S. is by far the most intricate novel I have read in the past few years. Even the monumental work of James Joyce in Ulysses cannot quite compare to the full flavour and power of the metafiction and post-modern styling of Doug Dorst's work (inspired by the ideas of J.J. Abrams). Certainly it is a major call to state that a modern work of this kind could be more of a puzzle than Joyce's depiction of Dublin and yet I believe that it is (or at least as convoluted a labyrinth in its way). However, I do not intend to state that this is by any means a work as profound as Ulysses, merely that its design is as wonderfully complex. Yet, it is a work that reminds me more of the writing of Jorge Louis Borges, had he ever written a full length novel.
All hype aside one could easily dismiss this as a poor novel with a clever gimmick. And a poor novel with a clever gimmick is merely a shiny paperweight. However, S. appeared to me as the highest quality literature does. It appeared as a novel with multiple facets, themes and ideas. It is a novel with a nested narrative and so many clever little metalinguistic and postmodern tricks that following them all was a nice little challenge.
At its core, however, S. is a novel within a novel which contains a story within a story within a story ad infinitum. The novel within is a fictional novel, The Ship of Theseus by reclusive author V.M. Straka. Straka is revealed as an author with a love of bird motifs, hidden messages and the art of writing in foreign languages. However, Straka is a pseudonym (which in this case proves to be a fictionally fictional name for a fictionally real character who is in our reality Dorst himself) and as it occurs, no one knows the secret of his true identity, though many wish to know. This identity is concealed with the aid of FX Caldeira, the translator of Straka's novels and an individual who has come to love, but never meet, Straka. This fictional history of this author serves as yet another side story to the overall novel as an entire work and feeds into The Ship of Theseus alone.
The Ship of Theseus as a novel in its own right is a clever invention in terms of how it is set up to exist as the work of a fictional author. In the footnotes within the book (the final work of Straka) there are plenty of hidden messages and one discovers that Straka himself has written this work as a message about his life and personality. This fictional world, in a clever touch, thereby presents a fictional reality. Further, the different chapters of the work are supposed to represent the different writing styles of (non-existent) Straka works gone before, a kind of pastiche of his other works so to speak. Or as the book itself explains, this work is a kind of palimpsest over a palimpsest (recurring).
The plot of The Ship of Theseus ultimately follows the adventures of the titular character of Dorst and Abram's work - S. He is a man without a past and with a future and therefore preoccupied with his identity (a theme which continues to be discussed throughout the book - with characters affirming that they know who S. is currently but not who he was). Through a series of events, S. ends up aboard a mystical and almost ghostly ship. Even as S. leaves the ship to go aboard land, become part of a radical group (a group shown to be similar to one Straka himself believed in) and an assassin, and his identity is changing, so too does this ship continue to haunt him. The ship subtly changes and yet it remains the same. And even as time changes (in a kind of fantasy way) and S. seems to remain constant (a hint that he is a kind of metaphor within a metaphor) - particularly in his desire to rediscover one particular woman - so this ship continues to haunt the chapters of Straka's work.
Of course, herein lies the secret to the title of this Straka novel. The ship of Theseus is a philosophical experiment also known as Theseus's Paradox. Essentially this paradox questions whether, if you replace piece by piece, the wood from an old ship with fresh wood, the reconstructed ship would remain the same. Various versions on the same idea have existed ever since, even questioning whether the ship remains the same if for instance you only replaced one part of it with another. Is it the same ship, or is it something new, some hybridised creation? Further as Thomas Hobbes questioned: if you take the old wood and replace it piece by piece and then rebuild that old ship with the old wood which, if any of the two ships created, are the original? Dorst's novel essentially on the whole questions this whole idea through the physically changing ship in the novel and also through the questions of identity: does S. himself stay the same as who he previously was or is he something new due to his lack of a past? Are we constantly changing piece by piece and becoming something new as people or are we always the same person, merely recieving refurbishing and redecorating throughout life? Is the 'me' I am now the same 'me' I was at 19 or am I now at 20 a different individual?
The concept doesn't stop here. That would be selling this artwork short I believe. No, there is another story continued in the margins and highlighting the love affair we biblophiles have with those works we cherish. It is a flirtation with words, a marginalised relationship which is discussed and observed by us as onlookers as two individuals begin a detailed discussion of life the universe and everything! , love, literature and everything in between. It is this unfolding development (accompanied by inside notes, photographs and attachments) which turn S. into more than just a mysterious work of fictional post-modern indulgence, and instead creates a monument to honour contemporary literature as a whole.
Is this a literary piece, a fantasy, a romance, a mystery? The beauty of this entire work is that it is an experience of literature: containing many genres, many pastiches and many re-workings of old ideas and yet seemingly becoming something new. That said, in essence the entire creation is a ship of Theseus paradox for the potential to ask - is this a new creation or something old replaced piece by piece and refurnished? - exists. I fully endorse anyone up for a challenge to attempt to put some time away and read this. However, before entering into reading this novel I also would first ask that you choose your particular method of reading this novel. I read it as a linear novel, despite its particularly eccentric chronological scale, and was able to follow the goings on after cottoning onto the particular method by which the footnotes, sidenotes and various stories jumped around. That said if you would like a reference as to the various ways of reading this novel I recommend checking this site out: http://whoisstraka.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/the-ship-of-theseus-by-v-m-straka-a-beginners-guide-to-reading-s/
And then? Well I recommend enjoying the overall experience as it flows for you. That is what reading and living is all about.