11:00 am EDT, November 11, 2013

Book review: ‘S’ by J.J. Abrams is truly unique but ultimately unsatisfying

J.J. Abrams highly anticipated book triumphs through production values, but falls down over plot.

S is a bold creative project, conceived by Lost creator J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst (Alive in Necropolis).

The story is told through a stolen library book, Ship of Theseus, authored by reclusive author V.M. Straka and translated by F.X. Caldeira. In the margins of the book, disgraced graduate student Eric attempts to solve the mystery of Straka’s real identity, and in doing so, beat his old academic mentor to the discovery of a lifetime.

Jen, a restless college senior, stumbles upon the book, and begins exchanging notes with Eric as they attempt to solve the mystery of Straka and Caldeira’s identities, and come to terms with their own struggles along the way.

The production value of the collection is incredibly high – it can really only be described as absolutely stunning. The hardcover has been cleverly packaged as the worn library book, with every page coloured to mimic its distressed nature. The book itself gives no hint that it is actually a work of fiction by Abrams and Dorst; only the box it comes in bears the authors’ names.

Between the pages of the book, readers will find photographs, postcards, letters, and even a graffitied napkin, all of which look and feel just like the real thing. The notes from Jen and Eric that feature throughout the novel are very clearly handwritten, and the pictures are drawn in – there is no cliched handwriting font here.

Yet the highly constructed nature of S also proves to be one of its greatest weaknesses. The additional materials make it difficult to physically read the book without them becoming dislodged. This would not pose such a problem if the various materials were not often directly linked to the notes on the adjacent pages.

The handwritten notes also ensure that the reading experience is more complicated than normal. Inevitably, the interactions between Jen and Eric are far more engaging that the text of Ship of Theseus, and it is difficult not to skip through simply to read their storyline.

The most disappointing aspect of S is that the very story that consumes the two would-be scholars is not all that engaging. Perhaps Dorst’s intent was for this story to move slowly and steadily, merely to provide a jumping off point for Jen and Eric. If this was this goal, Dorst has succeeded masterfully, yet the somewhat dull storyline does make it difficult to accept why so many people would be so concerned with Straka’s book. It also makes it difficult for readers of S to stay engaged with the multiple layers.

No fault can be found in the writing, and Jen and Eric’s voices are particularly enjoyable to read, as is the slow exploration of their own personal problems. The changes in their pen colours are used effectively to give the reader some indication of where in their relationship they are. While their correspondence does not demonstrate a linear progression of their relationship (they have obviously gone through the book multiple times, adding notes as they do), their interactions are not as difficult to follow as they initially appear.

S is far from perfect, but is worth reading for the experience alone. The book offers something entirely unique, and Abrams’ involvement may spark the increase in this type of product. Its strength lies in its production values, and while it is at times too slow or overly complicated, it offers readers a damn good first attempt at a completely immersive, multifaceted reading experience.

S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is available now through Mulholland Books and Allen & Unwin.

Images: Amazon

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