Novel novel turns the page

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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