The raw shark texts
[ bookreviews ]
Edgar Allan Poe was once described by James Russell Lowell as "three-fifths genius, two-fifths sheer fudge" (and who reads James Russell Lowell today, one might ask). It might be a stretch to call any segment of The Raw Shark Texts genius, but the second three-fifths certainly pass the fudge test. The first 130 pages, however, are gripping. "Gripping" is one of those over-used terms of critical (or indeed sub-critical, being largely a staple of the blurb writer) praise, but every so often a piece of prose exerts a physical power to keep one reading. The Raw Shark Texts has this in spades, until typographic tricksiness and rather stale pseudo-avant garde ideas about texts and communication intervene.
We begin with Eric Sanderson. He wakes in an ordinary yet unfamiliar suburban house to a new life, in the literal sense of dissociative amnesia. He finds a card from "The First Eric Sanderson", the man he was, giving him directions to a local psychologist, Dr Randle. She tells him he has dissociative amnesia, and in a neat scene explains the condition very well:
"Can you give me a line from Casablanca?" (asked Dr Randle) "Bogart. Rick. The character or the actor?"
"A line from Casablanca"
I was in danger of being seriously left behind but I did what I was told.
"'Of all the gin joints in all the world, she has to walk into mine.'"
"Good," Randle nodded. "And who says that?"
"It doesn't matter. Can you picture him saying it?"
"Is the film in colour or in black and white?"
"It's black and white. He's sitting with a drink at..."
"And when was the last time you saw Casablanca?"
My mouth opened and an almost-sound happened in the back of my throat. But I didn't have an answer.
"You see? All that seems to be missing, Eric, is you."
"Bogart. Rick. The character or the actor?"
The Raw Shark Texts is generally written in a rather matey, blokey style. In the beginning this is part of the appeal, reinforcing the what-if-this-was-me effect that most adventure stories evoke. However, as the book comes by, and especially as the mythological and semiotic baggage gets heavier (more of which anon), the style grates. At first, however, it captures perfectly the suburban dullness of Sanderson's house and town:
I walked over to the bedroom window. The outside world was a long street and a facing row of terraced houses. There were regular lamp posts, irregular telegraph posts and the sounds of a distant busy road - constant car engine hum, truck band-clatter and occasional bass box thump, but - I squashed my nose up against the glass and looked left and right - no people. It was a cloudy day, grey and edgeless.
Apparently it's been claimed on the internet that Sanderson's house is in Derby.
Dr Randle attempts to counsel Eric, but further postings from the First Eric Sanderson warn him off the increasingly sinister psychologist. I don't want to set the scene too much more, as these early chapters, with their sense of menace amidst mundanity, are by far the best of the book. In the early films of M Night Shalaymyan, the thrill was seeing a hoary comic-book conceit worked out in humdrum everyday life. In Unbreakable, we saw what having superhuman powers might mean in everyday, dull life. What holds the attention so viscerally in the early pages of The Raw Shark Texts is how closely Eric Sanderson's attempts to make sense of his life tally with our own attempts to make sense of what is going.
Reviewers of the book have gone straight to the multiplex (the headline of Tom McCarthy's generally approving review in the LRB) in search of anchors of comparison. On the blurb, we have Mark Haddon pronouncing it "the bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The Da Vinci Code" while other anonymous critics invoke Jaws, Donnie Darko and Memento. A particularly hysterical Scotsman raves "Steven Hall's brilliance aspires to Bach", which is putting it pretty steep. As McCarthy observes in the LRB, the book reads like a movie treatment, and a less than innovative one in these post-Matrix days when Reality Is Not What It Seems has become one of the great clichés.
The slew of movie comparisons provides a clue as to why I felt so let down by The Raw Shark Texts. The 130 pages read like watching Memento - the heady sense of disorientation accompanying the gradual development of personal theories about what the hell is going on. "Tricksy" isn't always a pejorative term, and Memento showed how a hoary old convention - the "experimental" or "non-linear" narrative - can sometimes enhance a plot, especially what is essentially a mystery or whodunit. The problem is, Memento told a fundamentally simple story of lost love and of corruption. The Raw Shark Texts includes a simple story of lost love and bereavement, but actually tells a story of conceptual sharks.
