot of connecting the dots and thinking for themselves. However, it is absolutely worth it. I stumbled across this book looking for one that is similar to House of Leaves and was not disappointed at all. I only wish I had more time to re read it and try to crack the codes myself. I heartily recommend.

UPDATE: One very important element of this book that I failed to mention is the inserts. Since I originally borrowed the book from the library I didn’t have the additional material to accompany the experience. Today I bought a practically new copy with all the inserts at a used book store. Wow. Let me tell you this impacts the stories and truly makes this an experience. Handling each postcard, handwritten notes scrawled on bits of paper, napkins, even a completely realistic looking university daily newspaper brings a whole new level of realism to these stories. Again, the eye for design and replication is impeccable. The letters truly looked handwritten by ballpoint blue pen, even complete with a little smear here and there. There are even a couple of photographs, one yellowed and the edges scalloped. Holding – tangibly feeling each clue as if they were real – touching the different textures of papers – this book is truly something to behold and the characters feel alive. And I feel like I did find a book in the stacks in a barely used corner of the university and am embarking on a once in a lifetime mystery… Whoops there goes two hours. I have to say this book might reach a “top ten” spot in my list of favorite novels.

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