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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 impressive work.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 6:22 AM EDT