Thoughts on J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst's strange novel "S."
Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 6:02PM
WatchingPreacher in Books, doug dorst, j.j. abrams, review, s.
We all tell stories. We tell them to the people we know well, to our friends, our parents, our aunts and uncles, our sisters and brothers, our acquaintances and our collegues, our lovers and exes and, last but not least, to ourselves. We do it to understand, to make sense of something. For as long as we've been alive, we've been telling stories. Narratives have evolved, sure, but mostly they all set up a safe situation, add some risks, some danger, some event that takes the safety away, and then it ends with the main character, often the storyteller, mostly fine. But what happens when nothing is safe? When you don't know yourself?


S. starts out like this - in a way. (In another, completely different way, it starts out with the words "Hey - I found your stuff while I was shelving", but more on that later.) Our main character doesn't know who he is. He doesn't know where he is. He has no clues on who he was, and within thirty pages, he ends up on a ship, his only clues to finding it out disappearing behind him. And as he sets off on his journey, the multi-faceted journey of S. begins in its earnest - an exploration of stories, of identity, a story of love and life and the choices we make, of what we do to make up for them and for all the things that could have been.


Some storytellers try to avoid this theme of stories and why we tell them, others tackle it head on (Neil Gaiman being one of the latter). But isn't every story a story why we tell stories? A novel is just one author's way of seeing of the world, of making sense of it, of ordering it this way or that way. It's split up in characters and plots and, yes, some things might be just an idea that's not connected to anything in the writer's life, but a novel is a collection of thoughts, of sorting through experiences and using them, manipulating them, adding things so they'll fit in, removing things so they'll feel out of place. "Once upon a time" many stories start, but they could've just as easily have started "In another world, another time, another place". Stories are places where writers can punish people who've done them wrong, make fun of the idiots they suffer with every day, or just happen to meet one day, where they can celebrate good people and watch past versions of themselves struggle. Where choices they avoided are explored thoroughly, where they themselves are dissected.


S. is a novel of stories. There's the "Ship of Theseus"-story, written by V.M. Straka (whoever he is), there's the story of V.M. Straka and the organization known as S. and comprised of other writers - friends of Straka, or maybe enemies, or maybe Straka himself? - there's the story of Straka and F.X. Caldeira, of Moody and Ilsa and, finally, of Jen and Eric. And if you think it sounds complicated now, wait till you understand that all of these plotlines jump in time, and that they throw out a bunch of information and references, not to mention names, that you're supposed to keep track of. Hey, no one said S. wasn't a challenging book.


Doug Dorst writes from a story and an idea J.J. Abrams. I have no idea in which capacity Abrams was involved with this project, but he probably had more than a little to do with it; his fingerprints (identity, fluid time, mysterious islands, networks of spies, two fronts locked it a never-ending war, the power of words and stories and parallell universes) are all over the book, in various ways.


Dorst is the one writing, though, and he does an excellent job of it. The notes from Jen and Eric feel like they've been written by two different people, and compared to the Straka-text, Ship of Theseus, not to mention Caldeira's footnotes... They all feel different. Jen and Eric's notes often have a more leisurely, relaxed feel to them, while Straka's prose is wonderfully symbolic and often very strange. Caldeira writes in a different tone altogheter, informative, a little bitter, sometimes lovingly. They all feel like people, not just aspects of someone else's imagination. That takes skill.


So the prose is good. The idea behind the novel is great. The concept works. But now that I'm done praising, what about the plot? And theme? What is S. really about?


This is my theory. My thesis. My story.


It doesn't matter who Straka is. I cared about that mystery for a while, trying to piece it together, but the more I read the less I cared. What mattered is that he loved Caldeira, and she loved him. But, because of his various choices, they couldn't be together. It was too dangerous, too... something. She was a presence in her life, a presence he returned to, often, but he was never able to shake off the revolutions, Bouchard, the minotaur in his labyrinth. He kept getting sidetracked. That was his flaw, his problem. But it doesn't change what she meant to him.


