I’m currently reading J.J. Abram’s and Doug Dorst’s novel S. It’s one of the those multi-story tales written with a neat hook that’s been designed to nail me in my used book-loving heart. Anyone who has read House of Leaves or the graphic novel Building Stories or other such books knows that the reader is left to their own devices in regards to the consumption of the narrative. There are tales spread across several documents (in Building Stories the blueprints are part of the tale) or characters that exist solely in footnotes where they comment on the narrative proper, having already read through the story and experienced some phenomena as a result.
With S, the narratives are the final book of a mysterious writer named V.M. Straka, long thought dead. The secondary narrative is the story of two lit majors reading through the book and passing notes. In other words, the female character takes out the book, reads a passage, comments on the male character’s notes, and puts the book back. As these two young ones read, they also underline, comment, flirt, and comment on the commentary (S also contains a second mysterious author who provide odd footnotes on Straka’s “work”). Whew. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. There is probably no one way to read this story and digest all the layers in one sitting. Perhaps it’s the intent of the authors to cast you, the reader, in the experience of what it is like to be unraveling the layers of meaning when preparing to defend a literary dissertation. It’s this kind of experiential writing I can get behind personally. Whether it’s all worth has yet to be determined.
The faux-handwritten notes are my favorite part. It harkens back to why I would never buy new books for any class in hopes of finding someone else’s thoughts spilled across the page. I loved seeing and judging what others thought was meaningful or relevant (sometimes it was just a re-wording of the chapter title) based on what they underlined. Occasionally, I’d find some soul who would jot down his or her own thoughts or even recommendations for books with similar phrasing. These were treasures, because sometimes they’d do my homework for me.
While I have yet to see if S will be more style or substance, I’m grateful to the storytellers for using the gimmick to good effect. This always leads me to wondering about the purpose of gimmicks or hooks or novelties. Are they just a cheap slip n’ slide to evoking emotion? Typically, I think not. In this case, I’m enjoying the hyper-specificity of the narrative’s presentation.
As a writer, I am impressed by the speed at which Abrams and Dorst inject the mystery and ticking clock into this ambitious project. It’s a note I’ve written down for myself: don’t withhold with the goods. Hint at ‘em early on.