Thursday, May 22, 2014

Book Review: S. - Doug Dorst & J J Abrams

S – Doug Dorst & J J Abrams

It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I loved Lost. Sometimes it made no sense and often you wondered if there was a destination for the convoluted plot but I loved the characters and loved the surprising “cool” moments such as the sudden glimpse of Jacob, the random black smoke or the awesome statue that the survivors come across.

The premise to this book sounded great and original. What is not exiting about a mystery within a mystery? A story that has other people trying to solve the conspiracy held within the words sounded amazing.

The blurb:

One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace and desire
A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown.

THE BOOK: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V. M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched on a disorienting and perilous journey.

THE WRITER: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world's greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumours that swirl around him.

THE READERS: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they're willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts and fears.

S., conceived by filmmaker J.J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don't understand. It is also Abrams and Dorst's love letter to the written word.

Before I get into any kind of review, this was a difficult book to know how to read. There is the main story, the footnotes and then the notes scribbled in the margin. Generally I hate footnotes in stories unless they are comical. I can never resist reading them and they automatically disrupt the flow of the story.

With S. I tried several different ways of reading the book but by the end I did not find one that made me feel comfortable. For example, I tried just reading a chapter first and then going back and reading the notes in the margin. This is probably the best method but I still struggled with it. The chapters are long and so by the time you read what Jen and Eric (the two people discussing the book’s content) are referring to, you have forgotten it and have to reread the paragraph it relates it. I therefore tried to wait for a natural break within the chapter and then go back and read the notes. This helped with remembering the text but affected the flow of the story.

Everyone will have their own preference I just hope you have more success than me. So let’s start with the story. The plot focuses on the character of S. He awakes and has no idea who he is or what his past is like. He meets a girl briefly who seems to know him before he is shanghaied. He is then determined to locate said girl for answers.

The opening chapters are great. As the plot unfolds, it is clear that there is more to the world that S. Inhabits that meets the eye. Strange things happen that verge on the Supernatural and a larger conspiracy slowly unfolds. What is also intriguing is because S does not remember anything we also do not know what side he should be on.

As a starting point then the premise is fantastic. Unfortunately the story never reaches its potential. Each chapter brings a new event in S’s life. He is dropped into a situation and has a mission to accomplish. The mission’s objective is not always clear and half the time S does not seem too bothered to find out. Characters drop in and out of the book with no real consistency and so it is very difficult to grow attached to them. Even S remains so vague that he becomes frustrating. At some point he accepts his role but there is never a point that explains why he does or why he is no longer bothered about finding out whom he is or who the girl was at the start of the novel.

There are constants for example S always returns to the ship he was abducted on and there is also his nemesis Vevoda but again there are more mysteries than answers. Unlike “Lost” I found this frustrating as the characters were not good enough to sustain my interest. I understand why the characters are deliberately kept vague but sometimes I wish that the overall concept did not impact on what could have been a terrific book.

Moving on to Jen and Eric - the characters in the margins. Both Jen and Eric are consumed with finding out the identity of the author of the book. The name of the author is Straka and the book in question is the “Ship of Theseus” but that is all that is known. Straka has remained a mystery to scholars all around the world and has led to much speculation.

Eric is a disgraced teacher and Jen is a student about to graduate providing she obtains the grades she requires. Both of them have a clear affection for Straka and are very knowledgeable. The distinction between the two characters is clear. Eric writes in capitals whilst Jen writes in cursive handwriting. Although this is sometimes hard to interpret the attention to detail in the book is phenomenal. Besides their notes, the book also contains several attachments: photos, letters, maps and newspapers clippings. All are all found hidden within the pages. If I am honest, most of these add little to the plot, but it all adds to the mystery element of the novel.

A lot of the notes refer to other texts that the reader is not supposed to know about. Although this too can be frustrating it all adds to the world building. Where the book does excel is when Jen and Eric banter between themselves. It is fascinating to watch their relationship develop amongst their musings. Eric is the more cynical of the two whilst Jen swings from carefree to a little whiney.

As the two uncover more information more of their past is revealed. On top of this both are paranoid that there is a large conspiracy at foot and are in fear for their lives. Whilst the sense of danger they try to convey never really comes of, they are both well rounded and interesting characters and Dorst does a good job of making you despise the other characters they discuss even though we never meet them.

There is also F X Caldeira who claims to translate for Straka and it is her footnotes that occupy the book. I found these largely redundant and only served to muddy the plot although each is said to contain a clue.

After pages of speculation the book comes to a close. In terms of the story the conclusion is rather Luke warm.  The showdown with Vevoda is particularly disappointing made worse by the fact that you never really get a sense of who he is.

In regard to the mystery, well I was none the wiser by the end of the book. The conversation between Jen and Eric petered out and there was no real lack of urgency. A lot of the conversations were colour coded to denote different times they had written them but if I’m honest, I do not feel the urge to figure it all out. I cheated and went on the internet.

Overall, I would not say S is a joy to read but it is a brave and wholly original concept that almost succeeds. Whilst I might not have been totally immersed in the book, I was intrigued and enjoyed my time reading the novel which is a thing of beauty.

My rating: 7.1