“S.” by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (Mulholland Books, 2013)


Some books are just good stories written by an author and thoroughly enjoyed by the reader. And a select few are works of art created by multiple authors and an incredible development team behind a daring publisher; S. is one of those books, perhaps the only one of its kind. A project that has been years in the making, beginning as an idea between two creative guys that became something much bigger when Mulholland Books agreed to publish it and employed the abilities of a team of editors, copyeditors and book development people to create a book that is much more than just any old book.

S. works on many levels. If Inception could be a book, this would be it.

Look Inside

At the deepest level is an old forgotten book by a once well-known author whose life has been shrouded in mystery and whose identity still remains in question. It is called Ship of Theseus about a person known as “S” who awakes not knowing who he is and anything about his life, as he begins a very strange journey into finding answers to his many questions.

At the next level is the translator of the Ship of Theseus who was a huge fan of V. M. Straka’s work, so much so that they were in a relationship, though it is unknown whether the author and translator were ever able to confess their love for each other. However, the translator and author have left secreted messages and ciphers in the text as well as within the footnotes. So while the translator is educating the reader on the story and facts about the book and what she knew about the author, she is also secretly communicating with Straka.


Up one level we have the completed old book which is what the reader holds in their hands when they take it out of the slipcase.  The level of detail that the publisher went to recreating this old book is nothing short of astounding, with stamped check out dates, stains and marks on some of the pages, and an aged feel and color to the pages; their even seems to be a musty smell about the volume. And within the margins and spaces around the text we have a former teacher and an undergrad student conversing back and forth about the text, the author, life, and eventually their own lives and feelings towards each other, even though they don’t physically meet for a long time.

There are a couple sub-levels within this particular level as the two “main” characters are not simply conversing back and forth but are doing so at different points in their lives. Eric has read the book a number of times, and has notations from the first time he read it when he was a teenager in pencil, and then further comments between Jennifer and he at different points in time, when they know different things about each other.

Then there are the number of pieces of media secreted within the pages: photos, letters between Eric and Jennifer, but also relating to Ship of Theseus; postcards and notes and an incredibly detailed map drawn upon a napkin. Again, the detail that went into creating these items is nothing short of astonishing, with the old photos with logo prints on the back, aged postcards, letters with ink smudges and coffee stains. As for the map, it is drawn in pen on a college napkin that still perfectly, delicately folds to show the school logo.


At the final level is the reader opening the pages of S. for the first time, taking in all these levels and each of the stories going on at each level. It can be read in certain ways and is the sort of book that can benefit from being read multiple times. Ultimately, it is a book unlike any other, likely unlike anything you have read before. But it will be a journey you won’t soon forget, and one you can return to whenever you want.

Originally written on August 14, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of S. from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.



[This is the seventh installment in a series. The whole series can be found here.]

In the sixth chapter of S. we learn that our characters reading Ship of Theseus are named Jennifer and Eric. (This may have been revealed earlier in the book but it was in this chapter that I picked up on it.) Naturally, the use of the names by the characters gives more credence to their developing relationship.

 It is in this chapter we have one of the most impressive pieces of media in the book, with multiple pages of yellow-lined legal pad paper with carefully detailed writing on both sides from Eric as he recounts his moving personal story from childhood of how he first got into Straka with a family tragedy he was blamed for. It continues to shock the reader how far the people who worked on this book went for authenticity and realism, how these pages even feature stains from water and/or coffee, as well as smudging and other stains that would be normal for a document like this. It is also interesting that Eric uses some unusual contractions even though he has as much room as he wants to write what he wants. It is part of his character; indicatory of the way he thinks.


We also discover that the crew of the ship Theseus are definitely a few sandwiches short of a full picnic as we witness one crew member getting his lips and mouth sewn together to silence him without any anesthetic while the rest of the crew watches.

Eric and Jennifer finally meet in real life, details of which are not readily revealed, but they have a good enough time to want to meet again. It also seems that Jennifer’s scholastic career is still on very shaky ground and she is unlikely to graduate now due to failing a class.


It is explained that the confusing postcards in the previous chapter of birds from Brazil were actually written by Straka, which wasn’t completely clear until now. But then S. is the sort of book you have to work at.

Meanwhile Jen is becoming more and more convinced that she is being watched and followed, which comes across as being overly paranoid, but with what has happened so far and the weird stuff going on in Ship of Theseus, even though she’s an unreliable narrator and Eric only seems to vaguely believe, it seems there must be something to it. The question is who is watching and following her?


