Friday Book Design Blog: S, by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

Jonathan Gibbs

s 008 Friday Book Design Blog: S, by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

, previously the title of a novel by John Updike, is now that of a collaborative book created by J. J. Abrams, he of the groundbreakingly confusing TV series Lost (and, more recently, big time Hollywood movies), and US novelist Doug Dorst.

What is S? It is a dizzying puzzle-book, a monstrous meta-fictional conceit that, at best, will keep you scratching your head for days, and the internet forums detailing its secrets for years, and at worst will have you bowing down before its undeniably wonderful design achievements.

What you get is a fictional novel, ‘Ship of Theseus’, purportedly written by one V. M. Straka, which comes to you in a rather lovely slipcased hardback edition, with notes and and a foreword by the translator. The debossed cover, illustration and font are reminiscent of something from The Folio Society, or the new-look Pushkin Press. (And, a lovely touch, the volume is sealed inside the slipcase with a paper banner that you have to cut to get at it.)

But – oh dear! – open it up and the unthinkable has happened. Someone has scrawled all over it, making annotations in the margins. No, not someone, more than one person. There are definitely two people writing here, and they seem to be communicating with each other.

ship of theseus 3 Friday Book Design Blog: S, by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

This copy of ‘Ship of Theseus’, so the conceit has it, is a copy from the library of Pollard State University (look, there are the stamps, and the label on the spine) that has been purposefully misshelved by a grad student working on Straka (that’s Eric), and then found by an undergrad (Jennifer), who starts making notes to his notes – then he responds to her comments, and so it goes. They don’t meet, but use the book as a kind of dead letter office, so that our reading experience of each page comes tripled: i) the novel itself ii) the two readers’ excavation of the truth of what happened to Straka, and iii) Eric and Jennifer’s own developing relationship.

The scribbles of Jennifer and Eric aren’t the half of it, though. They start leaving pieces of evidence for each other, slotted between the pages. Hold the book by its spine and shake it and you’ll find, falling out: postcards; handwritten letters; photocopied sheets from journals and of telegrams; a campus newsletter; a weird code wheel; and even, most gloriously of all, a paper napkin from a café, with a map drawn on it – of, appropriately enough, the network of secret tunnels underneath Pollard State Uni.

ship of theseus Friday Book Design Blog: S, by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

Yes, that’s a real paper napkin. There may well be more gloriously inventive productions out there that still come under the rubric of ‘book’, but I’ll bet there aren’t many of them that retail at £28. So full congratulations to Canongate, Bad Robot (Abrams’ production company) and Melcher Media for coming up with the goods. This is a genuinely awe-inspiring piece of integrated design work.


S is exemplary, yes, and beautiful, but is it truly groundbreaking? Well, the two books that spring to mind on browsing it are Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, classics of metafiction both.

Pale Fire, as a book, looks more or less normal. It takes the form of a 999-line poem purportedly by the American poet John Shade, with foreword and commentary by a zealous and, we soon discover, unhinged academic colleague (Charles Kinbote) who, following Shade’s death, edits the poem to within an inch of its life (having, possibly, edited its author beyond his life altogether). There is no real design twist on the basic book format, but the idea of the editorial apparatus, like some literary parasite, taking over and smothering its host, is played with quite exquisitely.

House of Leaves looks weirder. It is, again, a text – ‘The Navidson Record’, ‘by’ Zampanò, which is a book about a weird cult documentary film supposedly showing a family living in a haunted house (shades of Paranormal Activity?) – ‘edited’ by a less than stable editor (Johnny Truant), though this time it comes with a further level of editorial control (‘the editors’) which presents appendices of ephemera relating to both Zampanò and Truant – mere photographs and transcripts of the kinds of documents that you get in real, physical form in S.

You might say that ‘S’ is just House of Leaves in three dimensions. The handwritten conversation between Eric and Jennifer is like a split version of the paranoid conversation that Johnny Truant has with himself all the way through Danielewski’s book.

In terms of design, then, S is – I repeat – exemplary, but really the true test is the story it tells. And here I must reserve judgment. I’ve browsed the ‘book’ a fair bit, and read some of ‘Ship of Theseus’ itself, but it’s obvious that S exists on many levels, and is positively designed to hold secrets, to give up different things on different readings.

It is an engineered enigma, which might make for a wonderful reading, exploring experience, giving a book all the interactive pleasure of a computer game, or it might make for a slightly numbing one, where every discovery has the feel of something planted, and forced. Nabokov talked of the ‘plums’ he left in Pale Fire for people to find – and some academics do argue over the identities of Shade and Kinbote almost as heatedly as others do over Shakespeare and Bacon – but those plums are purely literary, the pure fruits of Nabokov’s genius. There is a risk that the ‘plums’ in S are less than organic, are a bit ‘just add water’.

There is something odd, too, about the way the book is built. Take the ‘conversation’ that occurs and grows in the book between Jennifer and Eric. The reader is likely to read this, primarily, linearly, in parallel with the novel the two students are footnoting – but really how credible is it that two people, one of whom may be in physical danger, would communicate in this way? A book, once read, stops being a linear, timebound succession of sentences, and becomes a two dimensional space that the reader can have access to in any order. I haven’t read enough to know if this issue is addressed.

And it will matter, too, how the enigma of Straka resolves itself. After all – and I haven’t seen Lost – it’s simple enough to create a complicated trail of red herrings and cryptic clues that give the sense of a mystery waiting to be solved. It’s another thing entirely to make the mystery, once solved, worth the trouble of having done so. The film Donnie Darko, for instance, became a lot less interesting once you have stumbled across writer-director Richard Kelly’s rational, and rather reductive, explanation for the conundrums it seems to present.

House of Leaves has at its heart a genuinely scary ghost story, and Pale Fire a deathless satire on academia.

What is at the heart of S? I’m not sure anyone knows, yet. Would the first person to solve it please report back and let us know if the journey’s worth the destination?

  • skipnicholson

    ‘Pale Fire,’ yes. Definitely. But it also brings to mind Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine tetralogy. Now I’m out £28 more…. but thank you.

  • Tiny_Camels

    Thanks for that – not something I’d heard of, but have looked it up, and by golly yes! Jonathan

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