S. is a seduction. Published in late 2013, it quickly begat websites that gathered avid readers to share its secrets, attack its codes, and devote untold hours into reading S. again and again. Without its slip cover, S. seems to be a copy of V. M. Straka’s Ship of Theseus, filched from a high school library. Slip cover and all, S. is Something Else: a masterpiece of book making, from concept to packaging, a very bookish book that also pays tribute to letters, postcards, and photocopies. It vents the misery of literary studies and changes shape as it progresses. It is a book-length critique of fiction, reading, and identity.
S., the project, is the work of many. The copyright names more than a dozen people who helped realize it. J. J. Abrams came up with the concept and shared it with Lindsey Weber, who recommended Doug Dorst. Joshua Kendall, their editor at Mulholland Books, put the pieces together. Kendall’s assignment was monumental: produce a book published in 1949. Make thousands of copies, each of which looks unique. Kendall engaged Melcher Media to handle production. Paul Kepple and Ralph Geroni designed everything that went into it.
And what is everything? Ship of Theseus is thickened with inserts: folded letters, postcards from Brazil, photographs, photocopied documents from the Straka archives, a decoder wheel, a page from a campus newspaper, a calling card, a yellowing obituary clipping slipped inside a notecard, a map drawn on a napkin. Each piece is another clue to solving a mystery or for beginning one. Like the ship in Ship of Theseus, S. could easily fall apart.
Ship of Theseus (what fans call “the inner novel”) has the usual library markings: ownership stamps, a Dewey classification number on its spine, its inner [End Page 161] cover bearing date stamps showing when it was checked out and in. It looks like something out of 1949, with odd stains, underlining, and margins densely covered with handwritten notes made by the two leading characters—Jennifer Heyward and Eric Husch—of “the outer novel.”
To look at it, any copy of Ship of Theseus seems to be the very copy Jen and Eric passed back and forth, their point of contact and silent messenger, telling each other what they felt and thought about the novel, its author, and each other. It is an odd way to communicate, but it works for them. Jen is a well-read literature major, working in library special collections; Eric is a bitter graduate student bullied by his advisor and supported by an obscure foundation. Jen’s notes ask Eric to meet face to face, but he fears he would disappoint her and instead sends the book back with more messages. Jen invites Eric to use email, but he believes the book is safer and its cargo of messages is too dear to abandon.
The book is the haven where they fall in love and a work site where they probe the secrets of Ship of Theseus. They identify people hidden in its “veiled autobiography.” They look for its ciphers and codes. Their efforts to discover who Straka was and what his novel says about him turns out to be deadly serious business, impeded by fires, thefts, unscrupulous rivals, and betrayals. Jen and Eric warn each other: to study Straka is dangerous.
Who is this dangerous author, V. M. Straka, this mystery man? He is a member of a group called S., wanted for subversion, sabotage, espionage, and murder. Did he write himself into the novel as the assassin S., who sails on a patched-up ship trying to remember who he is? Or is Straka only a name? The foreword and notes to Ship of Theseus record more than a dozen men and women proposed to be Straka, who may be one writer, or two, or many, a Czech, Englishman, Canadian, Spaniard, or Scot, a man, two men, a man and a woman, or a tightly knit group of anti-fascists writing under a single name. Whatever else he is, Straka is every writer’s fantasy: published, praised...