JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst - s. (4 stars)

JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst - s.

A multi-part thing of beauty despite disappointing narrative


s. is one of the most beautifully produced books published this year: presented as a fake library book, complete with marginalia and stuffed full of postcards, notes and photocopied telegrams. It's a difficult book to sum up, as it's a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The central text, a novel called Ship of Theseus, concerns an amnesiac on a ship where all the sailors have their mouths sewn shut. The footnotes, apparently by the book's translator, tell another story of a collective of revolutionary writers, hounded by the government and headed by mysterious author VM Straka. Then there's the narrative handwritten in the margins by two university students, Jen and Eric, whose relationship grows as they explore the true nature of Ship of Theseus. However, like everything in the book, Jen and Eric are not quite what they seem.

Part of s.'s appeal is that the reader can choose on what level to read it. Stick to Ship of Theseus's amnesiac narrative of mutinies and political upheaval, or explore the footnotes (there's even a code wheel in the back of the book) or go all-out and read the three narratives at once.

All of this is great fun, but it feels more like style over substance. The conspiracy aspect is unconvincing, and Jen and Eric's nudge-wink nods to future happenings frustrate rather than intrigue. In terms of narrative, s. is a little disappointing, but for sheer spectacle it's a thing of beauty.

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