BBR: S, by Abrams and Dorst

I’m going to sound a bit like an adolescent fangirl for a second, and I trust that you’ll have patience with me. Take a deep bracing breath…



I spent the last two days utterly, utterly engrossed in S., the new novel from J.J. Abrams (yes, that J.J. Abrams) and Doug Dorst. I’m reluctant to say “I spent the last two days reading it”, because it’s not so much something you read as it is a verb unto itself. It’s a thing that you do. It’s an experience that you have. It’s…

Well, structurally it’s…

  • Think Griffin and Sabine
  • Think Count Almasy’s copy of Herodotus’ histories in The English Patient
  • Think “a play within a play”
  • Think MST3K, but with none of the frivolity and a giant double scoop of academia, history, legend, mythology, death threats, paranoia, and a bit of love story thrown in for good measure

And in terms of content, it’s…

  • Think Dan Brown but written by someone cleverer than Dan Brown
  • Think the Shakespearean authorship debate
  • Think Greek myth
  • Think Churchill’s quote about Russia
  • Think Tamam Shud

Have I got your attention yet? Perhaps these will help:

S  Sample Page 1 S Sample Page 2

Those are a couple of sample pages from the interior of the book. The book comes that way, y’all–it’s a novel, called Ship of Theseus, fully fleshed-out and totally standalone, around which two characters have written margin notes. The “real” story is the bit in the margins, the story of how one student finds another’s notes in this book and begins writing back to him; and their personal story plays out alongside their academic story, and it’s all interspersed with their quest to solve the mystery of who actually wrote Ship of Theseus.

Oh, and those postcards in the photos? Yeah, they come with the book. They’re already in the relevant pages. You’re just, like, reading along and suddenly there’s a postcard. Or a letter. Or a map. Or a newspaper clipping–including one in Czech, and another in Portuguese.

Czech, you guys. Portuguese. Can you even imagine the whiteboard involved in plotting this thing out? Because first Abrams and Dorst had to write a novel–an entire novel, that can stand unto itself–and then they had to put that on pages, and then devise the impressively complicated backstory of its authorship, and then devise the complicated backstory of the students who find the book (complete with parental stress and academic archnemeses), and then write in the marginalia and all the inserts, which in some cases relied on finding someone who wanted to translate a fictional obituary into Portuguese for them. Y’know, like you do.

And I should note that the marginalia is not in a particularly clear-cut chronological order; rather, if you keep an eye on the color of the ink being used in the notes, you can generally group the entries in a sort of “early/middle/later” way, but for the most part, you just kinda drift along on the notes in the order that you find them–so you might have an entry on one page that says “I still think you should’ve gotten your leg looked at”, and not learn for another 50 pages that the character had cut it on a bit of pipe.

If this all sounds entirely maddening to you, that’s ok–I might recommend instead that you go read the significantly more straightforward Griffin and Sabine series if you haven’t already, because you still get the thrill of watching a relationship play out via written correspondence, and the illustrations are just insanely beautiful, and it’s on my Top Books of All Time And If There’s a Fire Please God Someone Try to Save the Books on This Shelf bookshelf. I won’t think any less of you, and will be delighted to have someone with whom to talk about Griffin and Sabine, which I really need to reread–it’s been entirely too long.

But if you’re up for the challenge of keeping track of three stories–the novel, the authorship debate, and the students’ story–simultaneously with two of those stories being all out of order and written in two different handwriting styles (and I do mean “written”. You can tell by the uniformity when someone is just using a “handwritten font”. In this case, nope, someone wrote all these notes longhand. Sure, you purchase a copy of that, but at some point, someone literally sat down and wrote this stuff out) and six different colors of ink in the margins of what is packaged to look like a library book, then OMG READ THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. I cannot overstate how much I loved it. I cannot overstate how glad I was to have “today I’m doing laundry” as my excuse for spending eight hours yesterday doing nothing but reading this book and occasionally moving things to the dryer.

Here’s another way to put it: I got so engrossed in this thing that I had to resist the urge to add margin notes of my own–in a couple of places there were symbols and connections that I think they missed, and at one point I wanted to join the What Do We Do Next debate. These are fictional characters reading a fictional novel, and I had to force myself not to try to participate in real life.

That’s how you know a book has got you by the throat.

TL;DR: Part mystery, part academic debate, part history, S. is not a book you read but rather an experience that you undertake. It can be confusing and difficult to follow, so it’s not for the reader that prefers a straightforward linear narrative; but the twists and turns and exploration are what make it amazing to me. Besides, it’s beautiful to look at.

Rating: 9.75/10 Muddy Hoofprints (I almost never give 10/10s–perfection is not an attainable goal) for my experience of it, but here’s the fun part–some of you will try it and give it, like, a 2/10. This is a really polarizing book, and either you lovelovelove it or you cannot stand the thing; the reviews show massive divide in opinion, with very, very few folks coming down in the middle.


1 Comment

Filed under The Bibliophilic Buffalo

One response to “BBR: S, by Abrams and Dorst

  1. I stopped reading the review so I can just go order and read the book. Thanks!

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