Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stories Within Stories: S. by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams

by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams
Review by James Bennett

I am a book guy, for lack of a better term. When I bought my new house, the first major project I started on was remodeling the basement, with built in bookshelves on which to stack my collected tomes. I have nothing against e-readers, in fact I own both a Nook and a Kindle (I prefer the Kindle Fire, quite a useful device) but still when I decided to take the leap and read Ulysses I went with an old hardback version (a U.S. first edition I proudly managed to pick up at a used book store for the paltry price of $7) even at the risk of damaging it, rather than simply reading it off the screen.

So I suppose it should not come as a surprise that I would be fascinated by a book that I had come across at the local Barnes and Noble, not for its content, in fact I was completely unfamiliar with the author (although not the creator, more on that later) or the subject of the book, but by its physical appearance.

There it was, lying on the table in a cardboard sleeve and shrinkwrapped, the story S., created by noted film and television director J. J. Abrams, and written by relative unknown college professor Doug Dorst. I could make out the format of the book based on the description and what I could see of this spine, but it was not until I got it home and ripped off the plastic with my greedy little hands, that I truly saw what I was in for.

S. is the story (as opposed to the actual novel) of a mysterious character and amnesiac who knows himself only by that initial, and the mysterious stylized letter that keeps on popping up everywhere. What S. consists of though, is much more complicated, but that is not the book itself. The book itself is in the form of an old library book, published in 1949, titled Ship of Theseus, written by the entirely fictional enigmatic author V. M. Straka, a world renowned literary legend and contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

OK, following along? Now the story, as opposed to the novel, is that of Straka, which is taken to the second level by the translator F. X. Caldeira, who uses the foreword and the footnotes to communicate to both the original author, and the reader, both overtly and through codes and clues scattered throughout the text. But wait, we aren’t done yet! The story, once again as opposed to the novel, begins not with the text of the novel, or the comments of the translator, but with a handwritten note scribbled in the margins in blue pen:
      Hey–I found your stuff while I was shelving. (Looks like you left in a hurry!) I read a few chapters & loved it. Felt bad about keeping the book from you, though since you obviously need it for your work.
      Have to get my own copy!
Jen, who we soon find out is an English student at the fictional Pollard State University, then begins communicating with the original owner of the book, a grad student named Eric. The book itself, an aged yellowed and stained library book, complete with stamps bearing the checkout dates of previous patrons, was swiped by Eric from his high school library. It becomes the medium for the story, not the story itself.

Eric and Jen communicate their personal stories and develop a relationship as they analyze the book Ship of Theseus to discover more about what the identity of the great literary legend V. M. Straka. As a result, this work ends up existing on several different levels, not just as a book, but a tribute to books itself. The book not only contains the story, it is part of the story itself. It is the book as theater, and its pages are the stage upon which the play is presented.

Based on what I have said, it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed it immensely, although by its very nature it is an extremely complicated read without a clear ending. At some point I am going to have to go back through it and reread it to see what I missed. I think much of this is intentional, as the story exists in much more than just the text of the novel, but in the actions of Jen and Eric and the backstory of the author itself. Another clue to this is that the publisher has also provided other resources to follow the story, chief among them two websites and which provide even more information about Straka. Fan-generated sites have already been created to discuss the secrets of the book and share insights and discoveries.

The theme of the novel, which is even hinted to in its title Ship of Theseus, is that of the nature of identity, which is of course also the subject of the wider narrative as to the identity of Straka. An even more intriguing point it raised though, is what is the nature of literature? What defines a great work of literature and what quality makes up a classic?

As I mentioned earlier, the original concept for this story was created by J. J. Abrams who apparently being too busy making Star Trek and Star Wars movies had his production company Bad Robot search for an author to bring his concept to life. They found Doug Dorst, a writing teacher at Texas State University–San Marcos, known mostly for a comedic ghost story called Alive in Necropolis. Now Dorst seems like a reasonably talented writer, although I have not read his previous work, but Abrams obviously had a rather difficult challenge in front of him in casting his author.

A quick aside: I am a big fan of the HBO show Entourage, a series about a movie star named Vincent Chase and his childhood friends who make up the show’s title. A few years ago I watched one of those “making of” specials where they discussed the difficulties they had casting the young stars in the show (the only really established actor being the super agent Ari Gold, played by Jeremy Piven). The main problem being, who do you cast to realistically play a movie star, who isn’t already a movie star? The show’s producers ended up going with the completely unknown Adrian Grenier, an actor with movie star looks, if limited acting ability, which is indicated by the fact that despite the popularity of this award winning show, he has appeared in little else.

So Abrams was left with a similar dilemma: how do you have someone pull off writing a classic novel written by a literary genius, without having a classic literary genius to write it in the first place? This also brings us to the more basic question: what defines a classic work of literature in the first place?

This is a subject I can hardly answer in one short essay, and this review is getting too long to begin with, but I would argue that it would consist of three things:

1.  The use of prose in a sophisticated and stylistic manner.
2.  Thematic depth which goes beyond just the storyline.
3.  A book which is appreciated over time and not just by one generation.

The collaborators of this works certainly can’t directly address the third point, since they won’t know the lasting effect of this book for quite some time. As enjoyable as I thought it was, it may just be a flash in the pan, all but forgotten in a few years and relegated to the clearance bins of history. The first two points are where they seemed to have focused their effort.

First of all, the style: Dorst uses flowery, period-specific vocabulary and almost Kafkaesque imagery. For example from the text on page 274:
He is swimming in a mountain lake, and she is waiting for him on the far bank. They are at high elevation: the flora consists solely of twisted krumm-holz formations, and the moon, fat and gold, takes up an eighth of the night sky. He strokes and kicks through ink-dark water but gets no closer to her. She waves, calls out something that might be his name, and he strokes faster, kicks harder, but gets no closer--he might even be drifting backward--and this is when he feels tiny punctures breaking the skin of his belly, thighs, feet and legs as leeches begin feeding on him, and the dread that grips him has nothing to do with losing blood or realizing he has become some other creature’s prey but rather has to do with fear of what he will look like to her when he gets out of the water, and he wonders whether perhaps it isn’t better to drown.
The second point, the use of multiple layers of meaning, I have already addressed, which of course exist in this story even one layer deeper through the further story of the author and Jen and Eric. So does the author create the illusion of a classic work of literature through this? This is entirely subjective of course, but I would argue yes. Like any book, it has its weak points--some strained metaphors and awkwardly-worded passages--but it at least gives the impression of a novel which could have been considered a classic at some point in time.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that what we perceive as “literary classics” are the most successful novels, but that they fit into a certain perceived class, as opposed to the controversial taxonomy of what is often referred to as “genre fiction.” One can certainly have an incredibly popular and well-received novel and not have it considered literary. Consider the works of John LeCarre and Tom Clancy. They both wrote spy thrillers, but the former is considered literary, while even rabid Clancy fans would not consider him a writer of literary fiction, even though as far as thriller writers go he was arguably much more successful.

This is of course an argument with no true boundaries or solutions, but that is what I found most intriguing about this work. S. is a tribute to the book, in its physical form, worn and tattered pages yellowed and smelling faintly of mold and mildew, and it is also a tribute to the written word in general, great writers in all of their eccentricities, and the never-ending question of what great art truly is. As such, it succeeds in existing beyond mere printed words on a page.

James Bennett is a retired National Guard Chief Warrant Officer, who currently masquerades as a software engineer in Seattle, while reading and writing on the side. He's the author of two (unpublished) novels: The Team and The Interrogator. A version of this review originally appeared at The Chief Brief blog.

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