Monday, April 24, 2017

The Best Of The Pynchon Clones? Ship Of Theseus May Well Be It!

The Good: Poetics, Concept, Decent story
The Bad: Protagonist is virtually impossible to empathize with
The Basics: The basis for the concept novel S., Ship Of Theseus manages to stand up in an intriguing way on its own.

A few years back, as I was finishing another run-through of Fringe (reviewed here!), my wife learned of the existence of S.. S. is a concept novel, much like some musical artists make a concept album; more than a simple book, it was intended to be a layered artistic experience. Before she picked it up for me, my wife described it as an activity book for literate adults. The concept was a clever one; S. came within a slipcase that, once opened, included an artfully-made volume of a novel entitled Ship Of Theseus. This particular copy of Ship Of Theseus is filled with notes, additional pages and other goodies that are meant to be a story outside (and inside) the content of the novel itself.

Being on the road now, I finally had a chance to give the art project its rightful amount of attention. As I sat down to read, though, I found myself a bit torn as to how to approach the work. Ultimately, I settled up doing multiple readings (and dual reviews). In order for S. to work as a concept piece, there had to be some merit to the "source material," the book Ship Of Theseus. So, for my first reading through the project, I decided to read and evaluate Ship Of Theseus as its own literary work. Ignoring all of the commentaries and added materials, this, then, is a review purely of Ship Of Theseus, by novelist V.M. Straka, as translated by F.X. Caldeira.

Ship Of Theseus has merit as a literary work. Evocative of the works of Thomas Pynchon, Ship Of Theseus is a sprawling, often surreal tale that winds and wends with little clear purpose, less resolution and even less explanation of how the things that happen actually occur. Like works of Thomas Pynchon, the lines are poetic and the journey itself is often the real magic of the novel.

An amnesiac becomes conscious while loping through the Old Quarter of a harbor city in a nebulous time period before World War I. The man knows nothing, is soaking wet, and has pain throughout his body. He ends up at a bar, where he sees a mysterious woman and, while conversing with her after watching her for a long time, he is abducted. The man wakes up on a mysterious sailing ship and he is told by the lone crewman who speaks that his name is S. S. is shanghaied out to sea and is horrified that the crew of the ship appears sickly, each has their mouth sewn shut, and is preoccupied with a mysterious job belowdecks that they rotate into. When the ship nears land, S. is given the opportunity to escape when a waterspout appears to destroy the ship and he desperately swims to land.

S. finds himself in a factory city where the locals are picketing Vevoda Armament Works. Apparently, three of the workers have gone missing and the workers have organized to demand answers. S. is taken in by one of the leaders of the movement and is too slow to warn the leaders when he sees one of Vevoda's henchmen plant a bomb in the crowd. Framed by Vevoda's newspaper-printing lackeys, S. and his compatriots take to the hills and attempt to make it to a safer city. But Vevoda's men chase the group and S. escapes the slaughter . . . only to find himself back aboard the mysterious and mysteriously-reconstructed ship! While S.'s heart aches for the mysterious woman he met only once, he finds himself on a convoluted journey that takes him to a mysterious island where he is given a choice and a purpose; to seek his past or avenge the deaths of the workers!

S. is good in a weird way. The protagonist ages in irregular intervals, pines for a woman he does not truly know and has no real interest in his life before the book. But he observes the world and thinks about the plight of those he encounters and he has a curious nature as he tries to discover just what it is the sailors do on the orlop deck.

Ship Of Theseus is not a book for those who love complete answers and stark rationality. S. develops a clarvoiyant power, for example. How? Why (other than plot convenience)? That is not answered in Ship Of Theseus. But the use of his abilities and the way the narrative winds is surprisingly engaging. In fact, one of the few concrete sections in Ship Of Theseus is a very fractured portion late in the book that describes the movements and activities of one of the world's most competent assassins. Even the chase through the hills that S. endures with the workers is more florid and surreal than the assassination passages.

Ship Of Theseus is, however, plagued by a somewhat nebulous and unlikable protagonist. S. does not actually stand for much of anything; he has no clear or consistent convictions and his lack of curiosity about his past before the Old Quarter becomes frustrating late in the book. For the bulk of Ship Of Theseus, S. is buffetted around by people and events that he is only tangential to. He spends most of the book not even influencing the events he finds himself at; he just is in the wrong place at the wrong time and he is running from people who aren't even interested in him, specifically.

That said, Ship Of Theseus moves right along on the plot front and the story does crystallize in its final three chapters. Once S. gets a direction, he goes in it full-steam ahead and the book becomes a very fast read as it moves toward its climax.

Ship Of Theseus has beautiful and poet lines as S. contemplates his surroundings and mentally-debates philosophy. Straka places S. in an adventure where the nature of his reality - much like the boat he is on - continues to change, which is where the book gets its title. The exploration of identity and setting, philosophy and reality is poetically laid out consistently along S.'s journey.

Ultimately, Ship Of Theseus is a somewhat pulpy, but clever story of a man shanghaied by pirates on a potentially magic boat who continues to find himself getting into trouble whenever he escapes or returns to the ship!

For other book reviews, please check out:
V. - Thomas Pynchon
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Bad Twin - Gary Troupe


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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