Novel novel turns the page
HE is getting a bit long in the tooth to be described as a wunderkind, so perhaps we should give in and call JJ Abrams a phenomenon. Creator of television shows such as Lost and Alias as well as writer and director of feature films ranging from Cloverfield to Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, he is also responsible for rebooting the Star Trek franchise and, most recently, has been entrusted with bringing the new Star Wars trilogy to the screen.
Although there are places where Abrams’s oeuvre veers dangerously close to derivative pastiche — The X Files knock-off Fringe, for instance, or the laborious Spielberg homage of Super 8 — for the most part it is characterised by its playfulness and pop cultural savvy, gleefully interweaving elements of mystery, metafiction, pulp science fiction and horror.
But Abrams has also demonstrated a fascination with the way technology is transforming our media landscape and the possibilities that process throws up. It’s a fascination that has sometimes emerged in the work itself: take for example the use of “found footage” in Cloverfield and Super 8. But it also has been visible in the innovative ways Abrams’s various projects have leveraged new technologies to expand and enrich the viewer’s experience. At its simplest this has involved webisodes and tie-in novels, but it’s equally apparent in the degree to which the process of unravelling the elaborate mysteries of shows such as Lost and Fringe depends on technologies such as DVD and digital recording that enable repeat viewing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, Abrams’s first venture into fiction, the enigmatically titled S, isn’t just an elaborate metafictional mystery complete with secret codes and clandestine societies, it’s also a genuinely remarkable testament to the possibilities of contemporary publishing technology.
Created in collaboration with novelist Doug Dorst, S purports to be a copy of a book called The Ship of Theseus, the final novel by mysterious author VM Straka, translated and footnoted by the only slightly less elusive FX Caldeira. Packaged in a slipcase and carefully designed to resemble a yellowing library book from the late 1940s, the physical book comes complete with date stamps, a peeling label on the spine and even what seems to be a deliberately manufactured whiff of ageing paper.
The Straka revealed in Caldeira’s introduction bears more than a passing resemblance to the author known as B. Traven, most famous for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Like Traven, who appears to have had at least three identities during his life and to have been involved in various radical movements, Straka’s identity is the subject of an extended dispute, one that is complicated by his apparent kidnapping and subsequent disappearance soon before he completed The Ship of Theseus.
As the reference to Theseus’s paradox suggests, The Ship of Theseus is concerned with questions of identity. But as quickly becomes clear, the novel also gives shape to these questions in a more concrete way, its text having been reconstructed and completed by Caldeira from Straka’s unfinished manuscript in the months after Straka’s disappearance. Yet the text of the novel and Caldeira’s footnotes are only half the story. For scrawled in the margins of the book is a sort of meta-commentary marked out in the epistolary conversation between Erik, a young researcher obsessed with Straka, and Jennifer, a student at the university where Erik studied before being ejected from his graduate program. This conversation, which is conducted sequentially and in a maze of comments and annotations appended to earlier remarks, is further supplemented by a series of objects — letters, postcards, business cards and even a cafe napkin with a map drawn on it — that lie pressed between the pages of the book.
These elements allow the reader to piece together a web of interconnected stories concerning Straka, the mystery of his identity and the intimacy between Erik and Jennifer as they race to prove their theories before other, increasingly sinister forces can prevent them from revealing what may or may not be the truth.
Working out how to read this palimpsest of elements is part of the challenge and the pleasure of S, which functions as much as a celebration of the physicality of the book as a work of fiction: I cannot recall another book that is as effective in requiring us to rethink the way we unravel a text or that so brilliantly incorporates the possibilities of the book as object into itself.
Yet this surface dazzle is undercut by the elements themselves: despite the echoes of AS Byatt’s Possession and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, neither Jennifer and Erik’s relationship nor The Ship of Theseus have the charge of their fictional predecessors, nor is it easy to take the book’s preoccupation with secret societies and scheming scholars terribly seriously.
Whether S should be read as a testament to the continuing relevance of the printed book, a symptom of our anxiety about its passing or both is an interesting question. But no matter what the answer there is no doubt it provides a fascinating illustration of the complex ways in which technology and narrative interact, even as it resists our assumptions about authorship, identity and, perhaps most important, the ways in which stories are told. James Bradley is an author and critic. He blogs at cityoftongues.com.
Television and film producer JJ Abrams, has ventured into fiction