Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Art of "S": When The Experience of Reading Means More Than The Story Itself...

I have not purchased an actual book in well over a year, choosing instead to read on my iPad for lightweight portability and minimal storage. While I spent a lot of time as a child with a stack of books on the windowsill by my bed, proud of my progress and excited by new possibilities as I picked them up, devoured them, and then stored them on shelves one by one, I would rarely return to read any more than once, thus creating something of a hoarder environment in the very limited space of a one bedroom apartment. My books ended up in stacks in my closet as I got older, not even properly displayed, let alone entirely remembered. It just seemed wasteful and somewhat archaic. So when I logged into Amazon to learn J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst's "S" was not going to be available in a Kindle version, I admit I hesitated on the purchase. But I hope no one else does because the packaging of this kind of storytelling is absolutely stunning and would in no way be properly captured on a mere screen. Abrams and Dorst were right not to bastardize the artistry with that option (which would arguably reduce the visuals to something that would evoke memories of Microfiche). "S" isn't like any other book and should not be treated as such. What is uniquely special and downright artistic about this is that there is not one, proper way to read it, but putting it in digital format would direct your reading in an almost unnatural and somewhat omnipotent way. What is most important about "S" is the experience you have while reading it-- the way you choose to track the story that unfolds-- not necessarily the story that actually does unfold.


For this reason, it feels disingenuous to review the story within "S": it is not my place to determine whether or not the story here will work for the audience because it's not really anyone's place to make such grand declarations on behalf of the masses about art. Everyone will take away something slightly different (a pointed argument actually made within this novel anyway) because of what they bring to it; what they want from it; what connection they make to it; how deeply they want to think about it at all. All literature is a form of art, but "S" takes it to another level. 

"S" is really two stories in one. There is "Ship of Theseus", the final novel of a mysterious author named W.M. Straka that was supposedly found by one of his translators and completed and published posthumously. This translator, who also goes by initials, has written a foreward to the story, as well as some footnotes, and there is debate over just how much of the narrative he "cleaned up" or otherwise influence. Thus starts a conspiracy theory level debate on the works of Straka that inspires study and research and margin-notetaking to begin with. The book is presented like an old library book, complete with stampings for who checked it out when and aged yellow pages. There are scribblings in the margins from a graduate student whose life work thus far has been Straka but who is threatened to be usurped (or so he claims) by his former mentor/advisor professor. We learn about this through conversations he and another reader of the book have in the margins. She found it, along with his original notes (marked in gray seemingly pencil and faded with age and wear) and made her own observations and musings in blue. When he received the book back, he responded to her responses in black and a dialogue began that spans an indiscriminate amount of time but goes beyond the content of the book they both read or the man they are now both fascinated by into more personal things about their lives-- or at least hers: he is as mysterious as Straka, setting up a potential conspiracy theory in their story, as well.

Most books are designed to be read linearly, even when the story jumps through space and time but here you can start at the literal beginning, with a foreward written by a different author than the book within the book ("Ship of Theseus"), or you can read that story first to get the fiction first, and read linearly as you would anything else-- only to then go back later for a second pass with the modern day notes and inserts (there are letters, postcards, photos stuck strategically into various pages not as bookmarks but as additional information for the in-story readers who were on their way to discovering more and more about Straka). Or you can read it all at once, taking breaks from the original narrative to read the analysis and relationship forming between those studying it. At times this structure (or lack thereof) makes "S" seemingly exhausting to read but it always felt more exhilarating simply because of the discovery and vibrant breath of life and unique voice that came with each detour. We have been trained to follow the road map of a story when it is presented in a neat order. Here we have to literally follow lines on the page to break away from the current piece of prose we're engaged in to follow another thread of thought, each designed to add layers of additional things to think about when reading what comes next. Many times I found myself utterly engrossed in a particular section, not wanting to break momentum to incorporate something else just yet. In those moments I chose to follow my instinct and double back later. It was oddly liberating and always thrilling.

Even the story told in the margins bounces around, as the book is passed back and forth, most obvious by the ink colors changing from the black and blue early interactions to orange and green as they continue on and dive deeper. Some conversations start on one page and continue on a much farther one (always notes with directions to flip ahead to that page), with these reader characters in much different relationship states from the top to he bottom if any given page. There is so much going on you may find you have to take your own notes at times. Abrams and Dorst undoubtedly felt this weight and admittedly played a little heavy-handed pretty early on with some of the themes to guide the third party reader (you) on where to pay careful attention, even if not on when.

For this reason you might prefer to allow yourself to get sucked into the journey, rather than becoming too active a reader yourself, tying to decode and decipher the potential clues and conspiracy theories talked about in abundance within these pages. I know I did. This allowed me draw my own assumptions and theories without feeling the temptation of using too many of the inserted tools to figure it out too early on. But it also allows a lot of room to go back and experience everything again on repeated readings, with more information each time, seeing the pieces come together, scrutinizing different passages, enjoying the playfulness of the readers within the story. "S" can provide days upon hours of entertainment if you really want to get down and dirty with it, and that makes it even more special.


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