This book (SOT for short) is a grand adventure. Experience it in its full hardback version, not the ebook. It is beautifully crafted to appear to be an old library book, complete with call number on the spine and checkout history stamps on the inside. The pages are made to look yellowed at the edges and the font is chosen to look straight from the 1950s. Scattered throughout the pages are various inserts – letters, postcards, photos, and even a code wheel – all appearing authentic. Be careful when you open it so they don’t all fall out. They are placed at logical spots in the story.
The novel unfolds in at least four chronological stages. It also takes place both in print and in the handwritten margin notes, which I saved until after I had read the printed story. First is the original novel purportedly written by V.M. Straka, a controversial and reclusive mid-20th century author who was active in the radical left-wing movements of the 30s and 40s – labor riots, anti-fascist groups, and especially opposed to an industrialist/arms dealer. SOT is his last book, published by his long-time translator F.X. Caldeira, in 1959, years after his death. The tale is a bizarre allegorical account of the travels of S., an amnesiac-turned-assassin fighting the agents of the evil munitions provider in the story, modeled after Straka’s real-life nemesis. It is filled with the dark imagery one might expect from the mind of J.J. Abrams (cf. Lost) one of the creators of the book. One quickly gets the idea the story is more than what it appears to be on its face.
The translation, including Caldeira’s foreword and footnotes, form yet another story. The reader soon realizes that the footnotes, too, contain some secret, undisclosed information. Odd wording, misaligned characters and other clues tell us that the footnotes are trying to communicate something secret – but what, and to whom?
Then going back through the margin notes from the beginning we learn that the book is being passed back and forth between Eric, a graduate student, and Jen, a senior English major who works in the campus library. Eric’s dissertation work on Straka is being stolen by his former advisor (who had him “expunged”) and his ex-girlfriend. Jen becomes his ally in solving the mysteries surrounding Straka: who was he really? Did he commit suicide or was he murdered? What were Caldeira’s footnotes all about? Whom did the characters in SOT represent in real life? All the while they have to fight off the evil professor and ex-girlfriend (who also happens to be Jen’s TA in a lit course).
Eric writes in black ink, block letters. Jen uses blue cursive. As things become more tense they switch colors to green and orange,and eventually red and purple. Will Eric and Jen ever meet face-to-face? Will Eric get back into academia? Will Jen graduate after her TA flunks her? All these dramas play out together.
The very concept is worth several stars, but the cleverness of the story and the marvelous artwork both on the page and in the inserts makes this one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. I highly recommend it.