So much is left unsaid in “S.,” the mysterious, interactive novel conceived by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst.
Nothing, however, is left unread, as FYI Book Club readers discovered when they gathered recently to discuss the delightful bibliopuzzle.
Dorst joined the discussion later by conference call to answer questions about the book: an old-looking novel, “Ship of Theseus” by the made-up author V.M. Straka, inside a gray slipcover with a large black “S.” as the title.
In “Theseus,” a nameless man with no memory is on a dangerous mission to topple a despotic world financier. A second story, the one most readers connect with, follows Jen, an undergrad literature major, and Eric, a doctoral student. The reader learns about them in notes they write to each other in the margins of “Theseus.”
A third story emerges in the backgrounds of Jen and Eric as they develop a relationship. As they pore over clues unearthed in their investigation of Straka, that story unfolds in the ephemera — letters, postcards, news clippings, photos and more — tucked in the pages of the book.
Gene Ann Newcomer of Prairie Village had only one question, and it drove the conversation: “How does one read this book?”
By turns befuddled, charmed and intrigued, readers had different methods to approach this uncommonly told tale.
“This one hits you over the head with the layers. I tried reading all the notes and sorting out the time line, then decided to read a chapter and then read the side notes,” said Barbara Weary of Kansas City said.
Some readers tackled all the pieces in one reading.
“I read very carefully and simultaneously as well as I could,” said John Keogh of Lenexa. “Text, footnotes, marginalia, ephemera.”
“I liked just letting go while I read,” said Jill Schmidt of Kansas City. “I realized that down the road it would all click and I didn’t have to keep it all in my head.”
Greg Curtin of Kansas City pointed out that the reading experience reveals something about the reader’s methods.
“I started reading everything all at once,” he said. “Part of the joy and magic in this book is discovering how you read it yourself.”
Readers recognized the book as a work of art.
“All these other ephemeral elements, the distinct styles of handwriting in different colored inks — artistically this book is an astounding feat,” said Andy Dandino of Kansas City. “I appreciate the design and attention to detail from the authors and artists.”
Attendees talked about the placement of the inserted items. Some worried where to put pieces that fell out of the book, wondering if losing one would mar the story.
Keogh brushed off that concern: “I think it’s OK if a piece is out of order or missing. Then the reader gets to participate even further in the structure of the story.”
When Dorst joined the conversation, he supported John’s idea that the reader helps to shape the story of “S.”
A few readers pointed out the many loose ends of the narrative or plot points that seemed underdeveloped: What made Eric and Jen run off to Prague? How much danger were they in? Did Jen ever graduate?
Dorst laughed as the readers peppered him with such questions.
“Isn’t it part of the fun to imagine how these scenes played out yourself?” he said. “To live with a level of uncertainty of the fear and danger that Eric and Jen are in?
“A book that definitively answers all the questions it raises in a neat and nailed-down way isn’t very interesting to me. Life isn’t like that, so why should our fiction be like that?”
Kaite Stover is director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.
FYI Book Club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. If you would like to participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email email@example.com. Watch for the next selection, “The Weight of Blood” by Laura McHugh, to be introduced May 24 in FYI.