A new cultural titan roams the Earth. Call him the geek-bait auteur: a guy (its usually a guy) who creates TV shows stuffed with clues designed to stoke collective plot speculation.
By MARK ATHITAKIS
The Washington Post
Its most successful exemplar is J.J. Abrams, who with Lost used a stock wreck-survival storyline to build a complex universe of smoke monsters and secret societies. (Wikipedias entry on the Mythology of Lost is nearly as long as the one on the U.S. Capitol building.)
A generation ago, chatter over shows such as Lost wouldve been relegated to obscure fanzines and gatherings in Holiday Inn conference centers. Now, though, the masses play via social media, and every network in pursuit of content that marketing gurus like to call sticky wants its own geek bait.
For mastering this, Abrams has earned fame, the gilded keys to both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, and the clout to produce S., a lavish geek-bait novel.
In looks alone, S. is gorgeous, a masterpiece of verisimilitude. Inside its slipcase is a novel titled Ship of Theseus, written by one V.M. Straka and supposedly published in 1949. Tucked inside its yellowed pages are almost two dozen bits of paper: handwritten notes, postcards, photos, documents, newspaper clippings, a scribbled-on napkin.
And nearly every page is filled with marginalia written by Jen, an undergrad working at a college library, and Eric, a grad student who has been trying to nail down Strakas identity.
All aspects of S. are engineered to make you feel as if youve stumbled on a serious literary conspiracy.
Abrams and collaborator Doug Dorst, the author of two relatively traditional works of fiction, juggle two plots, one in the novel and one in the commentary about it. Theseus itself is a labyrinthine, Kafkaesque yarn about a man, S., who has lost his memory and sense of identity. He knows hes in trouble, though: When S. isnt avoiding the agents of a multinational arms dealer, hes on a ship that seems to exist on a new level of the space-time continuum.
Gloom abides: A romantic interest is out of reach, and fellow shipmates have their mouths sewn shut. It is one thing to believe people are out to get you, goes one typically noir-ish line. It is another thing to know it; it is yet another to know that those people are closing in.
Meanwhile, Jen and Eric banter in the margins about Straka, who could be one of a host of authors, or multiple authors. Straka, like Forrest Gumps angry radical cousin, has stood accused of everything from plotting the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to slandering J. Edgar Hoover. Jen and Eric surmise that Ship of Theseus is an extended, coded message between him and his trusted translator, redeemer and (perhaps) beloved.
Eric emerges as a melancholy scholar who has fallen afoul of the professor who has poached his research; Jen is bright but more laid-back, eager to coax Eric into meeting in person. Underlining roasting lamb and cumin in Theseus, Jen mentions a Moroccan restaurant she likes. When Eric delivers another self-involved response, she digs in a little harder with her felt-tip pen. So, OK: HINT: I really like the Moroccan place.
Still, at times S. feels more gunky than sticky, clotted with codes and references. Which associate of S. connects to which doppelganger of Straka? Which academic nemesis of Eric or Jen has done wrong by Straka, and in what way?
Parsing this can be tedious labor, and one occasionally feels as Eric does: Sometimes Im jealous of people whove studied VMS books w/o getting into all of this. (For the determined, a host of websites and Twitter feeds get very much into it.)
What saves S. is the dark love story that Jen and Eric detect in Theseus and the enchanting one they end up writing themselves.
A snippet of Straka outrage that anyone would put such fears into a child prompts a back-and-forth between Jen and Eric about parents, religion and therapy, which in turn leads to the books most surprising and emotionally resonant revelations.
So the brilliance of S., when it is brilliant, is less in its showy exterior than the intimate and ingeniously visual way it shows how others words become pathways to our lives and relationships. In the lines we busily highlight, underline, enjoy and retweet, Abrams and Dorst ask, arent were telling stories about ourselves?
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.