In Her Pockets She Found the Feathers

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You should read J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst’s new book “S.”

When I lived in New York, I’d go jogging down the Queensboro Bridge late every night and sometimes I’d see this homeless man pushing his cart back from Manhattan on my way. One night I saw a notebook lying on the pedestrian side of the bridge. Ever-hopeful, I picked up the notebook and brought it home, where my then-roommate-now-blogging-partner Jeff and I pored over it.

In the notebook were this homeless man’s diary entries, from every day for over a year. He talked about the shelter where he slept, his friends at the convenience store where he hung out, and about his sister, who he saw at Christmas to pray for their dead parents. It wasn’t particularly well-written, nor did it contain any great mysteries or yarns. But we all have a soft spot for that Found Story, the discovered artifact that will let us in on some unexpected real-life tale we get absorbed by.

J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst’s new book “S.” is that, only perfect.

Its perfection, at first, is its greatest strength and its biggest fault, but we’ll get into that in a minute. First, an explanation:

V.M. Straka is a famous author in the world of “S.,” a titan the likes of Hemingway and Picasso, whose legend puts him in agitating secret societies of the early 20th century, traveling the globe and writing against dictators even though his true identity was never discovered. What you hold in your hand when you open “S.” and take it out of its packaging is Straka’s (fictional) 1949 masterwork Ship of Theseus, in the form of a musty, much-checked out library hardcover, with spine-edge-Dewey-number and all.

In fact, the book is so faithfully reproduced they even put the smell in it: anyone who reads a lot knows exactly what smell I’m talking about, and I don’t know how they got it there, but there it is.

But that’s not the real story – or rather, that’s not the whole story. See, in the margins of every single page you’ll find a conversation: a conversation between two people like us today, in pencil, marker, and pen. Those people are Eric and Jen, a pair of young adults who start communicating in the book, passed back and forth after she finds his copy.

Eric is a Literature grad student studying Straka who was kicked out after his mentor professor betrayed him, and Jen is a college senior working at the library, figuring out what she wants to do with her life. Both are in need of someone, and it is each other they find while looking for Straka, as they exist to each other and grow together “in the margins.”

The result is a gorgeous and heartrending experience that is also some of the most fun you can have while looking at a printed page (with or without your clothes on). Much like Inception is a movie that works because it’s both intelligent and action-packed, “S.” is not just brilliant and affecting but an absolute blast to read – and it wouldn’t be as amazing in either way if either of those things were missing. This is what storytelling is about.

Now, earlier I mentioned that its perfect-artifact-ness can be a weakness, and that has to do with logistics. “S.” is the product of what had to be Herculean planning, with all of the margin notes lining up, the story arcs matching in tension, the chapters working with the discoveries, etc – not to mention that you get real artifacts inside, too, including hand-written letters, postcards, maps, and a puzzle wheel. (Note that I ignored the puzzle wheel and riddles: I was here for a story, not homework, and don’t worry – it didn’t affect my enjoyment any).

This book, for anyone who’s ever loved books, is Christmas. Open your eyes and tear at the wrapping.

But while this is a story-lover’s fantasy, it also has some caveats: stopping the “Ship of Theseus” reading at every page to read Eric and Jen’s margin story and the artifacts is fun, but also distracting. Especially at the beginning, before things are clear, it can be hard to keep everything straight and the story in mind: at least for a 28-year-old logic-minded guy like me or Eric; women, like Jen, traditionally have an easier time story-multitasking.

This is the way this kind of wished-for book was always going to be, of course: complaining about it is like complaining now that you got your Ferrari convertible, insurance is high and it uses a lot of gas. This book is a Ferrari. Put the top down and roll.

Of course, this isn’t the first time a story-within-story-and-notes-book has been attempted. Some time ago, I gave the much more erudite and complicated House of Leaves some time, which has similar page-layers and allusions to labyrinth mythology. HOL, despite its intelligence, however, stopped rewarding me in the right way for all the time I was putting into it. It made me think a lot, but it didn’t make me feel much, besides exhaustion. That was never true with “S.”

Ultimately, “S.,” like all great stories, is a love story: a love story between two complex figures in history, a love story between two young smart people writing back and forth, a love story between readers and words on pages.