The idea is put forth that has been discussed between Jen and Eric: Straka and the translator were secretly communicating with each other through edits of the book and through the footnotes, a coded message that remains in the printed version of the book.

This is a big reveal chapter in many ways for the character of S in knowing that he is important to everyone around in some way and he gets handed special materials to complete his apparent destiny, but still not knowing who he actually is. While for the secondary characters – Jen and Eric – they meet on multiple occasions in real life and is clear to the reader that they are falling in love with each other and their lives are becoming more important related to Ship of Theseus.


Have another cliffhanger ending to the chapter with a scary fire at the motel where Jen is staying, though it’s unknown who is behind the arson, but is definitely tied in with the story and what they’re working on.

What makes the story wonderfully eerie at times is that so many events in the story of Ship of Theseus end up being mirrored in the lives of Jen and Eric in some way, most notable with the terrible fires.



[This is the sixth installment in a series. The whole series can be found here.]


They key to a good book is that it needs to keep you hooked, and S. certainly remains true to this, as does the sub-book within it – Ship of Theseus – which goes from the mystical to the action-packed to the outright bizarre. There’s a little bit of everything to keep you interested. What’s also interesting is that the book Ship of Theseus, being Straka’s last book, features numerous references to his other books, all clearly cited by the translator as well as pointed out by the two readers – Jennifer and Eric.


As chapter five progresses, it’s revealed that the likelihood of Jen actually graduating appears to be more and more remote, as she does worse in her classes, the book and Eric clearly distracting her, absorbing her life to the point where she doesn’t seem to really care, even though Eric continues to point this out to her. Much like the character S in Ship of Theseus, Jen is also adrift in this story. (See what I did there.)


A problem that does start to develop with S. from the reader’s perspective is all the cool handouts and media that are part of the book are not always clear and obvious with their intention and/or meaning. Sometimes there will be a reference in the story, or the characters reading the book will mention or point it out in some way. Other times there’s nothing and the reader is left feeling a little confused why there’s a postcard from someone and what bearing it has on the book. Perhaps there should’ve been some sort of separate handout listing and giving a brief explanation on the inserts. I know it would’ve detracted from the overall effect of the project, but it risks losing the reader a little, which one should really avoid.


It’s revealed that the translator for Ship of Theseus is working on a code with the footnotes, which Eric and Jen deduce and discuss, as well as the apparent fact that the translator was working on this code for years. It’s the start of what will turn out to be a complete hidden communication between the translator and the author, a most unusual relationship.


The abundance of strange “S”s found around the world continues, and is discussed a little in the context of the story with Straka saying he was unaware of this, even though it seems pretty prevalent both in Straka’s life, Jen’s and Eric’s lives, and even in the story of Ship of Theseus, adding to the overall weirdness of the book.


At the end of the fifth chapter of Ship of Theseus there is a basic return to how the story originally started off with S on the ship with some unusual characters, and now he’s back even though things are different and yet still the same.


S. V


[This is the fifth installment in a series. The whole series can be found here.]

In the fourth chapter of Ship of Theseus it almost seems as if the events taking place within the book take a secondary stage to the seemingly more important story of the two commenters discussing the chapter, but also revealing details about events in their own lives and their developing relationship. The female commenter wants them to finally meet in person and see if they have more in common other than Ship of Theseus and V. M. Straka, while the male commenter pleads that he is simply too busy with his work, though it is clear that while he would very much like to meet her, he is also extremely nervous about it. The female commenter addresses this by discussing a future job prospect and how she will be graduating soon, which the male commenter then takes on by trying to get to her confirm she will definitely be leaving the area.


In this chapter reader learns that the notes being made in the margins by each of the characters are not all within the same time frame. There are intense discussions between them on a couple pages, which is not continued but just ends, because that was as far as they reached with the reading at that time. Is a little unusual to deal with as a reader, but once the reader understands the construct of the margin notes, it becomes more acceptable. This is further confirmed when these characters reference discussions made at an earlier points in the book and what bearing it has on the current context.


Learn that the names for the margin characters is Jennifer and Eric.

Events begin to have a stronger bearing on their lives as there are a series of fires occurring near to Jennifer, scaring her, while she becomes distant and estranged from her roommates, as well as at times she wonders if there is an intruder in her place of residence. Lends an air of tension and fear with the idea that with the more of the book they read, the worse things seem to become in their lives, with supposed people knowing what they are doing and wanting to terrorize and stop them.

