Below is the full text (transcribed by hand – please comment to help me correct the inevitable mistakes) of a clue that author Doug Dorst tweeted earlier this morning. It is a fictitious review of Ship of Theseus from 1950.
THE CIPHER’S PROGRESS: V.M. STRAKA’S
Ship of Theseus
Review by Edsel B. Grimshaw
For decades it has been de rigueur to pair any mention of the late writer V. M. Straka with an epithet such as “mysterious,” “enigmatic,” “reclusive,” or “secretive.” I shall not abide by this rule, as I suspect the author’s obsessively guarded anonymity to have been a Barnumesque bit of humbuggery, calculated to inflate sales and to divert attention from the inconsistency of his work in both aesthetic and quality.
It is fitting that the protagonist of Ship of Theseus, Straka’s posthumous nineteenth novel, is “S.” a man whose full name is withheld from readers and whose personality is no more in evidence than that of his creator. The book coaxes readers along a rudderless plod through noxious smoke and warped mirror, replete with inconsistent metaphor and queer, atonal event. Featured players in the cast of this absurd production include an evanescent Muse who flutters above the pages and alights at random intervals; a bearded behemoth who speaks in the dialect of that fantastical region known as Mish-mashia; a monkey shanghaied into the story but given little work to do; a magic boat; a magic burgoo; a bibliophilic crone; and a sinister puppeteer ostensibly fingering the strings of the narrative throughout. There was a time when the publication of a new Straka novel would be greeted with delight, outrage, even fear. Ship of Theseus confirms that that time has long since sailed.
Straka’s best work was animated by the writer’s potent – if often irresponsible – political convictions and his proficiency with the muck-rake. Even if one’s nose was oft-twinged by the red fortor of Bolshevism gassing out from his words, one could respect his skill at intertwining it with compelling narratives. In his final years, though, his books took a turn toward the banal and self-absorbed. Consider, if you will, The Winged Shoes of Emydio Alves, a famous and ham-handed attempt at romance, and the book that followed, the bloated and incoherent Coriolis, which was either a disastrous literary experiment or a monument to muddle-brained narcism. In abandoning his greatest talent, Straka accelerated his desultory slide into old age and irrelevance, which finds its fullest expression in the book at hand.
All of this might be forgivable if Ship of Theseus succeeded in delivering a modicum of entertainment to this reader (who’s full name I will conceal and represent simply as “I.”) Instead, it is a picaresque-macabre held together not by any particular theme or concern but by the obvious reuse of settings, events, and details deployed in earlier Straka books. It is a work of laziness and egotism by a writer who had resorted to cannibalizing his own work, a vulgar ouroboros of a novel, filled to bursting with apathy, anomie, and omphaloskepsis.
Events that involve our man “S.” take place, of course, but even those that might engage a reader are executed with ponderousness, prevention, digressiveness, and superciliousness, in every way contemptuous of the reader’s desire. One particularly infuriating example comes when a bomb detonates in the midst of a labor riot. A truly engaged writer would have sent his protagonist running into the fray. Straka, however, gave us a “hero” who is knocked insensate, left to daydream pointlessly with adolescent dejection about unrelated matters while the carnage and strife that ostensibly rage around him do so offstage, unseen and unheard. The writerly offenses compound, chapter after chapter, undeniably with malice aforethought: a whiplash-inducing break in style two-thirds of the way through; laws of physics (and ontology) rearranged at the writer’s whim; plot contrivances that will outrage even the least-discriminating readers. As for the ending of Ship of Theseus, I shall appropriate a cliche from the text itself: the less said, the better.
If only Straka had heeded such wise counsel. Instead, he took 450 pages to declare to the world that he had nothing more of interest to say. Further, he had the audacity to expect that people would pay for the privilege of listening to him do so. One is left to shake one’s head and ask: who did V. M. Straka think he was?