June 4, 2007

Book review: "The Raw Shark Texts," by Steven Hall

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The Raw Shark Texts
Steven Hall
Canongate US / ISBN: 978-1841959115

Throughout history (or at least as far back as Gulliver's Travels), books that attempt to combine fantastical elements with the high-minded "literature" label have had a rough go at it, with most never truly ending up being one or the other; to cite just one example, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch can be described simultaneously as an autobiography, a cautionary tale about drugs, and a science-fiction story, with none of the descriptions being exactly correct. So how then to approach a novel like Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts, being hailed these days by the publishing hype machine as The Next Big Thing In Contemporary Fiction? On the one hand it is very much a fantastical tale, no more "real" than the Star Wars trilogy or any other sci-fi project; and in this respect the book succeeds wildly, or at least in the parts dedicated to this aspect. But on the other hand, it's also a traditional love story, as well as a quiet meditation on memory and the limits of free will; and in this respect the book is an utter failure, as hackneyed and clumsy as a tearful poem from a high-school goth. But then again, it could also be seen as a Hollywood-friendly action-adventure tale, in which case the book is very typical of such things; a weak beginning, a great middle, an ending that could use some punching up by a script doctor, but certainly nothing that can't be fixed by the time production starts.

So maybe it's best to start with this, then -- that much like Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves or D.B. Weiss' Lucky Wander Boy, The Raw Shark Texts is firmly one of those "genre unto itself" novels, and perhaps no traditional review of it can do it full justice. Ultimately it's the story of one Eric Sanderson...or should I say the "second Eric Sanderson," for as the reader learns at the beginning of the book, this Sanderson not only has amnesia but is also receiving mysterious packages in the mail each day, apparently from himself before the amnesia and each signed "The First Eric Sanderson." The notes begin by giving Sanderson the concrete details needed to restart his life ("Call this phone number, tell the woman who answers that your name is Eric, and that it's happened again"); why yes, in fact, almost exactly like the superior Memento, one of many problems The Raw Shark Texts has concerning literary derivation (but more on this in a bit).

As the months progress, then, the reader eventually discovers the crux of the book's plot; that Sanderson believes there to be so much communication being exchanged in the world today, it's actually spawned a series of new "information animals" that live and die off data alone, and who exist in a secret invisible world curiously entwined with our real one. Yes, that's right, information animals; such as the 'Ludovician,' for example, this secret world's version of a great white shark, which feeds off of human thoughts and can kill just as easily as its flesh-and-blood cousin. Apparently one of these Ludovicians has taken a liking to Sanderson (for reasons I won't divulge); it is supposedly the cause of his amnesia, and something that is bound to get worse unless the info shark is stopped.

Now admittedly, the concept of a "sea of information" literally come to life is an intriguing one, and Hall introduces all kinds of great details throughout the novel that play off this theme: shrapnel bombs made out of typewriter keys, cages made out of piles of old random correspondence, protective shields created out of Dictaphones playing on an endless loop. But then Hall attempts to add a romantic element to the story as well; a sassy ex-girlfriend, to be specific, who died under mysterious circumstances during "Eric the First"s time, and whose enduring post-death love may or may not be the key to the entire thing. And this, frankly, is where The Raw Shark Texts always goes off-course throughout the book, because Hall simply isn't very good at writing about human-interest issues; needless to say, if your story relies on a profound romantic relationship at its heart, the point is kind of missed when the couple come off as the kind of bratty hipster backpackers who you normally want to smack when crossing paths with on holiday.

Ultimately, Hall has two really interesting points to make in The Raw Shark Texts, concepts that will roll around in your head afterwards and is ultimately what makes the book worth reading:

1) The idea that in our modern times, we now set up mechanisms for ourselves that exist for a time after we physically die; a "clockwork of the soul," if you will, that still pays our bills and still receives mail, that for all intents and purposes keeps us "alive" for several weeks or months after our physical body is dead and buried;

and that 2), what we think of as "memory" doesn't apply just to the past, but to the future as well; that even as we remember things that have already happened, we're also keeping track of the things in our lives that are coming up. And not only this, but that these past and future memories work in a remarkably similar way -- that the farther away you are from the "objective reality" of the present moment, the more pliable memory is (and therefore time itself).

These are really intriguing concepts, ones perfect for a fantastical story, and Hall does a great job tackling them when directly dealing with them; so it's a sincere shame, then, and a real frustration, that he ends up ripping off so many other well-known projects when he's not directly dealing with these issues, from the aforementioned Memento similarities (which go on for a full 65 pages, way too long to be anything but derivative), to the almost scene-by-scene duplication of Jaws that makes up almost the entire last third of the novel. Reading The Raw Shark Texts, one gets a sense that Hall first came up with the middle -- that is, the cool, creepy stuff involving conceptual fish and UnSpace and secret cabals -- then was forced to tack a bunch of crap onto the beginning and end, in order to pad the manuscript out to full novel size. Want proof? Check out Sanderson's psychiatrist, who is one of only two characters in the entire first third of the book, then suddenly is never referred to again, apparently only existing as an elaborate justification for Hall to be able to say, "And then Eric didn't check his mail for four months."

The Raw Shark Texts is unfortunately full of such moments -- a pet cat who has nothing to do with the storyline yet figures prominently in almost every scene, cutesy chick-lit moments between Sanderson and the main female protagonist that will make most people want to vomit. But then again, this is also the guy who manages to weave together an ancient Zen parable, the Bible's Old Testament, a Victorian science-fiction story, and a conspiracy theory about internet viruses, all into one giant uber-mythology that holds together surprisingly well. Ultimately Hall isn't a bad writer; he just got stuck with a bad editor in this case, someone who should've known enough to go in and cut the sections that aren't Hall's forte. But given how odd this book is to begin with, perhaps everyone involved should be cut a little slack; after all, this is Hall's first-ever novel, and one that would be difficult anyway for any editor to take on. I can sincerely state that I'm looking forward to Hall's next project, and his continued maturation as a writer; in the meantime, however, perhaps people would be better off waiting for The Raw Shark Texts: The Movie...which yes, is already in development. Hmm, some things about the hype machine never change, I guess.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.5
Characters: 4
Style: 9.2
Overall: 7.9

Read even more about The Raw Shark Texts: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:48 AM, June 4, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |