S. (Doug Dorst / J. J. Abrams, 2013)
The first time I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm was when I was 15; I found a severely worn copy at a garage sale and read it probably in one sitting. A previous reader had found it necessary to heavily annotate the text using a red felt-tip pen, identifying Orwell’s targets of satire by name (“Stalin”, “Truman”, and “Yalta Conference” tags were written next to words in the text) and to point out his use of “Irony”, “Synecdoche”, and other literary devices. I found it difficult to enjoy the story while my attention was continually being derailed by all of this extraneous material; I didn’t read the story again until seven years later, when I bought another, brand-new, copy.
It is possible for a reader’s attitude toward a book to be affected by a previous reader’s notes therein. A mediocre book could become interesting; a good book could, perhaps, become even more interesting; a good book could be ruined by annotations just as easily; but all of these reactions forget that a book’s text exists completely independently from any marginalia that might accompany it. Animal Farm was not modified by the excessive notes that were in my copy; although they reacted to Orwell’s text, that text did not react to the notes, which existed separately, and in a subsidiary relationship.
When J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. came out, the critical consensus was that it was about the physicality of books. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Trine Tsouderos said it was “a celebration of the book as a physical thing, possessor of wonders that cannot be translated into digital bits.” Perhaps this is the reaction that should be expected from representatives of a reading public that has largely traded the codex for the e-reader and for whom an encounter with an actual, physical book is not a daily occurrence, but those of us who never stopped reading codices do not find them such enthralling and fascinating objects on their own; for us they are quite useful tools for presenting texts, but the text—all of its ideas, thoughts, images, stories, and the rest – is paramount, and the tool can be beautiful, yes, but it never takes first place over the text it presents to us. A power drill is only as good as the hole it can make. The most beautiful old upright piano is not worth much if it won’t stay in tune.
The critics who praised S. as a physical object are wrong. Abrams and Dorst never intended its physical presence to distract us from their text. Why else would they have released S. in ebook and audiobook editions?
We are presented, here, with two texts: Ship of Theseus, a novel “purportedly” by the reclusive and controversial author V. M. Straka; and marginal notes by two of the novel’s readers (Jen, a soon-to-be-graduating literature student who is uncertain what she wants to do with herself after she gets her degree, and Eric, a former doctoral candidate who has been banned from campus and spends his time hiding in the library or in the university’s steam tunnels, doing research on who the real author of Straka’s books might be). This setup is interesting but it suffers the same problem as the poem in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire: it is impossible to like Ship of Theseus on its own, because it is not meant to stand apart from its supplementary material. But this inability to exist independently is doubled when we realize that Ship of Theseus is actually a series of coded messages sent to Straka by his translator, Filomela X. Caldeira. In the world of S., the novel called Ship of Theseus turns out to not be a novel at all.
The poem in Pale Fire was much more enjoyable than the endnotes which were the true body of Nabokov’s novel. S. shares this setback. Ship of Theseus is excessively fantastical and reads like a first draft meant to be fleshed out, and when boiled down, yields only a sort of “you are the sum of your choices” message, but at least its characters are believable. But the conversation conducted by Jen and Eric in Ship of Theseus’ margins reveals them to be two of the most incompetently-drawn characters in all of the literature. All they are is stereotypes, shells. As a reader, I find it particularly boring when I can accurately predict what the characters will do next; I found myself able to do just that with these two. This is bad enough, but Jen and Eric conduct themselves in a maddeningly illogical and immature fashion. They continually jump to the wildest conclusions in their attempt to discover the real identity of V. M. Straka, yet they tell each other over and over of the necessity of backing their conclusions with hard evidence—evidence which never materializes. They have no real reason to trust each other, and they don’t even meet until most of the way through the book, yet they reveal their deepest, most personal secrets to each other. They demand that the world give them everything they want, and they are willing to break relations with anyone who doesn’t acquiesce – their parents, for example (Jen’s parents seem to me to be acting rather reasonably, yet because they aren’t acting as she wants them to, Jen views them with fierce disdain). They are willing to hold grudges on the slightest pretexts, and Jen is guilty of taking Eric’s word on everything without making any attempt to corroborate his accusations. These are not the actions of adults; this kind of behavior is usually, I thought, outgrown by high school. I have to ask myself, why are these characters being presented to me as the main characters in a novel? But I don’t have an answer. Their immaturity and illogicality are in no way important to the development of the story. Either Abrams and Dorst are incapable of creating interesting, believable characters, or they are entirely disconnected with how sane adult people behave.
This is not nearly as good a book as its authors, or the critics, think it is. In a famous essay on the perils of being a book critic, Orwell remarked that there are very few true masterpieces produced, and reviewing the horde of minor works is like weighing fleas on a scale that can accommodate an elephant. Perhaps the critics are using a scale that can differentiate between light and heavy fleas when they praise this book. But I doubt that S. will be read in a few decades’ time.