tongue-tied lightning

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
March 5, 2009, 3:22 PM
Filed under: lit


The Raw Shark Texts opens as a man wakes up with no memory of himself or anything else.  He composes himself and finds a driver’s license informing him he is Eric Sanderson.  As he walks downstairs he finds a post-it note telling him to speed-dial one, which connects him to his psychiatrist Dr. Randle.  He finds a polaroid telling him what his car looks like.  He finds a note signed “The First Eric Sanderson.”

Eric visits Dr. Randle.  She informs him that his girlfriend Clio died in a boating accident off the coast of Greece several years ago and since then he has been having these episodes (this is the eleventh), each time he seems to lose more and more of himself.  She classifies this condition as a “disassociative fugue” and tells him to ignore any correspondence from his former self, it could be dangerous.

I thought I was in for a Memento rehash but the book is something more.  We soon find out Eric is being chased by a conceptual shark.  That is, a shark that lives in the streams and ponds of the collective unconscious and eats thoughts, ideas and memories.  He discovers this through letters from The First Eric Sanderson, which in turn tell him Dr. Randle doesn’t understand his condition and he shouldn’t listen to her.  He provides him with information on conceptual fish and Un-Space (an underground network of abandoned tunnels and buildings) and teaches him defense mechanisms to protect himself from sharks.  He tells him to find Dr. Trey Fidorous, claiming he is the only one that can help him.

There are several references/allusions to other media.  The plot bears strong resemblance at times to the Orpheus myth and The Wizard of Oz.  The last 50 pages of the book more or less recount the last hour of Jaws, albiet in a different light (this is explained in the book, Jaws being most people’s idea of a shark hunting expedition, it’s only natural that an idea-shark hunting expedition would resemble it).  The last page of the book is an image from Casablanca.

The author, Steven Hall, claims the book is open to interpretation, he wants each reader to be able to have their own intepretation of the events that take place.  The title itself, The Raw Shark Texts is a pun on “the Rorshach tests” and the book seems to maintain a symmetry.  The author says each of the 36 chapters has a negative or un-chapter.  Some hidden on the internet and some hidden in the UK.

The most basic dichotomy in the book is between Dr. Randle and The First Eric Sanderson.  There seems to be enough evidence to support either persons theory as the “correct” one.  A. That Eric has a condition labeled a dissociative fugue or B. that he’s being chased by a conceptual shark.  At the end of the book we are provided with an article from a newspaper and a postcard that seem to provide endings that contradict one another.  The postcard has two stamps, both of Ariadne’s arch (recalling the Orpheus myth) one a negative of the other.

The book has some problems.  There seem to be gaps in the logic concerning conceptual sharks.  For example, towards the end, when they are hunting the shark on a boat, Dr. Fidorous, like Quint in Jaws attempts to slow down/wear out the shark by harpooning barrels to him.  These barrels are filled with phonebooks and “speed-dialers” which are telephones that dial up to thirty numbers a second.  The idea is that all these people and streams of information will create drag as the shark swims through a sea of ideas.  This makes sense (within the book’s logic) but what is the harpoon made of?  What is the rope connecting the harpoon to the barrell? Perhaps these things aren’t important, but the best science-fiction creates seamless worlds that seem logical and complete.  The books other weakness is that Hall’s prose, while rarely deficient, rarely rises above the quotidian.

The best moments in the book for me concern the relationship between Eric and Scout.  A girl he meets in Un-Space on his journey to find Dr. Fidorous and secretly believes might somehow be related to Clio.  Their relationship is delicate, painted with light brush strokes, and when it is realized it feels real and beautiful.  The author says so much with a few looks and some suggestive lines of dialogue.  These scenes take up very few pages in the book but deepen it’s meaning greatly.

The book seems to be the type that rewards digging around for clues and deep examination.  In a way it seems like it aspires and fails to be the next House of Leaves, that’s not to say I don’t like the book.  I enjoyed it very much and have been dwelling over it much since I finished it, but it’s not on the level of Danielewski’s masterpiece.

It has already been optioned by Hollywood and Slumdog-scribe Simon Beaufoy is writing a draft.  That alone is enough to make me fear the books elusive  double nature will be lost.  But I can’t imagine The Raw Shark Texts as a film.  How do you create a visual representation of a man who loses his grasp on the physical representation of the floor and finds himself treading water in the idea of a floor?  There is also the fact that the end of the book and the end of Jaws are both nearly identical.


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