As things continue to get weirder in their lives as they continue the reading, learn that there have been a series of “S” symbol sightings throughout the world, being collected and tracked through specific websites. Eric believes most of them to be hoaxes, while Jennifer is not so sure, especially when they continue to be discovered in unusual places, including recently excavated caves. Seems clear that Straka was unaware of the occurrence of the Ss during the author’s lifetime.


It was in read this particular chapter that I realized the sort of code to the different colored margin texts that may have been apparent to other readers earlier on, which is that each specific color of text is done during a specific time and specific read through. Eric read the book the first time when he was a teenager, which are all the notes in pencil. Then the specific color texts of Eric and Jennifer discussing back and forth are from different moments in time, some occurring closer to the present and presumably the end of the book.  Therefore have points in the book of Eric and Jennifer talking about finally meeting, and other points when they have already met and are discussing the text.

This helps to add another level of drama to the overall book as the reader tries to work out at what point they are discussing the events of Ship of Theseus in their own lives and what has been happening to them. Just another level of complexity added for the enjoyment of the reader.

It was at the end of this chapter that I got the sense that S. is one of those books that could use multiple readings (much like Ship of Theseus is for Eric and Jennifer) and with further readings, new things will likely be read and discovered and appreciated.



 [This is the fourth installment in a series. The whole series can be found here.]

One of the most impressive and entrancing aspects of S. (and part of its brilliance) the many layers that the overall book possesses, each to be appreciated and studied by the reader of the book. There is the actual text of Ship of Theseus, then there is the concept of the translated work, then there are the footnotes of the translator. This is the first level, if you will, of the reading containing a number of different layers to be contemplated by the reader.

Next there are the pencil notes of one of the characters reading the text at a young age, then there are the pen margin notes made by this same character later in life and the female character he is corresponding with as they discuss both the text and their own personal feelings and events in their own lives. This is the next level.

Finally there is the level of the reader, taking this all in, in its many different aspects, putting it all together and deciding from there what the story is telling them.


While it has been hinted at in the previous chapters that there is something developing between the two characters making their comments in the margins, and I’ve discussed this in previous installments in the series, it is in this chapter, the third chapter of Ship of Theseus, that this relationship is made clear as something blossoming between the characters over the reading of this text, as they become more open with each other, sharing personal details from their lives, and being outright flirty with their commentary.  This is also played upon by a relationship taking place within the text of Ship of Theseus, and the characters reading it, discussing it and playing around with it, as they hint at their evolving feelings for each other.

Adding a level of realism with the notations in  the margins, the characters even make simple illustrations or doodles at points, much as we all have done when our interest begins to waver and we find ourselves wanting to create something from scratch on an empty square of paper. It adds to the level of detail put into the development and making of this book, even down to occasional smudges of the ink, leading to the possibility that the character writing the particular notation might be left-handed.


At this point of reading S. I got the sense that I was reading an important scholarly text, something out of classic literature that has been around for a number of years, perhaps even centuries, and after finishing the book, it might be worth a reread or two, perhaps right away, or perhaps after the passing of some time, so that the many subtle levels of the story can be better appreciated, once all the details from start to finish are fully known.

It is also in this chapter and a sliver of fear is introduced to the characters reading the text, which is in turn passed on to the overall reader, as they discover alterations in the text that weren’t that way before, meaning since their last reading someone has come and made this alteration, such as the underlining of the word or sentence. It forces the reader to ask questions such as whether these readers of Ship of Theseus are being watched or observed in some way, and just how important this text truly is. It adds an growing element of risk to these characters which just serves to make it more thrilling for the reader of S. This is developed even further with developments happening to these readers in their lives, people they know getting hurt, others getting killed who are in some way related to this text.


And with the development of the chilling and dark in S., it seems only warranted that there a reader should have an ideal playlist to accompany the reading. So here are some suggested playlists from Songza to add to the mood of reading S. 

Dark & Twisted

Dark Side of the Synth

A Lynchian State of Mind




[This is the third installment in a series. You can read the first installment here.]

