S.

by Doug Dorst

Reviewer Rating:
5
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Review

THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD.

I'm actually only halfway through. So I don't have much to tell you. And it's one of those books where you don't want to give anything away. But I'm more absorbed in this book than in any book I've read for a long time. SO GOOD.

 

***FIVE DAYS LATER***

ahem. Okay, I've finished the book now.

 

The reason for the squealing of awesomeness above has to do both with what a different book S. is as well as how good it is (both in terms of its technical construction and it's plot/likability/that ineffable thing that makes us label books "good"). In case you haven't heard of it, S. is two stories within one book. The first story is The Ships of Theseus, purportedly written in the 1940s, a symbolic/metaphorical retelling of the labor and Communist movements in Europe (as well as....other things). The physical book itself has been published to look like a library edition of The Ships of Theseus. The other story, which is handwritten in the margins of The Ships of Theseus, is of two college students writing notes, passing the book back and forth between them--notes about the book, the mysterious author V.M. Straka, and their own lives. The book also contains numerous inserts--longer letters and postcards, maps, newspaper articles, decoder wheels--that Eric and Jen (the college students) share with each other (I would be remiss at this moment if I didn't beg of you, dear library patron, please try very hard to not lose these inserts).

You will almost certainly like one story better than the other, and there will be times when one is more exciting than the other (in the best parts of the book, the two stories trade off between who's being exciting and who isn't), and that's okay. But it's important to read--and pay attention to--both stories. (The Margin Story, since it's told out of order, is harder to keep track of, but also simpler.) It would've been easy to sacrifice one story in service to the other, but Doug Dorst resists this temptation and gives full service to both. 

This is not a book to read in fits and snatches, here and there, on short bus rides or quick waits in the doctor's office (and not just because a catch-as-catch-can strategy makes you more likely to lose inserts). No, to fully appreciate this book, you need to put on a pair of comfy pajama pants and some wool socks, make some tea (or some coffee, or some hot chocolate with some Bailey's in it), clear a couple of hours off of your calendar, put your smartphone in the other room, and sit down and just read. When is the last time a book commanded your entire attention? When is the last time a book really challenged you, not Dostoyevsky-challenging, or frustrating-challenging, but one that makes you work, just enough to make it more fun, to make sure you're getting all the details and aren't missing anything? Don't you miss that? Don't you want that back? I didn't even realized that that was something I missed until I started reading S., and it demanded that I read it this way.

That said, if you like your stories direct; if you like the line of the plot to be, not predictable, but to at least proceed forward in a straight line; if you like at least knowing what the characters in a book are trying to do; this may not be a book for you. This book is indirect, and it meanders, and it can be hard to tell which details are important to remember and which aren't (this is especially true of the Margin Story). It doesn't build to a big final climax or moment of truth (which is not to say that I didn't find the ending satisfying). If you need your stories to be concise and cohesive, this book might just be a slog to get through, and seem pointless. You need to be okay with narrative ambiguity. (On the other hand, if you asked me as a reader if I like my stories direct, cohesive, and concise with clear narrative goals, I would tell you that yes I do. And I loved this book. So maybe give yourself a chance either way.)

S. is getting huge amounts of publicity, largely because of its format. Time will tell whether the book is just a gimmick or whether it stands up on its own feet after its shiny unusualness wears off a bit. I'll have to read it again in six months or so and see if I still like it as much in the future as I do now, in some awe of its uniqueness and strangeness. If that happens, I'll come back and amend the review again. But for now? Loved it. Loved. It.

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