Wednesday 4 December 2013


(November 2013)

I know I’ve riffed on the whole ‘experimental books that are really just kids’ books with bigger words’ angle only recently, but I’m afraid it’s something I must revisit here. For all the comparisons being made between S., House of Leaves, and Pale Fire, I’m afraid it’s most obvious literary antecedent is The Jolly Postman. I fucking loved that book.

It was even subtitled Other People’s Letters, and that’s what you get here because it’s all so very meta. This is a cloth-bound library book, The Ship of Theseus, supposedly by one V.M Straka, in the margins of which two students exchange scribbled annotations in a touching (if slightly twee) display of analog communication. They discuss the themes of the story, try to decode the hidden messages implanted by the ‘translator’ which may or may not reveal the true identity of the author, get dragged into a shadowy world of secret societies and petty academic sniping, and, of course, flirt outrageously.

The production values here are phenomenal. In addition to making the book look and feel exactly like a decades-old library volume (it even manages to smell slightly musty, somehow), it’s stuffed to the gills with notes the annotators have left for each other: postcards, scribbled-on napkins, photos, newspaper cuttings. This all means that it’s quite easy to develop cramp in your hands from the hours spent squeezing the thing to stop everything falling out. At least The Jolly Postman had pockets so everything stayed where it was meant to be.

Reading S. is not dissimilar from eating yakiniku or fondue: the primary enjoyment comes from the interactive elements of the experience. It’s the thrill of playing with your food in a way that you haven’t been allowed to since you were a child. And, like yakiniku or fondue, and the actual quality of the produce is of less importance than it would normally be. For all the declarations of the other characters that the core story is a ‘lost classic’, and for all that it does pretty effectively evoke a Kafkaesque atmosphere of early Twentieth Century dislocation and oppression, the actual writing is fairly pedestrian. It’s clearly been Lost* for a reason. This has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that everyone is getting so very worked up over not much at all.

There are interesting chronological things going on here though. The eponymous S. is the protagonist of the core story and his experience of time gets explicitly concertinaed. Then there’s the question of how to read the story and the notes. In parallel? In sequence? From front to back or, given how nontraditional everything is, do you pick a page at random and start from there?

The annotations are roughly colour coded by period (you eventually figure out) and while they largely progress in time with the story you occasionally get interjections from later on earlier pages. Initially these are effective and interesting ways of foreshadowing stuff, but after a while they only really serve to underscore the contrived nature of the whole affair. It feels a little weird to be talking about the suspension of disbelief in relation to a book that so obviously seeks to play with those conventions, but there it is.

I ended up reading through the ‘real’ story a chapter at a time, then going back and reading the annotations and inserted material. Seemed to work, and it must be said that this is an immensely enjoyable reading experience. It’s just fun to play with all the bits and bobs as they fall out. All in all a very entertaining read, but nowhere near as deep or sophisticated or original as it’s being made out to be.

So in the last few weeks we’ve had an illustrated poem (à la Dr Seuss) from Mark Z. Danielewski, and now a playbook (à la Janet and Allan Ahlberg) from J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. If Junot Diaz decides to do a pop-up book you can rest assured I’ll get straight onto it.

*I thank you.


  1. I would have had no idea looking at the book's cover that is was so full of interesting stuff like that. I will be taking a peek at that next time I go into the bookstore, it sounds like a treat.

    1. It's not cheap. I got it at a hefty discount from everyone's least favourite online bad-boys, and it still took a fair old chunk out of the book budget. Worth the money though, if only for the childish thrill of playing with all the bits and pieces.

  2. Why don't people blog like this? You'd be surprised how well posts can lock memories together with semiotic codes/languages that are indecipherable to automated systems. Web 2.0 is a very dynamic medium

    1. The effort, I'd imagine. This is more of an experience than a book, and it clearly wasn't a simple job to get it all together. Even speaking for myself, my posts are nowhere near as link-happy now as when I started blogging. I enjoyed tracking down all the stuff, but it ate up a huge amount of time.

      Here's to the artisans who do have the patience and commitment for it, eh?