The Short Version: The last novel by a mysterious and reclusive writer. A mysterious organization that may span decades, even centuries. A college senior and a grad student find their lives unexpectedly bound together as they delve into the depths of Ship of Theseus, to the point that they may well be at risk themselves…
The Review: So it’s the year of the fictional auteurs, I guess. First we had Cordova, whose legacy of menacing films sit on some dusty video shelf down the Well of Lost Plots – and now we have Straka, a man about whom we know little and about whose work we know even less. Of course, would you expect anything less from a J.J. Abrams joint?
My intention with this review is to address the three major “parts” of the book and then try to wrap it all together. Forgive me if I can’t stick to that outline / be warned that (try though I might) some light SPOILERS may follow.
Firstly, let’s talk about the book-as-object. Because this is a thing of beauty. I can’t tell you how many people stopped me to ask about the book in my hand, because the cover was so gorgeous. You slide the book out of the slipcase (which is fine, although maybe the flimsiest thing about the whole package) and it’s designed from top to tail like an old school hardback. Not hardcover – hardback. There is no dust jacket for this book. There is, however, a library sticker peeling off the spine. There’s some wear on the book itself. And when you open it, you discover that there are scribblings all throughout the margins. There’s a small part of me terrified by this (I’m a militant anti-scribbler) but also I think it’s hilarious that friends who do write religiously in books may be stymied by some of the fuller pages here.
The scribblings, which I’ll get to, are the writings back and forth between Jen and Eric, the senior/grad student couple who strike up a friendship over the book. Different colored inks clue you in (roughly) to the timeline. And then there are the pieces of ephemera that fall out of the book: postcards, photographs, letters, even a map drawn on a napkin. They, of course, add to the story surrounding the novel and are exactly as gimmicky and cool as you’d hope they would be. Abrams loves his puzzles and he gives you physical pieces to engage with as you read. It’s meant to be a tactile experience – I can’t imagine the e-version is anywhere near as satisfying.
But let us then use that point – the e-version – to slip into the book itself. For this is no ordinary book. Or, actually, the novel itself might be the most ordinary thing about the book in your hands. The margin story is infinitely more interesting than Ship of Theseus, albeit equally as unresolved*, and to really engage with it you almost have to be able to look at the dusty aged pages and flip back and forth to connect the different timelines and what-not. A simple example is that at one point, Jen writes to Eric something like that she bets he wouldn’t notice if she left a random dot on a random page and he responds “like on pg. 319” and I flipped forward and sure enough there was a dot. And when I got to the page later in my reading, I smiled – and suddenly there was this rush of understanding how it must’ve felt for these two to experience the novel in this way of constantly going back and forth to find what’s changed or to revisit things that they said long ago. It’s a really wonderful conceit (if a bit forced – some of this shit, there’s NO WAY you’re doing like six dead drops in a day and not running into one another. Believability = strained, even with the suspension of disbelief.) and I happened to (as I was flipping through) catch a single footnote that filled me with such a happiness and love that I took a picture of it and it felt like the perfect way to end the novel – because the novel does not end where it says END. And that was really cool.
The novel itself, though – the purported final novel by a mysterious gentleman (OR WAS HE?!?!?!?1?) named V. M. Straka – is a bit of a letdown. It’s interesting, don’t get me wrong – but it feels too constructed to be real. They’re both (Jen and Eric) English majors so you know that their footnotes are gonna be full of interpretations and analysis – but rarely does it feel organic. I was one of those kids who hated when a teacher said that X/Y/Z was symbolic of A/B/C in this or that great novel – because it’s so rare that an author expressly wrote that thing as that symbol. It may’ve been subconscious but so rarely is it done with such overriding intention – because authors are not writing for students to interpret their work but rather for readers to enjoy it. Very important distinction and quite possibly why so many kids come out of grade school hating to read.
But that’s another issue for another time.
Here, you can feel the artificiality because you know that the same guy wrote both sections of the book – and while Mr. Dorst is quite a good writer, I don’t think anybody could pull off this level of artifice and make it seem, well, organic. The Straka novel is mysterious and full of interesting images – the recurring S symbol, the mystery of S.’s past, even the creepy ship full of strange horrors – but it ends up feeling a bit like a pastiche of classic adventure novels (The Man Who Was Thursday being the obvious touchstone) with a touch of old-school horror as well. I’m curious to read these other purported Straka novels… but I’m also interested in reading Ship of Theseus. I know that’s an odd thing to say, considering I did just read it… but I also didn’t. I read the novel through the eyes of these two other readers – there are large passages of the novel that I barely skimmed, I’d say, because my mind was constantly diverted to the other story on the page – which happened to be the one I was most interested in anyway. For better or worse, that was how I read the novel – and so I cannot extract the two, I cannot say that I’ve read SoT because I read Jen & Eric’s version of SoT. This, indeed, is why I hate used books too – because I want to experience a novel virginally, not with the notes of someone else coloring my read. So, maybe someday, I wouldn’t mind reading a blank copy of SoT (or any other Straka novel – it would be just like Abrams to commission Dorst [or, in keeping with one theory in the novel, other writers] to construct the entire back catalog) – I might find it MORE than the pastiche (and don’t get me wrong, it’s a good pastiche) I did in 2013.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I want so badly to rhapsodize about this book and there are parts of it about which I will: the book-as-object, the warm glow in my heart when I think of the nerdy-lovely relationship between Jen & Eric, even the adventure-pastiche that is SoT and the feeling of mystery that surrounded it. But, as seems to happen with Mr. Abrams, the end result is never quite what he builds you up to believe it’ll be. The two narratives are never on the same footing and the construction of the whole thing shows behind the curtain at several points. Will Straka live on in my mind like Cordova? I don’t think so. But the book will sit on my shelf proudly, drawing admiring eyes and (quite probably) fond caresses now and again. And that’s quite something.