The book-lover in me wants you to disregard the title of this piece. What Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams set out to do is something I’ve long been waiting for, without knowing that I’ve been waiting for it. Correspondence via marginalia. How could the idea have eluded so many? Sure, characters have bonded over an artist in many other novels. If your second favorite book is the dictionary, I’d recommend Possession by A.S. Byatt – a book that, in many regards, serves as a perfect counterpoint to S. In Possession, two academics search for the truth about a love affair between two acclaimed Victorian-era poets. S. features an expunged grad student and an undergrad discovering the truth about a mysterious author, V.M. Straka, and the lover who obsessively chronicles his work, F.X. Caldeira. Since this is an Abrams’ project, there’s a secret organization, lots of codes, and danger lurks around every page—yes, even readers harmlessly exchanging notes in a book on an American campus aren’t safe from cloak-and-dagger villainy.
S. is an important work because of its aim. Unless you want to articulate the definition of post-postmodernism – in which case, good luck – the 21st century of American literature lacks a distinguishing label. This is not always a bad thing. Fiction serves its own purpose—truth unencumbered by reality– regardless of whether we’ve found a new light in which to cast it. However, it must be said that the aim of S. is important because the other medias are dominating literature. It’s not really on the brink of extinction monetarily, thanks largely to e-readers, but it’s no longer the focal point of media. It no longer informs the core of most of our creative lives.
I guess I’m saying don’t read the book for its execution. While the marginalia was interesting and succeeded as a love story, the novel in which the notes were scrawled was a flop. I mentioned Possession because I was obversely eager to research the works of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte (the poets in the novel), only to find they were fictional. Byatt wrote such dazzling poetry that the novel seemed a nonfiction, a thesis paper on the lives of two all-world poets. Dorst would have you believe that Straka was, in his time, on par with the cultural import of Hemingway, and that’s not a hypothetical example. He actually compares Straka (which is really Dorst) to Hemingway’s clean prose. Worse than the fact that the novel is dragged asunder with purposeless ambiguity and lofty pseudo-aphorisms? Straka’s style is the polar opposite of Hemingway’s. It rambles. It speaks about no one on behalf of everyone. The author goes far beyond the reality of the subject to make claims that would invoke a churlish reply from Papa.
But okay, someone telling you not to read a book for its main text is a bit like saying listen to music for the visuals. It’s counter-intuitive, but in this case, it can be done. Ship of Theseus, the chicken-scratched novel, is not terribly complex, though it wants to be. It has just enough action and syntactical momentum to keep you interested. You may get the sense that a lot of time was put toward coordinating the students’ notes with the text and not enough toward the text itself. Understandable, really. You can’t help but to feel encouraged that here fiction might be challenging, and simultaneously embracing, multimodality without any stupid gimmicks. Graphic novels and interactive storytelling are the excellent product of acclimating to new tastes; but I, for one, wondered if plain ol’ books would evolve in the Technology Age or if they would hold fast to their tried-and-true precepts. There’s no use ignoring that the interaction between art and recipient is going to change, especially regarding an exponentially numbed literary audience. Read this book because it’s innovative and it’s a good start. There have been much, much worse responses to changing aesthetic cultures (see: dada and dada and dada and dada). Books will always be around, but I pray the response to rival medias won’t just be thorny metafiction.