First Impressions from a Book Called "S."

A Novel Idea From J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst 

For my birthday, my brother and his wife - in all of their awesome brilliance - gave me the new book, S., by Doug Dorst and LOST creator J. J. Abrams. As a colleague of mine pointed out, its style is very similar to that of another book called House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Now, I've not read that book, but have been told that it's quite dark... so reader beware. However, the point here is that S., like House of Leaves, is not your traditional, linear storytelling book. It is from a different breed of novels called "metafiction".

As an example, consider the choose-your-own-ending storybooks. Remember those? Whether you loved them or hated them, they were popular for a time. But then... where'd they go? They weren't a bad idea, in theory. But, years later, they're just a memory. You could say that a different medium took up that theory and ran with it - and popularized it even more: video games. That type of story telling - with the "active" reader/viewer immersion - has remained captive to the video game market for a couple of decades now. Ok, "captive" might be harsh... maybe "limited to" or "found mostly in". But that doesn't mean that novels weren't still being published with the same narrative-subjectivity and reader-freedom. And thus, we have this genre's latest publication, S.

Here is a trailer:

Now, I'm far from being done working my way through this book. So much so that once I finish reading it, I still won't be "done". A story like this begs the reader to come back and reengage it. You might be wondering what exactly I'm talking about when I explain it this way, or use terms like "metafiction". I'm simply meaning that S. is a story within a story, and encourages you, the reader, to join in on its own narrative. So, what Abrams and Dorst have given us is a book called S., which, upon taking out of its dust-jacket, is really a faux-book entitled Ship of Theseus, said to have been written by faux-author V.M. Straka. Within this faux-book there are a myriad of handwritten notes along Ship of Theseus' margins. These were written by two faux-readers of the book: a grad student, and an undergrad student (Their names might be mentioned later, but as for where I'm at, this is all we get). Through these faux-reader's notes to one another, you find yourself realizing that "Straka" might have a hidden agenda in the lines of "Ship of Theseus". In fact... is there really a "Straka", or is there something more to this faux-author? This is when you find yourself reading the faux-book one way - wanting to work through its basic plot - while simultaneously reading it with a double intention, that of deciphering it, through the aid of the two faux-readers' notes. Here's an example of what I mean...

It captivates you right off the bat, as you immediately notice the faux-handwritten-notes penned alongside the printed font. But what's more is that once you open S., you realize there are dozens of loose-leaf articles, postcards, stamps, newspaper clippings, etc. strewn throughout its pages. Those "extras" are bits and pieces of the faux-readers' "further research" in unraveling the terrible mystery that is "V.M. Straka".

Ultimately, a work like this treats us as if we are in a metanarrative alongside the characters, and therein gives us another means of interacting with the book's story. This is very similar to what Abrams did with the "alternate reality game" for LOST known as The LOST Experience. Its idea was very similar - you'd be driving down the street and see a billboard for the Dharma Initiative, as if it was a real life organization... or, when you heard through a friend of a friend, or saw an add on the internet, discover the web page for the "Hanso Foundation" (an organization from the t.v. show). And there were DOZENS of things like this to further add volume to the story, and help the viewers dive further in to their beloved t.v. show. Needless to say, it was very immersive.

Here's a look at mine:

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This entire approach to story-telling is very fascinating to me. It calls out to something within me. Now, I think we as a Church can too quickly dismiss this affinity on grounds of it being idolatrous or addictive. But I'm not so sure that these accusations aren't in fact false dichotomies. Can't I be intrigued with a story to the degree that I would like to experience part of it, withoutgiving in to a discontent with the here-and-now? Just because I'd like to have force capabilities every time I watch Star Wars doesn't mean that I secretly want to forsake my family and take the vows of the Jedi. There is a level of imagination and adoration that can be edifying to the soul. All story is to draw this out of us.

So far, S. is no different. It just welcomes more participation. I'm captivated because it carries along in the same vein as other books, in that it calls me to "picture" the world that the author is painting. Yet, it goes further. Dorst and Abrams' novel not only allows the reader to use his imagination, but it goes beyond, and asks him to create with that imagination. Ultimately, this speaks to the imago dei, which the Lord has given all men. Engaging a book like this doesn't have to remain a passive experience. God's given us the privilege to imagine, create, and oversee. S. is perfect for this.

As I mentioned, I've yet to finish their book, but once I have, I'll post a full review. But, for now, I couldn't help but write my first impressions... this is going to be a fun read!