Learning to read novels again
CREATORS of popular television have often invoked comparisons with written fiction: Dennis Potter and Steve Bochco both used the term “TV novel” to describe series such as Potter’s The Singing Detective and Bochco’s LA Law and NYPD Blue. Both screenwriters also published novels, and this switchover tradition continues with J.J. Abrams, the power behind Alias and Lost.
Perhaps surprisingly, writers who rethought the structures of television often became reverentially conventional on the page: Potter’s Ticket To Ride and Bochco’s Death By Hollywood had impressive plot and dialogue, as you might expect, but an Edwardian reader would be at ease with the novels’ approach to narrative and chapters.
Abrams, though, has come up with a novel of such structural daring that the first task of the audience is to work out a way of reading it. And I say “come up with”, rather than “written”, because one of the conventions challenged is that of authorship. On programmes such as Lost and Alias, Abrams operated as what American TV calls a “showrunner”, overseeing every decision and episode but not writing every episode himself. With S., Abrams is a sort of “novelrunner”, having conceived the project but left the prose to someone else: Doug Dorst, a US novelist and creative writing tutor.
You suspect that this collaboration with Abrams must have taught Dorst a few things about the nature and creation of fiction. The finished product consists of a shrinkwrapped package that – perhaps fittingly – resembles a TV boxset. Inside is what looks like an old library book, complete with shelf code and date stamps of its borrowing history. This book is Ship Of Theseus, the 19th and final novel of an author called V.M. Straka, which has been translated with copious footnotes by someone called F.X. Caldeira.
The latter’s preface claims that Straka was “one of the most idiosyncratic and influential” authors of the first half of the 20th century. Almost nothing is known about him, and his elusive identity, Caldeira rather grumpily records, has led to an “authorship controversy”, somewhat akin to the Shakespearean one, with rival academic camps supporting different candidates. Noting this plot‑seeding catalogue, the Abrams fan thinks of the pilot episode of Lost in which almost everything said by a survivor of the plane crashed on the desert island seemed to open up a mystery.
We are, however, already not wholly concentrating on Caldeira, because the book, though otherwise a library hardback realistically battered and yellowed over six decades, has startlingly wide margins. These accommodate, on almost every page, scribbled handwritten comments that alternate between the lower-case scrawl of a woman called Jen and the neat capitalised writing of a man by the name of Eric. Both are obsessives of the Straka literary mystery, and are taking Ship Of Theseus in turn out of the stacks of the library of Pollard State University and conducting an analogue equivalent of e-mail in the white space on the pages.
So, by now, we have two other readers in the book with us, but possibly only one author: Jen’s and Eric’s marginalia tell us that some researchers suspect that Caldeira the translator may in fact be Straka the novelist, or possibly vice versa. We also learn that unscrupulous academics are competing to publish a solution to the Straka mystery and that, as they bicker, cooperate and share their life stories at the edges of the disputed text, Jen and Eric are falling rather touchingly in love. Plus, like ad-break cliffhangers in a TV episode, we keep finding between the pages, apparently at random, cuttings from a college magazine and faded Spanish newspapers, postcards, letters, essay notes and, at one point, a map drawn on a napkin from the Pollard State canteen.
Although an electronic edition has been released, the book should clearly be experienced in its physical form, which is one of the most staggering feats of book production I have ever seen. Indeed, Abrams’s major contribution to the project is to have come up the antihistorical concept of an analogue interactive book.
Such is the suspicion raised in the reader by the book’s many tricks that the idea rapidly takes hold that “Doug Dorst” is actually Abrams, making a novel-writing debut under protective cover. But, unless his Google footprint is an elaborate hoax, Dorst is real, though the prose is perhaps the weakest part of the concept.
In literary terms, S. resembles a mash-up of Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire, which consists of a fake literary text with critical apparatus, and A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Booker prize winner, Possession, in which academics compete to solve a literary mystery. But Abrams and Dorst are, in effect, asking us to read both of those books simultaneously while puzzles keep dropping on to our knees. Even the most dedicated book lover becomes a learner reader, having to decide in which order and with what frequency to read the paragraphs and margins.
From J.J. Abrams to readers, mystery wrapped in romance