J.J. Abrams is a hero in my book, for (among other things) the
reincarnated Star Trek movies and Lost. So I was
intrigued by what I read about this book, S., which he
is credited with "conceiving". (The writing seems
to have been mostly due to Jeopardy! champ Doug Dorst.)
And it's very cool. The book comes in a plastic-wrapped slipcase,
which is the only indication of its actual provenance. The book
(in turn) seems to be a library book titled Ship of Theseus
by one V.M. Straka, written in the late 1940s.
This fiction is carried out amazingly well: the due-date stamps on the inside
rear cover and a Dewey-Decimal sticker on the spine.
Ship of Theseus itself is kind of a Kafkaesque paranoid
fantasy with (no doubt) piles of symbolism and metaphor, and all
that stuff that makes simple-minded readers like me tired. It's
about an amnesiac who, after briefly wandering the streets of
some depressing port city, becomes enamored of a briefly-glimpsed
woman. Unfortunately, he's also quickly shanghaied onto a mysterious
ship, where all but one crew member have their mouths sewn shut.
Our victim acquires the name "S.", and this initial keeps popping up
in odd places.
The "ship of Theseus", I dimly remembered, is an ancient paradox
first put forth by Plutarch: components of a ship's structure are gradually
replaced over years as they wear out or rot away. And eventually
every part of the original ship has been replaced. Is it the
same ship now, or not? If not, at what point did it stop being
the original? A ripe metaphor for questions of identity and evolution,
very suitable for undergraduate dorm rooms.
Anyway, that's just part of it. Because this library book was filched
from a high school by Eric, a devotee of V.M. Straka. Eric goes on
to become a graduate student in literature at Pollard State University.
There, his personality collides with faculty bigwigs, and he becomes
a persona non grata. For obscure reasons, he leaves his copy
of Ship of Theseus in the library, where it is discovered by
Jen, a soon-to-graduate undergrad. Jen and Eric soon start corresponding
with each other in the margins of the book.
As it turns out, the identity of "V.M. Straka" is a topic of lively
academic interest, as is Straka's relationship with the translator
of his works, the equally mysterious "F.X. Calderia"; the translator
adds an occasional
wacky footnote to the mix. (And perhaps more?)
Jen and Eric find themselves racing to
sort out the clues offered by the book, in competition with the
evil faculty member, Professor Moody and his henchwoman Ilsa.
What else? Oh, yes: there are items crammed into the book: a page of
the Pollard State student newspaper; a coffee shop napkin with a
scrawled map of the campus steam tunnel system; postcards from Brazil.
Even a (so called) "Eötvös Wheel" (pictured here)
which has something to do with decoding … something.
So it's all very mysterious. There may well be conundrums to unwind
in the book. I didn't unwind any of them. (And I'm not sure the
reward would be worth the effort. If you look around at the website
linked in the above paragraph, you'll see that a lot
of smarter people are working on it and I didn't notice
any stunning revelations.) Still, it's an intriguing and