S, by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst, Canongate, RRP£28/Mulholland Books, RRP$35, 472 pages

Question: why do books have those big white borders on the four sides of the page? Paper is expensive, after all. Answer: cultural inertia, a hangover from the preprint era.

The medieval manuscript was a team effort. There was the “author” – the ideas guy. There was the scribe, who put the author’s stuff on vellum (magnitudes more expensive than paper) and improved as he went. Prettifying the whole thing with his paintbrush was the illuminator. Last, coming in after the manuscript was finished, were the commentators, free to pitch in at the side of the page. We’ve never got around to abolishing the margins, the commentators’ free-fire zone. Libraries get very angry if we put them to their original use. Spoilsports.

The creator of S, JJ Abrams, is famous as the producer/director of Lost and the recent Star Trek movies. He commissioned a scribe, Doug Dorst, to write up his ideas. The illuminators were the genius design team at New York-based Melcher Media. And joining in are the commentators. Every inch of marginal white space is annotated in (simulated) black, red and yellow ballpoint by two fictional scrawlers.

Abrams and Dorst’s framework is a fictional 1949 translation of a fictional author’s last work, Ship of Theseus by VM Straka. This is the physical object that we remove from the slipcase and, thanks to the magic of modern printing technology, it comes complete with “slightly foxed” pages that create the illusion of a 64-year-old volume in faded print. Straka is a nom de plume – no one knows his real identity or even nationality. He’s the Keyser Söze of novelists. His “provocative fiction”, we are told, has “toppled governments” and he has been behind any number of anarchist bombings and high-profile assassinations.

Ship of Theseus is edited by an owlish scholar, FX Caldeira (echoes of the crazed annotator, Charles Kinbote, in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire). Straka may have been assassinated, he may have committed suicide, he may still be alive. He may never have existed. No one knows.

The story opens with a man coming to consciousness totally amnesiac – he does not know where he is, when it is or what he is. It seems to be middle Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th century (knowing readers will recall Samuel Beckett’s short story “The Expelled” at this point). He is shanghaied on to a ship. The crew speak a strange dialect. The title of the book invokes a famous nautical-philosophical paradox. If you have a ship (as did Theseus) and have, over the years, replaced every plank and piece of timber in it, is it still the “same ship”? Every cell in my body has regenerated over my lifetime. Am I the “same” person?

The hero realises, gradually, that his name is “S” (echoes of Kafka’s “K”). A Gothic graffiti “S” prefigures strange events – reminiscent of the Trystero post-horn emblem in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The hero recalls that he is in quest of the beautiful “Sola”, sometimes called “Szalome” – destroyer of men. On his various escapes to land he engages with an arch-criminal, bent on world destruction, with whom he never comes face to face. The whole book may, however, be nothing other than a coded love letter to “Filomena”.

Now for the commentators. Jen Heyward, an undergraduate working as a library assistant at Pronghorn College, finds a non-library book in the stacks – Ship of Theseus. The contents intrigue her and she leaves it, as found, with a note in the flyleaf. It initiates a relationship, via scribbled marginalia, with Eric, a former grad student researching in the college’s Straka archive. He is banned from the campus, and skulks in its miles of underground tunnels. Between the leaves of the book are placed items Jen steals from the archive and other bric-a-brac (a map of the campus on a paper napkin, postcards, tickets). It should be said, at this point, that the lazier kind of reader might feel that too many of their strings are being pulled simultaneously. And the damn bits of paper keep slipping out of the book on to the floor.

Jen becomes obsessed with Straka too – and looks set to flunk her finals. Eric is at ceaseless war with his former supervisor, Moody, who has stolen his Straka discoveries for his forthcoming book. Eric and Jen join in a paranoia à deux, writing to each other in the margins of their book, left for the other to pick up where it was first found. They make trysts, but never meet.

The mysterious “S” insignia appears in unexpected places. Arson, flood and worse follow. Jen is stalked (or is she?) by “S-force” agents. Both the commentators, it emerges, have problems with their families, lovers and the world generally.

Abrams records that he came across the idea of the book when he picked up a Robert Ludlum novel left by some unknown fellow traveller at Los Angeles airport. Hypemaster that he is, he has commissioned “freakish teasers” to run on YouTube. Now the publishers are pitching in with their own. Hype is in order: this book must have cost a fortune to manufacture. You could think of it as an act of defiant resistance to digitisation (try writing on the margins of a slightly foxed Kindle page) or perhaps, less optimistically, as a last hurrah.

Either way, what we have is a new kind of book which is, in essence, a very old kind of book. As they say in Abrams’ Hollywood, it’s so crazy it just might work.

John Sutherland is professor of English at University College London

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article