Friday, 20 December 2013

Let me try to describe the structure of this (and fail miserably, of course). Mysterious author Straka wrote a book called Ship of Theseus, his last of a long line of celebrated works. It's the story of an amnesiac man who realizes he's part of a massive conspiracy he doesn't remember. He isn't even quite sure who he himself is, or what he's meant to do, but ends up on a ship full of gruesomely mutilated sailors, travelling across the world in search of a woman named Sola. This book is filled with allusions to a real life conspiracy, a secret group called S, of which Straka (whose identity is unknown) was a member. He would publish his story via letters to F.M.X., the translator, whose footnotes tell another fascinating story about F.M.X.'s own relationship with the enigmatic Straka,

Enter modern day literary enthusiasts Eric and Jen. Jen picks up Eric's copy of Ship of Theseus in the library one day and sees all his notes. She writes back, and thus begins a back-and-forth correspondence with him in the margins of his book. There's no shortage of drama there, either, in Eric's clashes with unscrupulous Straka academics, the growing suspicion that a clandestine organization like S is not at all fictional and very much active, and Jen and Eric's burgeoning romance.

Whatever the reception of this book ultimately was (and I believe it's generally been something along the lines of everyone on their feet vigorously clapping their hands in the air), it can't be denied that the structure of S is a masterpiece. A story about a story within a story about another story, with footnotes from another story, being written about by another story. It's meta, it's beautifully written, and it's compelling as hell. Even when I was completely submerged in the horror or suspense of the moment, there was always some part of me reveling in the very fact that this book exists.

This is possibly the only time I've ever been delighted with the unabashed debasement of a library book. Jen and Eric's notes in the margins were ridiculously charming and funny, when they weren't being fascinating. I felt like Jen and I could have had a good long hour of conversation about our problems, which are startlingly similar (aside from the whole, fictional conspiracy unfolding in real life thing). Even their personalities would come out in their handwriting -- Jen's was a warm looping script while Eric wrote in sparse, blocky print. Having Eric confess he liked her was like a happy kick in the guts to me -- partly because he wrote the note rather early in the book (though in the middle of the story), but mostly because his personality was originally closed off, cynical, and rather sparse. It just shows how far they've changed each other.

The story itself (by which I mean the "Ship of Theseus" story) was compelling in its mystery, but slightly less so in its execution. It was sparse and occasionally too obscure, but still would have held up as an interesting story even without Eric, Jen, and FXC's fascinating commentary. It's riddled with clues and codes, which add another level to the story, but I have to admit that the complexities of coding (and therefore the lovely code wheel included at the back of the book) were lost on me.

The themes, however, were not. This is partly because Eric and Jen were helpful enough to point them out in their margin notes. The book often dealt with many questions everyone asks at one point or another, regardless of whether or not we have full possession of our memories (who we are, what we're meant to do, whether any of it is worth it, etc). Reading these themes and the notes brought me back to my college days, when dissecting text was as natural to me as breathing. I kind of miss those days -- S makes literary scholarship cool again.

My one complaint is that due to the many stories ducking and weaving alongside each other, it was sometimes difficult to keep the thread of the story together, especially with Jen and Eric's. The changing color of their ink pens helped, but I wish I could see their story play out chronologically. I also tended to forget the many names of the people associated with Straka, and stumbled along scrabbling for scraps of context clues.

I suppose this means I probably have to read the whole thing all over again.



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