Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

On reading “S.” — Be careful what you wish for!



Maybe you recall that in my essay, “Gatecrash,” earlier this year, I hoped aloud that writers might come up with new ways to approach the novel, using other media, tricks with page layouts and white space, and add-ons such as margin notes. Well, someone told me in that context about S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. It has everything I could have wished for on these fronts — and more.

The problem is, it’s taking me forever to read the damn thing!

Here’s the set-up. There’s this library book called Ship of Theseus. It even has a library tag on it, and the cover is retro-looking and very cool. It’s a novel by V. M. Straka, a prolific but mysterious 20th century author. But the moment you open the book you see that someone — two people, actually — have written in the margins, at different times and in different inks. They’ve also stuffed the book full of … stuff: letters, postcards, newspaper clippings, napkins with notes on them. Soon it becomes clear that the two are having a lengthy conversation in the margins of the book, and they’re hiding it in a secret spot in the library for each other to find.

Then it becomes clear that they’re working on a mystery — discovering the true identity of Straka, who, as it turns out, may or may not have existed as a real person.

It’s complicated.

Then there’s the novel itself, which reads as a kind of Homeric journey of a man who doesn’t know who he is or where he came from. Amnesia, don’t you know. Oh, the merry mix-ups!

This project is truly a remarkable experiment in what’s possible in a book. It has so many layers of action — and meaning — that you’re well-advised to take notes as you read. A whole cast of unseen characters comes and goes in the margins, and it’s not long before you realize you have to remember their names. A secret code emerges in the book’s footnotes. There’s a special code wheel for figuring something out, but I still don’t know what.

I’m halfway through the book.

At this point, having bought S. way back in January, I can see it’s going to take me all year to get through this puppy. And therein lies its biggest flaw.

This is a book you have to commit yourself to. You have to read it three or four times to absorb all its complexities. Up front you need to decide if you’re going to: 1) read Ship of Theseus first and then all the margin notes, 2) read them concurrently, or 3) read a chapter of the novel and then its notes before moving on to the next chapter. You get the feeling you’d better leave all the clippings and napkins and postcards where you find them because they could be clues to … something.

Abrams (director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as, tellingly, the TV series, Lost) and Dorst (author of other novels) have done something incredible with S., but I’m getting the feeling that the target readership is introverted young men of the kind who used to play Dungeons & Dragons, obsessive chess players, bed-ridden xenophobes, and light-deprived hermits. Very very very patient readers who enjoy solving ciphers.

In the distant future, when I’ve finished reading S., I’ll tell you what I ultimately came away with.

If I finish reading S., that is …

13 comments on “On reading “S.” — Be careful what you wish for!

  1. kingmidget
    May 11, 2016

    Your description of the target (intended or unintended) audience for this book means there isn’t a huge audience for the thing, which is the problem with hyper-creative ideas. How to break out into the larger world.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 11, 2016

      True, though S. does have a lot of reviews on Amazon. More and more, I think publishers are looking for niches, though the hyper-creative niche seems like it’s pretty small.

  2. pinklightsabre
    May 11, 2016

    Interesting, good on you for getting into that. It sounds really hard, I get your struggle with it. Did you ever read House of Leaves? I liked elements of that book but ultimately, wouldn’t recommend it. It had some unusual, sort of meta (but not really ‘meta,’ I don’t know the word for it) qualities to it, that took you out of the book. Kind of trippy, maybe that’s the lit word for it. I’ll use that in my first lit class I teach.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 11, 2016

      Haven’t read HoL, but after reading its Wiki I think I’ll pass! I admire the impulse to construct a book in a different way, but the practical side of this is that the reader has to get through it. If reading becomes more like solving algebra problems, readers will gravitate to easier stuff. In fact, it seems like they already have …

      • pinklightsabre
        May 11, 2016

        Well said. That was a good book for me about 15 years ago but of course (thankfully) I’ve changed a lot since then. It’s not much if no one reads it, if it’s too much work. There’s a very subtle give and take there, in balancing the work between the writer and reader — you know better than I. Work that doesn’t feel like work, maybe.

  3. John W. Howell
    May 11, 2016

    I’ll wait with bated breath on your report.

  4. Audrey Driscoll
    May 11, 2016

    This is one book you’d best buy new. Used or library copies my have bits missing, which might ruin your reading experience. So it’s an investment of time and money with more risks than usual. (I didn’t actually read the book, although I had to figure out how the library I worked in at the time would deal with all the “extras”). I have to admit, it is a creative variation on the book and the reader’s experience.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 12, 2016

      You were the one who turned me on to this book, Audrey! Thanks a lot …

      I have to admit, though, I love the concept. It’s refreshing to see something so unique.

  5. 1WriteWay
    May 11, 2016

    What a relief: I won’t have to put S. on my to-be-read tower! I’ve nothing against creative, challenging novels, but I work hard enough as it is. I want my reading to be for pleasure. If it ain’t fun, I don’t wanna do it 😉

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 12, 2016

      I don’t mind a little challenge, but when there’s a code wheel in a book you know you’re in for some frustration!

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This entry was posted on May 11, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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