S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
What else can J.J. Abrams make awesome? If you haven’t heard the buzz about S., the new book conceived by his nerdship and written by Doug Dorst, you really need to watch this video of me unpacking the book before this review will make a lick of sense. Yes, I said unpacking the book. You really should watch:
Is everyone paying attention now? Obviously, S. is a book unlike anything you’ve ever read before. But many are wondering if the whole thing is just a gimmick. In other words: is S. just a book like any other book that Abrams and Dorst spiced up for the express purpose of selling more copies?
Your average book isn’t enhanced by a print copy. So, in concrete terms: If I can read S. on my ereader and get the same experience, then all the stuff is just gimmick. But if the physical experience of reading S. in print is a fundamental aspect of the story itself, then all those extras aren’t gimmicks. They’re a reimagining of what counts as a novel, maybe even what counts as a story.
I can state unequivocally that S. is no gimmick. It’s a singular, exceptional reading experience.
Favorite among the four stories for me was probably that of the author’s “true” identity. But none of the four stories in isolation would be exceptionally compelling. The fake novel, Ship of Theseus, is interesting enough, but since we haven’t read the rest of V.M. Straka’s works, we have a lot less invested in his “final work” than everyone else surrounding the book. The relationship between Straka and FXC, his editor (coauthor?) has enough mystery to keep you guessing throughout most of the book, but again, it’s not mind-blowing. Ditto for the mystery of who, exactly Straka is. And the blossoming relationship between Eric and Jen, the two contemporary readers, is sweet and well-paced but not extraordinary.
Abrams and Dorst, however, put all four together and somehow manage to tell them simultaneously through a combination of printed text, footnotes, margin notes and actual, physical artifacts (letters, postcards, maps and a decoder wheel I have no idea what to do with!!!), and you get a gripping story you can’t put down.
The various media that tell the story of S. invite you deeper into the book than you would’ve imagined possible.
Mystery is the word of the day. S. practically screams “secret code”. It’s a true joy to hand the book to other people, to watch them marvel as they unpack the book. But they quickly shrink back and nearly all make the same comment:
I don’t think I could follow this. It looks too hard.
Put your worries to rest. The book is so clear, so easy to follow. Abrams and Dorst deserve all the credit here: S. could’ve easily been a huge mess. But it’s not. All four stories unfold clearly and cohesively. That’s not to say there’s not plenty of mystery. This is J.J. Abrams, after all. (Seriously. Does anyone know what’s up with that decoder? Eric and Jen call it an “Eotvos Wheel”. Google that and you find this crazy website!)
Your reward for finishing the book is a love letter to the Book. And really, more broadly, to the power of Story itself. (Is that what S. stands for?) It’s every bit as messy and unresolved as I’ve come to expect an Abrams mystery box to be, but that’s rather the point:
“Answer” just isn’t sacred for Abrams.
What matters is the journey, and the love we find along the way.
In this regard, S. is a triumph. It’s a fun, engaging read unlike anything else you’ve ever read. You’ll lose yourself in the multiple stories and as soon as you finish it, you’ll want to start all over again. And maybe leave a few notes of your own this time. And maybe figure out the decoder wheel like these guys did (nice work!)
The coolest part about it is that S. just wouldn’t work on an ereader. That’s not to say that ebooks can’t do some very cool things in their own right. But Abrams and Dorst have created a piece of art that simply couldn’t exist in any other medium. S. isn’t filmable. You can’t turn it into a graphic novel. I had to do a video unpacking to even begin to explain how cool this book is.
S. is not gimmicky precisely because everything serves the purpose of the larger story. None of it is gratuitous. Even the decoder wheel.
Comments on the nature of this book will no doubt be divisive. Count me in the “love it” column. In fact, I love S. so much I’m going to give a copy to one of my readers. In true J.J. Abrams style, I’ve hidden a code in this post. The first person to crack it gets a copy of S. on me. Here’s your clue, one I think V. M. Straka would approve:
The end is never the end; only another beginning. What comes after the end each time is what we need to start afresh.