Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Intentional Misconceptions, or Misleading the Reader

               In J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst's S., the authors' metafictional, experimental novel, the authors provide a narrative that is intentionally deceptive and misleading. But upon first glance, the reader may not think so. The only problem is, the authors (through the use of Jen and Eric's notes back and forth) all but tell the reader (of the novel S., not the novel Ship of Theseus) that there's tricks afoot and that they should be careful about what they read and how they read it (while referring to the meta-novel). As those of us studying literature, it makes this experiment doubly curious but doubly dangerous to study in that we have to attempt, as best we can, to decipher what is and what isn't relevant to the novel and the meta-novel. Firstly, the title of the meta-novel is a clue to the reader that the authors are trying to hide something right in front of our, the reader's, eyes. The "ship of theseus" is a well-known thought experiment in philosophy in which the philosopher (most notably Plutarch) posits a question: if a ship (the ship of theseus) is gradually restored piece by piece (as each piece wears out or breaks), at what point does the ship not persist as the same ship (if it becomes a different ship at all). Another example of this that is more recently used is the idea of an axe being restored; if one restores each piece of the axe at a different time as it breaks (the handle, the head, etc.), is it the same axe or does it become a different axe altogether?
               The concept applies to the novel as well, as the name implies. We must, as readers and analysts, discover for ourselves what to believe about the interactions between Jen and Eric, not only as characters but also as fellow literary critics. Do we allow ourselves to trust their interactions between one another, or do we question the nature of their comments between one another (as they often do themselves). We must also, as readers, try to follow Jen and Eric's path(s) through the novel as they try to uncover meaning behind the novel as well as the identities of V. M. Straka and "FXC" in the meta-novel. We have to also decipher and understand the identities of Jen and Eric in the novel, outside of the meta-novel. But what seems apparent, however, is that in its use of the meta-novel, the novel is attempting to break the typical understanding of literature and literary study, specifically referring to the understanding of authorial intent. Jen and Eric even discuss this, with Eric chiding Jen in her habit of it. Jen notes, "I totally read this as Straka talking about himself—waiting for someone (in a romantic way)" to which Eric replies "Careful re: linking everything in a book to the author personally. Sometimes fiction's just fiction" (17). The two begin to banter, with Jen noting, Maybe I'm reading it that way b/c I'm just sitting around, cluelessly waiting for somebody" (17). The novel begins to meta itself with the use of the meta-novel, with the reader needing to question Jen and Eric's motives, but Jen provides her motive, believable or not, for the reader and for Eric, thus forcing the reader to now question Jen's own admission. Jen and Eric even discuss the namesake theory of the meta-novel, with Jen positing her different theories of the meta-novel's authorship, arguing between whether or not the meta-novel is written by Straka, FXC, a combination of both, or even the existence of a third (or ghost) writer, which brings up the much-argued challenges to other author's own authorship (Shakespeare being the primary contender in this argument). As the meta-novel begins, Jen even asks the question to Eric, "But re FXC overstepping: where do you draw the line? At what point does the book stop being Straka's alone + become theirs?" (3), blatantly asking the question in reference to the novel's namesake philosophy. Eric makes a great point early in the novel when Jen begins to assume things, "Note: said vs. hinted. Not same thing" (6).
               Her question is an important one as the meta-novel begins: when using translators or ghost writers, at what point does the novel stop being the original novel and become a different person's (or different novel) altogether? One example that comes to mind is the novel Don Quixote. The novel is, coincidentally, another example of a meta-novel not unlike S. and Ship of Theseus. The novel of Don Quixote is written by Cervantes in Spanish, but has subsequently been translated (many times) to English with varying degrees of success. In translation, many things may be lost, but other things may be added (for clarification or lack of ability to directly translate certain words, phrases, idioms, etc). Does this make the novel any less a work of Cervantes and any more a work of the translator? At what point in translation does the translator get credit for the work they're doing (especially when a work is readily available in the language it's being translated to, such as English, where there are many variations available and widely accepted)? The novel also questions authorship in-depth not only as an argument between the novel and meta-novel (through Jen and Eric's comments on Straka and FXC) but as an understanding of the footnotes (often cited and analyzed by Jen and Eric) as well as the notes between Jen and Eric themselves, the latter of which is most important through re-reading the novel. The reader (of the novel) is meant to believe that Jen and Eric are two individual characters, each with their own unique stories and attitudes and, notably, writing styles. Throughout the novel, the two are writing notes in different colors (beginning with Eric's original pencil and alternating between the two in a rainbow of colors). Each pair of different colors represents a different session of re-reading and commenting between the two (black and blue, green and orange, red and purple), often commenting on not only things they missed but also one one another's (or their own) comments from previous readings.
               However, this goes back to the question of authorship in the novel: are Jen and Eric really two different people? Are they one of the two? Are they a third person altogether, creating the two out of nowhere? In particular, the change of ink color toward the end is one aspect that makes questioning authorship important. Toward the novel's conclusion, the alternating black and blue (between Eric and Jen respectively) disappears, and Jen begins writing in black ink, matching that of Eric's. This coincides, however, with their "meeting" one another and becoming much more personally attached to one another. This also, chronologically, seems to happen as the last "read" of the novel (judging by reference to previous comments in a colored ink, ex. on page 449). However, they continue to question one another, including about points of the novel or discussion much earlier in the meta-novel as well as questioning the novel (in metafiction fashion). For example, Jen asks late in the novel about the appearance of the S early in the meta-novel to which Eric replies "Maybe someone - I don't know, some freshman who's never even heard of Straka - stumbled across the books in the stacks + decided to mess with it / us?... It was a while ago, anyway. No one's gotten ahold of the book since then," to which Jen simply replies "Although we can't know for sure..." (448).
               Lastly, authorial intent and authorship leads us to question the entire novel altogether, including the meta-novel, as well as many other seemingly open-ended question. What was Abrams and Dorst's purpose in writing the novel? Are the novel (the commentary between Jen and Eric) and meta-novel designed to be read as separate entities, independent from one another, or are they meant to be read together as one fluid entity? Further on this last aspect allows me to interpose the original book trailer by Bad Robot Productions (J. J. Abrams's production company) which narrates the book "He arrived knowing nothing of himself. Who is he? Soon he will know. Because what begins at the water shall end there, and what ends there shall once more begin. This is what happens. Men become lost. Men vanish. Men are erased... and reborn." Does this trailer then emphasize the importance of the intertextuality connection between the novel and meta-novel (as well as the trailer)? And lastly does the novel officially end with the meta-novel's ending or the last comment by Jen on the final, otherwise blank page? What is the importance of the novel's ending, stating "the ship is one of theirs, and as for the identities of the two people at the wheel, well, both Sola and he will let their imaginations fill in their features" (456). Is this Abrams and Dorst's way of telling us the reader of the novel that Jen and Eric don't even exist in the novel but are instead the same (or a third) person? Or perhaps this is reenforcing the argument against authorial intent (posed multiple times throughout the novel and their commentary). And just how exciting and eerie and anxious and meta is Jen's last comment on the final, blank page when she asks "Hey, put the book down. Come in here + stay," especially with Eric's "ok" being scribbled out and, judging by the color of the ink, is the last and final comment of the entire novel to be written.

1 comment:

  1. I am 60% convinced Jen and Eric are the same person. The mentions of the schizophrenia of one of the potential Straka's (I think) near the beginning (can't find it at the moment but I know it was VERY early on) was definitely intentional, and Jen starting to head toward the same situation Eric was in could definitely be a merging of the two sides. The Eric character could have created Jen as a way to distance himself from the events in his life, but they slowly creep back in to this other side.