Oh, “S.” I wanted to love you. And I did love you. In some ways. In other ways, you left me numb, and a little bit confused. In yet other ways, I hated you with a passion that I’m not quite sure where it came from, or why, but it is there, and it is undeniable. So make of that what you will.
First, visually, just the look of the thing is magnificent. The inserts, the multi-colored notes in the margins, the book is worth seeing and loving on those grounds alone (though I worry a little about what it seems to be saying about our increased lack of literary attention and obsession with the visual. That we seem to need pretty colors and pictures to even pick up a book any more. Do even adults need pictures in their books? I would hope not, but am less and less sure). Oh, and it smelled like an old library book. Looked and smelled. There were stamps in the book. And the inserts, too, seemed authentic. Like if it was a post card, it looked and felt like a real post card. Photos looked and felt like real photos. Pieces of yellow legal paper with notes on them looked and felt like real pieces of yellow legal paper. All of those aspects were exceptional.
Second, and I hope I’m not giving anything away here, there was a love story. Not in the book itself, at least not in its text, but in the margins. Well, I suppose also in the book, technically, but it was very unsettling and unfulfilling. Hard to follow. The love story in the margins, it looked like it had actually been written by hand. A series of increasingly intimate exchanges between a male grad student and female undergrad. The “boy” writing looked like boy writing. The “girl” writing like girl writing. This too was beautiful to look at. And the idea was very, very sweet, and romantic.
I have talked to others who found the relationship (in the margins) shallow. I don’t know that it was. There wasn’t a lot of depth actually there in the pages, you had to read between the lines. But I thought it conveyed a good feel for what the sentiments were. You could imagine your own back story, and I liked that.
Third, there was the story itself, the book itself, Ship of Theseus. For me, as pure literature, taking away the inserts and the love story in the margins, this fell flat. It was a mystery, kind of, but felt like it was trying too hard. It had a sort of Dan Brown Da Vinci Code/National Treasure-type feel. But I don’t mean that in any kind of good way. I feel like a lot of contemporary books, and of course movies and television, maybe even more these latter mediums, are trying to out-suprise-end each other. Like unless there is some shocking flip the script twist surprise ending, they have failed in some way. I don’t like or want or need that. Mostly, I just felt bored. A little bit confused. But mostly bored.
There were allusions to a code within the text, particularly in the footnotes. There was a “secret decoder wheel thingy” as one of the inserts in the back of the book. If we were supposed to be deciphering secret messages from within the text as we went along, I failed.
There were an obnoxious number of footnotes. And their use felt…affected. Sometimes footnotes are necessary, but I feel like they were used here as a device to lend the work a sense of gravity that, in my estimation, it did not merit. Mostly I just found the footnotes distracting and annoying.
I now fear I’ve gone too negative. I didn’t hate the whole book. It had its moments. For example, the only moment I felt genuinely connected to the love story within the Ship of Theseus story was when the two I guess main characters meet, and she is reading a book in this saloon, and he asks her:
“Do you always travel with such cumbersome books?”
And she answers:
“I don’t trust anyone who wouldn’t.” p. 21.
So, of course I loved that.
And some of the margin notes were very sweet. They wouldn’t make much sense here, listed out out of context. But they had the cadence and feel of late night telephone exchanges. Between young lovers. Listening to each other breathe. “I love you more…no I love you more.” This type of feeling.
And some of the inserts were very cool. There was a map on a napkin drawn around that looked exactly like a map drawn on an actual napkin, around p. 307. Very cool.
And the old book smell. Put that smell in a bottle and sell it. Money in the bank. I’d wear it like cologne, with a tweed jacket and tortoise shell glasses. Chick magnet!
And there was just the right amount of college-era moroseness and contemplation to remind me of those same moments in my own life:
“Been thinking about this lately–it really just hit me that this is it…leaving college means you can’t think of yourself as a kid anymore. And sometimes that’s exciting-but sometimes it’s totally depressing.” p. 384
Some of you may be thinking: “whatever, I don’t think/write like that.” If that’s true, I feel sorry for you. The melancholically observed life is the only one worth living.
Maybe my favorite part of the whole book was a letter inserted at p. 203 where Eric talks about an ill-fated boat trip he took with his uncle. And recognized:
But after a couple of nights like this, it occurred to me that I’d always thought life would get easier + better, that you figure things out when you get to be an adult + and you learn to be happy. And there was Zeke, showing me that wasn’t true.
He later in the same letter recounts how he bailed on the trip, and walked into the closest town and bought himself some coffee and a bunch of paperback books from a bin. Because that was all he would need for his trip home. I liked this very much.
So I don’t know. I read the book all the way through, the contents of each page, margin notes and inserts and all, as I went. Others have read the book first, Ship of Theseus, then gone back through for the notes. I don’t know, it seems like an awful lot of work. And I think that’s my main gripe with the book. It didn’t feel like a fun escape, it felt like work. And I’ve already got plenty of that going on. Would love to hear other insights, however. Tell me how I’m wrong; show me what I missed.