Steven Hall

The Raw Shark Texts [Cannongate U.S.]

Books Reviews Steven Hall
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Steven Hall

Hall baits a sharp hook and angles for fame

Before you even crack open British author Steven Hall’s wildly inventive and occasionally uneven first novel, you’ve got to get your mouth around its tongue twister of a title. The Raw Shark Texts pronounces like some sort of lingual Rorschach test, that series of blurry ink-blot diptychs that psychiatrists occasionally use to see deep into your secret soul. One Rorschach subject sees a butterfly; another sees a skull. Hall’s book is a bit of the same, a wavery, shifting, sometimes scary world built on ideas—now you see ’em, now you don’t.

We meet Eric Sanderson as he wakes up on the bedroom floor of an unfamiliar flat, the victim of a raging case of amnesia. Can’t remember anything. Can’t remember anyone. He’s gasping for air, as though he’s been choked. As he recovers, seeks equilibrium, the very bad news filters through.

I felt that prickling horror, the one that comes when you realize the extent of something bad—if you’re dangerously lost or you’ve made some terrible mistake—the reality of the situation creeping through the back of your head like a pantomime Dracula.

I did not know who I was. I did not know where I was.

That simple.

That frightening.

It’s familiar stuff these days, especially in cinema, what with Memento, The Matrix and related rip-offs chumming the same waters. But don’t fall for those easy associations. That’s not where this book is going. In fact, if you can carry a tune at all, you’d be well-served to hum that terrifying two-note cadence from Jaws the second you dive into this book. Hall is exploring deep waters here, and they’re shark-infested. Literally.

Eric searches the apartment and finds a letter he wrote to himself. It leads him to Dr. Randle, a therapist who explains that she’s been treating Eric for several years. Ever since Eric witnessed the drowning death of his girlfriend, Clio, on a holiday in Greece, he’s been the victim of a rare and recurring dissociative disorder. Dr. Randle, who has no cure and doesn’t offer Eric much hope, warns him not to open any of the mysterious packages that arrive daily at his apartment. He’s terrified—this is his 11th bout of amnesia—so he obeys.

But then, in one of the tale’s first strange twists, Eric’s living-room floor opens up one night as he’s watching TV, evaporates and turns into open ocean. There, Eric is attacked by a massive shark. Not just any shark, but a Ludovician—a thought shark that “feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self.” Let it get to you and you’re gone, sucked right off the planet into eternal oblivion. Eric escapes—barely—and whatever is in those mysterious packages becomes his only hope for survival. And soon enough, he’s off on a quest for answers.

Hall is clearly having the time of his life with this book. He’s jazzed about the concepts of memory and death and self that he’s exploring, and he carries us in a headlong rush to test the very edge of what a novel actually is.

There are familiar touchstones—a beautiful techno-geek named Scout for a love story, a mad scientist to invent stuff and explain it and a crabby cat named Ian as comic relief. There’s myth and movie, classic novels, philosophy and psychology, all served up with a hefty dose of past and present pop culture. You’ll find DNA from Moby Dick and Philip K. Dick, Being John Malkovich, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vanilla Sky, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, in the exuberant climax, of course, Jaws. It’s a frightening, funny and daring mess, sometimes earnest, occasionally pompous and always wildly original.

Here’s Hall, giving us the creeps with a slithery, snake-like parasite of the mind:

It was small, maybe nine inches, maybe the length of a worry that doesn’t quite wake you in your sleep—a primitive conceptual fish. I backed away slowly. The creature had a round, sucker-like mouth lined with dozens of sharp little doubts and inadequacies. I could feel it just downstream from me, holding itself in place with muscled steady swimming against the movement of time.

The writing is sharp, a relief when so much experimentation is going on. But there’s also a charming romanticism, an honest-to-goodness love story. That it plays out so sweetly—sincere but not sentimental—against the backdrop of conceptual sharks and mental annihilation is a credit to Hall’s many remarkable gifts. Here’s Eric, mourning the way time decays memory:

I’m always remembering details. Just a second ago it was how we finally managed to cook ourselves a full English on our little camp stove the night before we packed up the site on Naxos and headed for the boat. All these memories, they all hurt so much and each in a different way so I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it without tearing open and spilling the aches out all over the floor. What’s even worse, what drives me sick is this: none of the things I think I remember about her are all-the-way true or complete.

The text itself tells the story. But there are also drawings, ink blots and pictures made from vowels and consonants strewn about—a mosquito caught in amber, a fossil fish. The series of riddles and puzzles Eric tries to solve are certain to keep busy, for months to come, the cult that’s likely to spring up around the book. And if that’s not enough originality, the climax comes to life in an unnerving 50-page flip book of a shark racing right at you. This kind of typography proved so complex that the book’s print run had to be sent to a company in Italy, the only place with a press nimble enough to do the job.

The Raw Shark Texts is indeed a kind of Rorschach test—the book you see depends on where you’re looking. Is it a thriller? A love story? A philosophical quest? Yes, yes and yes. Plus, it’s a big-fish story. Thanks to Hall’s skill and daring, this is one that didn’t get away.

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