Deconstructing Transmedia Objects

On S, or Ship of Theseus. Or how to resolve and confound a number of thorny problems in transmedia writing.

My copy of S arrived. Disclaimer: I bought it. That’s not a gripe, more a note of admiration at how well the social media side of Canongate’s marketing team have done their job on this. A day didn’t go by in the book’s first release fortnight without Jamie Byng retweeting the ‘wow’ from any number of authors who’ve received a copy, and marvelled at the physical design of the book-as-package. More on which shortly.

It’s pretty well documented that JJ Abrams likes Mystery Boxes. But this Mystery Box – which we are invited to open and explore from the moment we break the seal on the slipcase – is also a Macguffin. Abrams directed & co-wrote Mission Impossible 3 – which has a structurally identical plot to 2 (John Woo’s film), but instead of a mystery virus and it’s cure (Bellerophon) which we’re required to believe in (and therein lies the problem with MI2), he has a Hitchockian Macguffin at the centre. We never find out what the ‘thing’ Ethan Hunt is chasing is in MI3, and it doesn’t matter – it’s a device to propel the plot forward and allow character interrelationships to develop.

So, what’s going on here:
There’s an obvious heritage from House of Leaves: within both texts there are marginalia, multiple narrators and a book at the centre of the narrative that is ultimately unreliable and may ‘not exist’ – in House of Leaves the film (the Navidson Record) is being described by a blind man who cannot have seen it (aside from the fact that it is a fiction) and is an ultimately unreliable object – in S, the text and the existence of Straka (or (who might be) his translator) is the equivalent object, compounded by the unstable nature of the authorship of the text itself.

The narrators within the text (Jennifer and Eric) have identifiable handwriting – HoL has typefaces. (there are cute references in the faces too – Jonny Truant is in Courier, because he’s a courier of the story, the Editors are in Bookman – because…) The ink colours in S change though – which suggests a rewriting or palimpsest technique. That’s at once confounding and then structurally interesting – how are we meant to read this? In a linear order, which seems counter to an annotated non-linear framework, or bouncing to and fro through the text to trace progression and unpack what is going on?

An aside:
Dennis Wheatley wrote a series of ‘books’ in the 1930s – (link here) they’re dossiers containing the clues necessary to ‘solve’ a mystery – and a sealed envelope containing the answer when you’re satisfied you have them figured out.

I have the 1979 reissue of Murder off Miami, John Clute (naturally) has original copies:

A book containing a series of objects that need to be decoded/understood in order to solve a mystery. Which is the basic conceit of S (I’m going to go on calling it S, and not Ship of Theseus).

Earlier this year, working with the artists collective Circumstance, I made These Pages Fall Like Ash, and it’s difficult for me to talk about S without harking back to ideas around structural interdependency that we explored in that piece.
these pages fall like ash
These Pages came as a hand-crafted wooden book that readers used to immerse themselves in a story of two cities, each overlapping the other, exploring a serial fiction by accessing content (transmitted from wireless hard drives) on their mobiles as they moved through the streets of ‘their’ city. We were keen to see how closely we could make two platforms work together, to have the contextual content (in the physical books) feed into and complement (actually, more than complement – it was a necessarily connected process) the digital serial fiction. We did this by making two books within the wooden case – one describes the ‘other’ city; it’s a gazetteer, a guidebook. The other described your city, and was largely made up of suggestions and prompts to write things yourself, to take notes and observe, flaneur-like, the story being played out over the run of the serial.

On the one hand, this kind of platform connectivity is a common feature of transmedia projects, and my take on them is pretty much there with Henry Jenkins’ in that there’s a problem with the connectedness of the ancillary items / texts / elements with most transmedia projects – how much do you expect the reader/player to read? Do they have to read all of it to get it – and then, there’s a huge difficulty in writing for that disconnected space (one of the reasons These Pages Fall Like Ash was tied into just two interdependent platforms was an attempt to resolve that problem) and keeping all of the balls in the air, all the time.