Things take an interesting turn in Chapter 2 of Ship of Theseus, as the levels of narrative being to blur a little.  Our two conversing characters who have been going back and forth over the events in Ship of Theseus start to experience happenings in their own lives that relate to the author and story. We learn of these characters’ histories and their involvement with the college and what their own goals are, as well as certain tertiary villainous characters who are also very interested in this manuscript and possibly trying to thwart them in their endeavor. And now it seems inevitable in some way that these two characters will not only end up together, but are perhaps destined toIt is clear that V. M. Straka was a very popular author worldwide and is the subject of much discussion in various circles, most notably between our two main characters.


It is in this chapter that we get a good dose of notable Abrams with a strong Lost vibe as we have not only dramatic events, but events that definitely take on a supernatural vibe, in the form of a massive waterspout that appears from nowhere, imperiling the crew on the ship known as Theseus, that eventually leaves only the one main character, enigmatically known as “S,” alive and floating on the water, the ship nowhere in site.

The story becomes fuller, as new characters are introduced and learned about with the back and forth writings in the margins, some that are literary assertions and questions about the text, while others are mere conversational pieces between the two characters as their relationship begins to develop.

It is also revealed that with the various footnotes made by the translator throughout the book, many an odd comment is made that doesn’t seem to make sense according to the characters reading the text, to the extent that they deduce there is quite possibly some code at work here. The question is who is it for?

The beauty of S. is that it continues to grow more complex with its many levels plot that are each further developed  in their own right, keeping the reader fully hooked into everything going on.



[This is the second installment of a series on S., specifically on the subject of Chapter One of Ship of Theseus. The photos in this post are of the handouts in Chapter One. You can read the first part of the series here. ]

The style and conception of S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst has been compared to that of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Nick Bantock’s books, such as Griffin & Sabine. While it is true that S. employs some of the styles and devices from these two author’s books, it is also very much is own unique creation. Both Danielewski and Bantock created their own books with the goal of creating an individual artwork that was different from any other, but was also particular to the story they wanted to tell.

The same can very much be said for S., which uses written text on top of the book being read, adding an additional layer of reading and story, as well as the many handouts and loose pieces of media that all add to the ambiance; the experience of the book. Abrams and Dorst did it this way not to imitate these other writers but because they wanted to tell a very specific story in a very specific way.

And the result is S., a book that is truly unique in the history of publishing.


What perhaps is the most astounding . . . actually there are many, so let’s edit that to one of the most astounding aspects of the book is not just the use of commentary between these two characters discussing the book they are reading, Ship of Theseus, but the different colors of ink that are used for the printing and even an imitation pencil font that looks very close to the real thing. It is both impressive in adding to the complexity and fascination of the story, but also in its execution as part of the impressive printing effort.

The pencil markings are in fact one of the characters’ earlier notes made when he was younger, as he has apparently been reading and been obsessed with this book since he was fifteen. As for the fonts of the characters, they are each distinctive and immediately recognizable: the male character writes in small printed block capital letters, while the female character writes in a nice, easy to read cursive. The colors of the texts will vary from page to page, chapter to chapter, and seems to serve little need other than it’s whatever color pen the characters have at the moment to use when they are writing the notes, which is exactly what the average person would do.


The creators also did a good job of creating a logical flow of the notes, so the reader can easily follow and see what the notes are in reference to in the text since, as I mentioned in the first post, the reader is essentially reading two stories at the same time. In some ways it feels like a enjoying brain exercise to read S., like doing a crossword puzzle or Sudoku, as the reader is having to follow the two separate story-lines that are related simultaneously which makes for some fun mental acrobatics.

But again, the creators do a good job of making the two stories very different so the reader doesn’t get confused. The main story with Ship of Theseus is written in an intense and at times overly-written way, almost a style of purple prose, that gives a strong voice to the story and makes it easily recognizable, to the point where at times it reminded me of a nineteenth century novel, and in particular Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I have a feeling the creators might have had somewhat in mind when writing S.

Within the story of Ship of Theseus, the central character refers to his name as “S” which the “readers” of the book who are the characters adding the margin notes assume to be V. M. Straka, the author of Ship of Theseus. But with this mysteriousness it is a journey of discovery for the main character, which helps to keep the reader hooked and involved as they follow along and learn about the character and the world.


And as for the two “readers” adding the notes in the margins on every page, while they have never met, there definitely seems to be a relationship developing between them and one might presume they will eventually end up together by the end of the reading of Ship of Theseus, but one never knows, which just adds another layer of plot and drama to S., continuing to make it an enthralling and addictive read.