For as much as this is a J.J. Abrams-conceived concept story, D. Dorst can write. This story is fun, and it is touching, and it is romantic, and it is funny – yes, funny – but especially near the end, Dorst puts on his writer-gloves and he starts to kick thoughtful, poetic ass. There are ideas in here that will make you take stock of what you’re trying to do out there in your life anyway, and there are sentences that rival the best, most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

This morning, after staying up late to finish “S.” last night, I felt disappointed that I didn’t have their story to go into anymore. That I wouldn’t hear Eric and Jen’s voices anymore, watch them tease and joke and open up and talk to each other over the crashing adventure and heartache and loss and gain of V.M. Straka and his world. “S.” is a masterwork, because it is brilliant, and because it is fun, but most of all, perhaps, because it is a book you’ll want to share, and talk about, with someone you can share margin notes to.

Favorites Shelf: Meet “S.”

Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.

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5 thoughts on “In Her Pockets She Found the Feathers

    • Well, looking back on the book, I think reading it that way would definitely not give you the experience. This book is more than the sum of its parts, and all of the layers are designed so well to work together and at the right time, that even though you’d get all the information you wouldn’t really get the “S.” story. To follow my analogy with “Inception” it would be like first watching only all of the parts of the movie where the guy is driving the truck, fast-forwarding everything else. Then going back and only watching all of the parts with JGL in the hotel. Then going back and only watching the flashbacks. You would eventually watch all of the scenes, but I posit you wouldn’t have watched the film “Inception.”

  1. I’m currently reading it at the moment (and loving the experience) but I did a lot of trawling through reviews etc beforehand to decide the best way to read it.

    Every person is going to do it differently and that way will suit them – the experience will still be an experience, it will just be a different experience.

    I’m reading the novel first, then I will go back and read the notes, refreshing my memory of the story as I go. Personally I want to have some background understanding of the happenings in the novel first.

    Just a point for people who think you’re missing out or not reading it properly by doing that…in studying literature it’s always an idea to read through once and then start the in-depth research. It would be like reading one line of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and then reading an essay on it before starting the second line.

    But, like I say, every person will approach it differently.

    • Gotta disagree with you, Emmy-cakes. See, the thing about the narrative threads in “S.” is that they are all part of the one text – none of them are commentary or critical analysis. They are all part of the creative work, the one story, just presented in an unorthodox way, such as if a poem was written in a spiral instead of straight lines, or if parts of some pages were sideways (both of which have been done). That doesn’t make them part of an external secondary text; it just delineates point of view via format.

      To read only one of the perspectives of the novel as you go along would be like reading “The Waste Land,” a poem that focuses on multiple speakers, but only the parts where Tiresias is talking, skipping all the other lines and sections, and then going back and reading the other parts by themselves, skipping the ones with Tiresias, etc. Or reading “Pride and Prejudice” but only the chapters that talk about Liz’s sister Jane, and then going back and only reading the chapters that talk about Lydia, and so forth. Your experience would be disjointed, and miss out on the subtle correlation that the author planned between the parts of the story in terms of theme, emotional connections, and plot arc points (rising tension, climax, etc).

      The aspects of “S” are linked and informed by each other as they mature and intertwine together, through discoveries of secrets and revelations of character that mirror and expand on each other. In fact, the intertwining of stories and people separated across time but united in text is a major theme of the work.

      On top of that, (and confirming this is the intent), there is the pragmatic issue of the footnotes and artifacts in the “original” novel text: the footnotes are actually nonsensical if taken by themselves, as the margin-writers quickly discover, because they are intended as secret encoded messages. These messages are between the annotator and other characters which are revealed only in the margin notes’ perspective, and their revelations in the margin notes are central to both stories. The artifacts left along the way, such as maps, news articles, and handwritten notes, only make sense in light of both stories – and they are deliberately left in certain pages because their content illuminates theme and plot in connecting both worlds at a certain point in reading.

      No one can tell anyone how to read – if I want to open “War and Peace” and only read the sentences that start with a vowel, all the way through, that is my American right. But I urge those who fear missing out on important plot points and emotional revelations: the right way to read “S” is all layers at once, because it was knit together as greater than its parts.

Holla back, girl

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