Straka wipes his past away and makes S. wake up, wet, in strange city. He sees Sola, who he feels has answers. Sola can make sense of him, just like Caldeira can make sense of Straka. But then he's kidnapped and wakes up on a ship - his ship, the thing that stands between them. The ship is the cause, and it will take him all the way to the middle of the labyrinth, face to face with his minotaur.


But before he comes there, he will wake up in strange places, he will meet people who die, who betray him, he will wonder if he's changed or if he's still the same person he was before he forgot everything.


There is a philosophical question involving a broom. A broom is made out of a collection of straws and a stick. If, one day, the stick breaks and you replace it with another stick, is it still the same broom? (the same thing, disturbingly enough, can be said of us; your body is just seven to ten years, as cells die and new ones replace them. So tell me; if all the cells you were born with are dead, are you still that baby, somewhere, that person, or is that person gone, never to return?)


This question is the central theme of S., and it pops up a surprising amount of times. If you wipe away a person's past, is he still the same person, with the same thoughts and ethics? Will he make the same choices? If you replace old pieces of a ship with new ones, is it still the same ship? If you write a novel in Spanish and someone translates it, is it still the same novel? What if that someone adds chapter titles? Or footnotes? When does the novel seize to be yours and become someone else's, something else's?


And when, in a relationship, do you stop belonging you and start belonging to the other person? When do you change? How do you change? Would you have changed this way, been this person, if you hadn't met this other person?


Throughout Ship of Theseus, S. makes the same choices Straka would. He tries to find Sola, to find answers, to make sense of himself, but he's dragged back into the revolution, into the spying, into the mysteries. He has to see it through to the end, no matter how bad he feels about it. The novel is an apology, an explanation, of why he made these choices - not just to Caldeira, but to himself. Straka is S., and he's trying as hard as he can to make sense of himself through this lens. Which is why the tenth chapter is so important; the ninth chapter finally, finally brings Sola and S. together, but he cannot write that chapter himself. He needs help. He cannot decide what would happen to both of them; that's up to the both of them.


So Caldeira pieces things together, rewrites, adds lines, brings the whole thing to her ending. S. does what he has to, but only to the point where he can live with it. Sola helps him as much as she can. We get some interesting developments that could explain (or not) some mysteries; the black wine, for instance (and a thought that just struck me - maybe Straka was Bouchard's son?) - and they go back to the ship, together.


Some stories are yours to tell. Some aren't. I'm sure you who's reading this have secrets - things you can't tell, not because people don't like people hearing about it, but because you are so clearly not the main character in these stories. Some stories aren't for everyone to know; they aren't yours to tell, no matter how much your presence was needed for the story to come alive. The stories of relationships are much like this; not yours, not your partner, but both, to a certain extent (see Gone Girl for another excellent, though somewhat extreme, example of this). S. is the story of relationships; S. and Sola, Straka and Caldeira, Jen and Eric and, to a certain extent, Ilsa and Moody. 


The novel ends with S. and Sola together at last, on the Ship. Caldeira and Straka, whoever he was, never met. Jen and Eric did, are in love and happy. They let go of their pasts. But on that ship, in that fictional world, S. holds up a spyglass and, in the distance, or perhaps another world, another life, sees them together; a couple. Straka and Caldeira. Jen and Eric. Penelope and Desmond. Not everything worked out, some didn't get what they wanted, not all the questions got answered, but they're out there, waiting to be found. Climbing aboard someone else's ship, having a common purpose, and sailing towards, it... It's beautiful. Universal. Common. Unlikely. Unique.


There are many ships out there. Many purposes. Many labyrinths, goals, lives. And, as someone said in another Abrams-project; "See you in another life, brother!" I'm sure we will. It just depends what "you" is - answers, lovers, books. Stories. In the end, that's what we are. What we become. And our only hope is that someone, in another life, on another ship, hears our story and is inspired by it; that it helps someone else understand something, to steer clear of reefs and rocks, to get through the tough weather and difficult waters. That's why they're important. That's why we're important. That's what we all are; stories. Part o' the tradition. And may it live long after we're all gone. 
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