The West

For most book lovers, there is an attraction that goes beyond the words printed on the pages, an appreciation of a book's charm as an object.

The dedication scribbled inside the cover, the favourite passages thickly underlined, the notes and doodling in the margins, the creased corners of pages marking past progress through the narrative: the traces of your own history with a story, or those left by a previous reader, all contribute to an intangible appeal that ebooks - convenient and affordable though they may be - can't match.

This is the rich seam tapped by S, an ambitious literary project conceived by American film and television director J.J. Abrams (creator of TV's Lost and Alias and director of the recent Star Trek films) and written by novelist and creative writing teacher Doug Dorst. The finished product is a plastic-wrapped package containing a rather worn-looking book called Ship of Theseus, supposedly published in 1949. Ostensibly part of a US university library collection, it comes complete with date stamps to indicate previous borrowers and wide margins filled with scribbled notes.

Reading the Translator's Note and Foreword, by one F.X. Caldeira, we learn Ship of Theseus was the final novel by V.M. Straka, an enigmatic writer and revolutionary accused of various acts of "sabotage, espionage, conspiracy, subversion, larceny and assassination". Straka's identity is subject to controversy, with a German anarchist, a Swedish children's author and a little girl receiving messages from a 14th century nun among the mooted candidates.

Mysteries also abound in Ship of Theseus, which concerns an amnesiac protagonist who is kidnapped and drawn into a sweeping conspiracy against an evil arms dealer. The world of the novel is a shadowy one in which time and identity become troublingly flexible.

The second layer of the narrative is the set of scribbled notes, between a troubled undergraduate called Jen and a disgraced graduate student named Eric. Encountering each other in the margins of the book, the two correspond about Straka and life in general, their communication augmented by the insertion of various objects between the pages - postcards, newspaper clippings and papers from the Straka archive.

The two narrative strands intertwine to create a complex, multi-layered story but it is Jen and Eric who dominate the reader's attention as they begin to fall in love, all the while plunging deeper into the treacherous literary infighting concerning Straka's identity.

It all makes for an entertaining literary puzzle, although it's arguable whether the appealing but somewhat implausible idea of a romance forged entirely within the margins of a book proves ultimately convincing. And, what's more, whether Ship of Theseus is good enough to have been written by "one of the most idiosyncratic and influential novelists" of the first half of the 20th century, as Caldeira characterises Straka.

But if S never quite lives up to the promise of its concept, it does reward the reader as a sincere and enjoyable tribute to the romance of the printed page.

The West Australian

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