Man Eaten by Book
The Raw Shark TextsSteven Hall
(Canongate · hardcover · $24)
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks ferried back sad and fascinating tales from the frontiers of brain dysfunction. The eeriest involved amnesiacs like Jimmy, a 49-year-old man whose memories simply stopped after World War II. “What sort of a world, what sort of self, can be preserved in a man who has lost the greater part of his memory?” Sacks wondered.
In Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, we have a relentlessly playful answer to this question. The novel’s hero wakes up on page one, facedown on the carpet with no idea who he is or how he got there. Just when he starts getting his bearings—his name is Eric Sanderson, his girlfriend probably drowned in a scuba diving accident—Eric is attacked by a shark made from words which feasts on memories (and appears in the book as a piece of textual design).
Sanderson quickly steps in to explain away any confusion in the form of a letter he sent himself from the past: “The animal hunting you is a Ludovician. It is an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect … The streams, currents, rivers of human knowledge, experience and communication … are now a vast, rich, bountiful environment. Why should we expect these flows to be sterile?”
Indeed, we shouldn’t, and Hall has made the most of this compelling, if elaborate, metaphor. Armed with a handful of Dictaphones (which can create a conceptual shark cage) and a cat named Ian, Eric sets off on a quest to find a wizard named Dr. Trey Fidorous, whom he believes can help kill this shark. But first Eric has to slay some of the ghouls of Mycroft Ward, a giant textual demon overlord, and determine whether a comely woman he meets along the way named Scout has his best interests in mind.
Cram the plot into a couple of paragraphs and this book sounds a little ridiculous, like a slightly more grown-up Harry Potter—which in some ways it is. Hall, who was born in 1975, has come of age with video games and big-budget Hollywood action flicks (Jaws is clearly an influence).
His characters often speak (ironically) in that snappy but empty dialog you hear on the big screen, and the book works hard to delight us visually. But in spite of all these reasons to resist it, The Raw Shark Texts is a compelling, thought-provoking, page-turning read. Like Stephen King and other writers who detour through the supernatural, Hall spins a pliant, devilishly tactile prose style. It doesn’t take much work to believe in this shark, even though its metaphorical meaning—the danger of repressed memory—is about as subtle as a dorsal fin slicing through ocean water. In moments when Eric begins to nearly recover the past, the shark materializes out of the text and nudges Eric as if he were shipwrecked, treading water on a sea of words.
Several recent novels, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves have all visited this territory before Hall. Rather than pretend at originality, Hall has woven their fictions into his work—along with hat-tips and shout-outs to the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami and many others. Jasper Fforde will go through readers' minds as Eric and Scout hide from the shark by climbing down into unspace, a world accessible through a porthole at a bookstore.
As a result, not only is Hall’s hero floating on a sea of words, the book is, too. In this fashion, the form and function of storytelling in The Raw Shark Texts dovetail toward the same purpose—asking, and asking again, how much of our identity comes from what’s around us? Stripped of his sense of self by a loss so large it has obliterated his memory, Eric Sanderson struggles mightily with this question. As a novelist, Hall is more than willing to own up to the fact that the answer is quite simple—everything.