‘S.’ is a brilliant mystery and a work of art

 <span class="cutline_leadin">S.:</span> Books. 472 pages. $35. J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Mulholland Books. 472 pages. $35.
S.: Books. 472 pages. $35. J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Mulholland Books. 472 pages. $35.

Even the most jaded critic would have to admit that S. accomplishes some inventive things that few novels have even attempted. This collaboration between fiction writer Doug Dorst and filmmaker J. J. Abrams — as well as a number of gifted designers and editors — has resulted in an audacious literary achievement that calls to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Chris Ware’s Building Stories and even Charles Portis’ Masters of Atlantis. S., however, takes the interactivity and paranoia of those books to a whole new level.

Realistically, a sensible summary of this novel is next to impossible. Please bear with me. In the fictional world of S., a reclusive novelist named V. M. Straka has engendered a vast field of scholarly study, a cult-like international following, and a murderous secret society or two. These groups, of course, overlap. Much of the joy of reading S. derives from following a trail of clues and solving (or attempting to solve) a series of mysteries along with the characters.

V. M. Straka’s seafaring novel Ship of Theseus — which is reproduced here in its entirely — contains any number of coded messages. His translator F. X. Caldeira has, in his footnotes, provided clues that clever readers can piece together in order to get at Straka’s hidden meanings. Something like a secret decoder ring — technically, it’s an Eotvos Wheel—is included to help us along.

In the margins of Ship of Theseus there’s a handwritten conversation between two readers, Jen and Eric, who are passing the book back and forth while they collaborate on solving Straka’s (or is that Caldeira’s or Abrams’s and Dorst’s?) puzzles. Their budding relationship provides the emotional core of this beautifully dizzying project. Jen is a college student hoping to graduate, but to do so she’ll need to pass a class taught by a lackey of Eric’s nemesis, the Straka scholar who got him kicked out of school. The mystery and their flirtation continue on a number of seemingly extraneous objects that have been tipped into this lavish book, including a map, a note written on a napkin, postcards, and a clipped out newspaper obituary. It’s all very elaborate.

Novels don’t typically reach off the page quite so literally. Given its immense complexity, S. probably only exists due to the star power of Abrams, who has successfully revived the Star Trek movie franchise and is now at work on a new series of Star Wars films. Brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, the book harkens back to a golden age of storytelling. In doing so it also solidifies Abrams’ standing among the great creative visionaries of our time. Both as literature and as a physical object, S. is a profound and tremendous work of art.

Andrew Ervin’s novel ‘Burning Down George Orwell’s House’ is forthcoming from Soho Press.

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