On the other hand though, while S has all of it’s marginalia and ancillary material within the book – the conceit is beautifully produced – it harks back to something Sean Stewart and I discussed a couple of years ago – that for this sort of work we’re still making epistolary novels, and not really taking that big leap into a mature form that for Sean is represented by Pride and Prejudice (such that a novel has a beginning, middle and end, characters that exist within that temporal framework, and feel complete within the materiality of their world, not requiring a ‘reason’ to justify their existence). Maybe there isn’t a mature form or maybe what we have – or not letting go of the Book as a form is the answer – time and constant experimentation will tell.

Some closing thoughts on S:

The nature of texts within texts:
Borges said that “The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.”

And that’s Borges. Who was diamond-brilliant. But it’s the same technique that’s employed in Blair Witch, in Name of the Rose, in House of Leaves – explicitly asking the reader to participate in the construction and maintenance of an illusion. Which is what all good fiction does anyway, but this sort of work foregrounds it by placing the imaginary (book, film etc) at the centre of the unfolding narrative.

Collaborative writing:
The text here is written by two voices (Jennifer & Eric) commenting on a third (Straka), mediated by a fourth (the translator – F X Caldeira). Aside from the slipperiness of that, and the inherent instability of Straka as an authorial voice, there’s the collaboration between Abrams and Dorst. Abrams has been clearly pointing out that Dorst wrote the book – it would be interesting to draw out how ‘attached’ Abrams is to the material construction of the elements in the piece.

Eric and Jennifer use the body of the book as their means to communicate – which is what the book is doing to us. Temporally, this has problems (how long has their research / communication been going on?!) and their writing of this paratextual narrative serves to comment on the structure of the text – J & E spend a lot of time drawing our attention to the construction of Straka’s novels – which brings us back to Borges and ‘notes on imaginary books’.

Decoding, and the joy of perceiving patterns:
One of the touchstones for transmedia is William Gibson’s ‘Pattern Recognition‘ – not because it is a piece of transmedia, but because it describes a way of making work that hadn’t been done yet, and probably hasn’t since been done as perfectly as Gibson evokes it. Another answer to the plurality of content issue (see transmedia above) is to seed patterns, or clues or codes in the content to the extent that they can be reassembled – missing pieces seen as such etc – but doing this requires a rigour to the code-making that’s really hard to pull off. Colour coding Jennifer and Eric’s dialogue here, with different inks, is a way of providing that pattern.

Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts pulls a similar trick – the structure of RST is in 36 chapters, each of which has an unchapter – these were alternate elements, ‘other’ things we weren’t told as readers in the main body of the text, and were released into the wild – some on myspace profiles, some as blog posts, some printed out, put in jiffy bags and taped to locations in the book to be found by readers. Hall acknowledges that this was a much a way of keeping the book alive after publication (I think the figure is 19 found so far – 6 years after the book came out) as it was an extension of the text, but since the novel is about identity and what is real, the unchapter format was true to the content of the book as much as it was the form.

On that note – Charles Olson (writing about Black Mountain poetry) said that Form is never more than an extension of Content. What Hall did, and Danielewski with HoL, and Dorst and Abrams do here, is that the manner of telling is tied into the tale being told. Or, transmedia is both harder and more simple than it looks…

And finally – Dan Hill – tweets as @cityofsound, wrote in 2006 that: ‘The amount of content produced about your content should be of far greater weight than the originating content itself. This in turn creates a new kind of content, forged from a social process of collaboration with users, viewers, listeners

Lots of ‘content’ in that phrase, but he’s describing a form for engaged storytelling that invites and audience into the telling, decoding, transmission and reception of the work in an active way – which is what S is doing too.

Finally there’s the title of the ‘book’. Ship of Theseus. From wikipedia:
‘The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late 1st century. Plutarch asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing each and every one of its wooden parts, remained the same ship.’

It may be that S is a curate’s egg. In many ways, it probably is. Early reviews (Mark Lawson’s among them) point out that the Ship of Theseus’ central (referencing Gerard Genette’s notion of Hypotext) story isn’t well written enough to sustain interest in the whole thing. He might be right about that, but this isn’t a piece that necessarily works if you examine each object in isolation, and that isn’t the point of it – it’s a whole, a synthesised experience that either sustains or doesn’t as a whole, as a holistic object. And at the very least, it demands our attention.

(notes – this is 1. hugely longer than a DCRC blog post ought to be, but hey. And 2. originally written as a series of interview notes for Newsnight’s piece on S (November 2013).

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