Yes, you can't beat an old conceptual shark story, can you? As an aside, I'm not ruining anything by telling you that Jaws is referenced and more than referenced pretty heavily throughout the book. These sharks are virtual and yet not virtual, for the world itself is virtual. Virtual sharks are made from bits and pieces of the detritus of human interactions. Eric is cursed by, or rather with, a Ludovician. A Ludovician is the Great White of the conceptual shark world, feasting on memories and thoughts belonging to a vulnerable mind.
How does the Ludovician manifest itself in The Raw Shark Texts? Firstly, in the relatively old fashioned means of purpleish prose:
The dark shape glides up into the flow of conversations and stories, swims through the word-hum of packed Saturday night bars, circles the loops and edges of exchanged mobile numbers.
A telephone call is misdialled and, miles away, my unconscious self shifts in sleep, disturbed by a ringing bell.
From four degrees of separation, the shadow under the water catches the scent. A curved, rising signifier, a black idea fin of momentum and intent cuts through the distance between us in a spray of memes.
Heavy, eh? But more directly, we get to see the Ludovician, as well as a variety of less fearsome conceptual fish, in textual format. In the manner of the self-conscious conceptual cul-de-sac that was concrete poetry, pages and pages of the book are festooned with gobbets of text made up to look like sharks.
There is a sterility to these typographical experiments that leaks into the human story of the book. Once you've seen one shark made up of characters on the page, you've seen them all. Readers who persist with The Raw Shark Texts and who, like me, are tiring somewhat of the whole proceedings can be of good cheer. Towards the end - just at the stage when you have read so far that ‘tis more tedious to go back than to go o'er - we are treated to 40-odd nearly blank pages. Blank except for flick-book style representations of a looming shark coming closer and closer.
To return to the plot, once the conceptual sharks appear the taut mystery of the early pages disappears, and we embark on a rather tedious exercise in a thriller of memes. Essentially, Eric Sanderson goes in search of Dr Trey Fidorous, a supposed expert in the conceptual shark world. His search is aided by Scout, a girl of the irritating pseudo-sassiness with which male writers encumber their attempts at strong young female characters with. It turns out that Scout has been stricken with Mycroft Ward. Mycroft Ward (note the hat-tip to Mycroft Holmes) was a Victorian who vowed to cheat death. This proved physically impossible but psychically quite straightforward - Ward cataloguing the key aspects of his persona, and then transferring them to a widowed doctor, who in later life began to repeat the process with two other subjects. The personality of Mycroft Ward begins to take over more and more people, and becomes an online entity, a gigantic self feasting off the selves of others. The only thing that can destroy Ward is the Ludovician. Imaginative readers can perhaps work out the terms of the final, Jaws-influenced climactic battle. Baffled readers will probably never bother finding out.
The mythical ballast is as heavy as the conceptual one. The first Eric's girlfriend is called Clio (muse of memory, don't you know.) The tender, funny, ordinary love story sequences are set on Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne. There's a boat called the Orpheus. Was it Philip Larkin who objected to the lazy use of classical allusion to evoke what should properly be described? Hall is trying too hard to give his love story some resonance, to act as a balance to the conceptual sharks and Mycroft Ward and such. It may make more sense in the multiplex, where the conceptual sharks may find their natural home in the world of CGI, but on the page they remind one once again that the avant-garde tricks of the early 20th century were an artistic blind alley. The genie's bottle that is Reality Is Not What It Seems is a little like the "It Was All A Dream" ending that all schoolchildren are taught to avoid for their stories - it imposes a narrative sterility, making it hard to take anything entirely seriously. When everything is possible, nothing is at stake. When nothing is at stake, all the fish in the conceptual ocean won't make your story interesting.