The Case of S., or, the Metatextual Pleasure of Ergodic Works

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A few months after reading Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams’ S., I came across a line in Ruth Ozeki’s transporting novel, A Tale for the Time Being. A character is describing the handwriting in a stranger’s diary (that we, the audience, also read): “Although the color of the ink occasionally bled from purple to pink to black to blue and back to purple again, the writing itself never faltered…” I immediately thought back to S., its pages covered in the many different hues of Eric and Jen’s scribblings. Dorst and Abrams have spoiled me—now, when I read a diary passage or come across a letter in a text, I always want it to be reproduced in that character’s hand.

S. is a magnificent work of imaginative packaging. After one rips open the shrink-wrap, a seal still holds the novel within the slipcover. Break open the seal, slip out the book, and you’re presented with a book not called S. but instead titled Ship of Theseus, by one V.M. Straka, bound in an old-fashioned letterpress cover. A dewey decimal sticker on the spine is your first clue that this is a book meant to look as though it was pilfered from the library.

Once you finally open the book, and flip past the blank page stamped “Book for Loan,” you’re presented with the beginning of a written-in-the-margins conversation that flows through the entirety of the book. It’s the first storyline you’ll encounter. Jen and Eric, fellow discoverers of this book, started and continued their correspondence in these pages.

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The pages of the book themselves are supposedly the final novel in the oeuvre of a mysterious author, V.M. Straka. They follow a man, the eponymous S., as he wakes up, devoid of any personal memories. He can speak, and walk, and write, but he cannot remember who he is, where he is, or what he was doing.

So that’s two storylines.

The third storyline appears in the translator’s footnotes, for it’s here you learn of V.M. Straka’s other works and life as political provocateur, possible assassin—endless fodder for conversation between Eric and Jen—and also, it’s where the book’s codes are alluded to, and a romance between the author and the translator seems to emerge. 

It should be noted here that there are a dozen or more other pieces of ephemera slipped between the pages. Postcards, cafe napkins with sketched maps, handwritten letters, photos, photocopies, newspaper clippings, and a codex are all placed inside the book at opportune moments for them to fall out.

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That slipcover makes a lot of sense.

S. is just the most recent in a long line of ergodic literature, a form defined by Espen J. Aarseth as literature in which “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text,” or, works that require more than just the reading and turning of pages. The oldest examples may be ancient Egypt’s walls of hieroglyphs that readers had to walk along to read. And more recently, Mark Z. Danielewski champions the form, his most celebrated work being House of Leaves, with its unconventional page layouts, mixed media, and maze-like text.  Just like S., House of Leaves' text ebbs and flows, no preceding page promising the contents of a proceeding page.Dorst and Abrams might also have seen and been inspired by the Griffin and Sabine trilogy, by Nick Bantock. Bantock’s work compiles the postcards and art of two mysteriously connected strangers. Like S., the letters are actually included, opened from the envelopes glued to the page. Even more recently, the horror-mystery mash up novel Night Film by Marisha Pessl ended up a 2013 bestseller, which, along with some pages designed to look like articles on a website, goes so far as to suggest downloading a mobile app to unlock additional content.

But the outside of House of Leaves looks like a normal—if a little oversized—novel. Same goes for Night Film. And the three volumes of Griffin and Sabine, as noted, look like slim, 9x9 picture books that belong on a children’s bookshelf. S. is singular if only because the entire experience is curated, from the moment you swipe your letter-opener through the seal. It makes one wish that more novels were produced by filmmakers.

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The inside of Griffin and Sabine

Last year at Symphony Space, Lena Dunham moderated a conversation between her, Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams, supposedly about S., although just as much time was spent discussing Star Wars[1] and Star Trek. Dorst, who, it should be noted, wrote the book, the marginalia, the footnotes, and the ephemera (Abrams had the idea and seemed to act more as producer), mentioned that once he started adding layers, it became difficult to stop, “Every layer kept presenting itself as I was writing, and I didn’t have the good sense, really, to ever know when to stop with all the layering.” Sometimes, as a reader, you wish he did.

The actual nuts and bolts reading of S. is never as easy as turning the page and continuing from left to right, regular-book style, as ergodic literature demands. Instead, each turned page will have underlines and arrows. The pen colors that Eric and Jen use changes, denoting changes in time. Sometimes, a footnote refers to a different footnote. A postcard falls out, and it could be referred to by Jen and Eric on the page, or perhaps it’s just time to read it. The general rhythm of reading is continually interrupted—sometimes enhanced. At some points, the push and pull of the marginalia, text, and ephemera find a groove, like a jazz trio playing an old standard, and the wonderment sets in. When it doesn’t groove, however, it can really fall apart. Dorst’s writing never quite feels like the 1940s narration he’s trying to ape, and because every chapter is also a reference to a novel in Straka’s imagined work, it can feel like a collection of loosely connected short stories. Even the ephemera can sometimes disappoint—a napkin with a layout of underground tunnels proves to be unimportant in any of the many juggled storylines.

The questions without answers mount, and for those familiar with J.J. Abrams, it’s hard to trust that they ever will be answered. There is a mysterious island, after all (made of obsidian, though, not broken promises). The Ship of Theseus is both the ship’s name and a philosophical puzzle, not unlike some of the philosophers that shared their names with characters in Lost. Codes and numbers play special roles, as the text of the novel itself seems to be a code, and the translator is leaving a code of her own. 

The singular accomplishment of S. is that for all of the layers to poke through here, the book makes you want to poke through them. It is, perhaps, because the book is so assuredly put together, almost audacious in its commitment to its form. Some of the ink on Eric and Jen’s lines is smudged. The paper napkin with a map is actually a paper napkin. The photos are printed on glossy photo paper. All of it feels good to hold, and with all that thought put into the packaging of the words, it’s hard not to think that the words themselves contain something special—and so along with Jen and Eric, we dig. 

It’s disappointing, then, when the number of pages left is diminishing but answers aren’t coming. (I suppose I should admit that I never once used the codex, or tried to figure out any codes on my own, trusting that Jen and Eric would provide the answer. Which they almost always do.) For all the hemming and hawing the translator, Eric, and Jen all do on who actually wrote Straka’s books, it never feels very important. And, at times, S.’s fate falls out of interest, perhaps because his central mystery becomes a central metaphor. But I’m positive I didn’t find all the clues out there—only after I finished the book did I come across the websites that Jen and Eric allude to. And what’s with all those doodles in the back half?

Despite the mess, each time I returned to S. (as I did sometimes have to leave it, since it is not very good subway reading with all those little pieces), I was smiling and impressed by some new turn, some piece of the puzzle revealed. The backstory of Jen and Eric is particularly moving—their personal letters, when they arrive, provide incredible transporting moments, where their handwriting and their story and the narrative merge, and these are no longer just scribbling on a page, but real people, who held the book before you did. 

The back of S.'s slipcover is perhaps the one point in which the designers of the book faltered. Perhaps pushed by the publisher, it contains the summary and author biography that any book would have. It's the only moment in which the facade is dropped, and the fact that this book was created by an author and a filmmaker is laid on the table.  However, it does have one revealing sentence - “[S.] is Abrams and Dorst’s love letter to the written word.” It’s true. This book is a love letter, and a gorgeous one, filled with passion, and the types of promises, possibly broken, that only someone who writes a love letter can make. 

One can only hope that more love letters like this are on the way, from anyone.

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C.D. Hermelin is a creative writing graduate student at the New School. He currently lives in Brooklyn. Follow him on twitter @CDHermelin.

[1] Lena Dunham admitted that she had never seen Star Wars and Abrams acted as though he was about to leave.