In looks alone, “S.” is gorgeous, a masterpiece of verisimilitude. Inside its slipcase is a novel titled “Ship of Theseus,” written by one V.M. Straka and supposedly published in 1949. Tucked inside its yellowed pages are almost two-dozen bits of paper: handwritten notes, postcards, photos, documents, newspaper clippings, a scribbled-on napkin. And nearly every page is filled with marginalia written by Jen, an undergrad working at a college library, and Eric, a grad student who’s been trying to nail down Straka’s identity. Every aspect of “S.” is engineered to make you feel as if you’ve stumbled on a serious literary conspiracy.
Abrams and collaborator Doug Dorst, the author of two relatively traditional works of fiction, juggle two plots, one in the novel and one in the commentary about it. “Theseus” itself is a labyrinthine, Kafkaesque yarn about a man, S., who has lost his memory and sense of identity. He knows he’s in trouble, though: When S. isn’t avoiding the agents of a multinational arms dealer, he’s on a ship that seems to exist on a new level of the space-time continuum. Gloom abides: A romantic interest is out of reach, and fellow shipmates have their mouths sewn shut. “It is one thing to believe people are out to get you,” goes one typically noir-ish line. “It is another thing to know it; it is yet another to know that those people are closing in.”
Meanwhile, Jen and Eric banter in the margins about Straka, who could be one of a host of authors, or multiple authors. Straka, like Forrest Gump’s angry radical cousin, has stood accused of everything from plotting the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to slandering J. Edgar Hoover. Jen and Eric surmise that “Ship of Theseus” is an extended, coded message between him and his trusted translator, redeemer and (perhaps) beloved.
Eric emerges as a melancholy scholar who has fallen afoul of the professor who’s poached his research; Jen is bright but more laid-back, eager to coax Eric into meeting in person. That interplay has its fun, clever moments. Underlining “roasting lamb and cumin” in “Theseus,” Jen mentions a Moroccan restaurant she likes. When Eric delivers another self-involved response, she digs in a little harder with her felt-tip pen. “So, OK: HINT: I really like the Moroccan place.”
Still, at times “S.” feels more gunky than sticky, clotted with codes and references we’re meant to ponder with Jen and Eric. Which associate of S. connects to which doppelganger of Straka? Which academic nemesis of Eric or Jen has done wrong by Straka, and in what way? Parsing this can be tedious labor, and one occasionally feels as Eric does: “Sometimes I’m jealous of people who’ve studied VMS’s books w/o getting into all of this.” (For the determined, a host of Web sites and Twitter feeds get very much into it.)
What saves “S.” is the dark love story that Jen and Eric detect in “Theseus,” and the enchanting one they end up writing themselves. The unconventional design of “S.” will draw comparisons to novels like Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” or Nick Bantock’s “Griffin and Sabine.” But the book’s truer spiritual cousin is A.S. Byatt’s stellar novel “Possession,”
in which a contemporary romance blossoms between two scholars studying a pair of Victorian poets. Like Byatt, Abrams and Dorst are attuned to the way a stray line can spark memories, sometimes only tenuously connected to the work at hand. A snippet of Straka — “outrage that anyone would put such fears into a child” — prompts a back-and-forth between Jen and Eric about parents, religion and therapy, which in turn leads to the book’s most surprising and emotionally resonant revelations.
So the brilliance of “S.,” when it is brilliant, is less in its showy exterior than the intimate and ingeniously visual way it shows how others’ words become pathways to our lives and relationships. In the lines we busily highlight, underline, enjoy and retweet, Abrams and Dorst ask, aren’t we telling stories about ourselves?
Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.