Book Review: The Raw Shark Texts

[Ed. In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote this for class. I do hope to offer a book review on here from time to time, though.]

Steven Hall (2007), Canongate U.S., Fiction.

Amazon.com, Hardback ($20.93), Paperback ($12.87) and Kindle ($8.90)

Imagine that what you say, think and write weren’t just ideas. Imagine that they manifested themselves as matter. Ludicrous? Of course. A good story? Equally so.

In The Raw Shark Texts, a 2007 fictional work by British novelist Stephen Hall, communication, ideas and memories aren’t merely conceptual; they take on a physical, spatial reality, existing as the streams which connect the lakes of our thoughts together. They interlink to create a vast network, with people and their trails of memory and thought acting as nodes. Creatures live in these streams. Some are harmless — thought crabs, thought lampreys, so on — but some, like sharks (especially the ominous Ludovician), are deadly.

It begins on a bedroom floor, where Eric Sanderson abruptly wakes up with the brief sensation that he can’t breathe. Worse, he remembers nothing. He’s in a strange house, apparently his, and finds a yellow envelope near the front door that reads: THIS IS ADDRESSED TO YOU. OPEN NOW. Inside is a letter, telling him to immediately call a woman named Dr. Randle, who will explain everything. The note is signed: The First Eric Sanderson.

Randle tells Eric that he has an extremely rare psychological condition called cognitive dissociation, causing continual, looping longterm memory loss. This apparently is his eleventh lapse. He learns a bit about his “previous life”: his old job, his sufficiently large bank account…his girlfriend Clio Aames, whose accidental death Randle says triggered the dissociative condition. She also tells him not to read any more letters from this “First Eric Sanderson” because he can’t trust him.

Eric initially agrees, allowing the stream of letters he’s getting from Eric the First to steadily grow in a cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, unopened, as he tries to return to a sort of normal life. The heaviness of Eric’s curiosity eventually gets the better of him, and one afternoon he sits on the floor of his living room ripping open the letters one by one.

The First Eric says not to trust Randle because she’s wrong about what’s happening (and suggests she might have alternate motivations), and that he needs to listen carefully because he’s in great danger.

The letters start to piece together Eric’s story, and here’s where we get to the book’s premise — the ocean of memories, the shadowy silhouettes in the water made up of people and the trails of ideas and memories they leave behind.

“There are two kinds of people in the world, Eric,” one character tells him later in the novel. “There are the people who understand instinctively that the story of The Flood and the story of The Tower of Babel are the same thing, and those who don’t.”

Meaning, if you missed the reference, that the punishment of water (Flood) and the punishment of language (Babel) represent the same reality.

Eric is introduced here — both in the letters and a brief, frightening experience in his home — to the Ludovician, the mordacious Great White of conceptual predators. The shark chooses a prey, tracking relentlessly until it has consumed all memories and thoughts, essentially killing the human. For reasons learned later in the novel, this Ludovician picked Eric.

Eric was confused. Now he’s terrified.

He learns that he can temporarily hide from the Ludovician by forming small, protective dark pockets in the network (conceptual underwater cages, perhaps). He places four tape recorders, each playing 24 hours’ worth of meaningless ambient sound*, in the corners of his room, forming a conceptual whirlpool of communication the Ludovician can’t interpret or penetrate.

*Or as the New York Times said in 2007, a “walking Brian Eno concert.”

But Eric knows this won’t hold it forever. To be truly free of the shark, he needs to find a way to defeat it. And he learns that his only chance of doing that is finding a long-missing expert in conceptual reality — the enigmatic Dr. Trey Fidorous. So he packs up and heads out, teaming with a motley group of characters to fix his highly elaborate personal crisis, and climaxing in a fast-paced, JAWS-like encounter with the conceptual shark (on a conceptual boat, of course).

Though the plot is occasionally incoherent (the book’s ending is more or less inexplicable), the backstory is rich and the characters are engaging. Eric, naturally, meets a girl along the way, setting up a romantic sub-plot. Hall’s writing about their relationship, however, betrays a common tendency of male novelists who write about young women: She’s awfully shallow. She cries a lot (trying to hide it surreptitiously), is sarcastic and flirtatious with Eric, and is quite willing to have haphazard sex anywhere and everywhere. Every guy’s dream, right? It’s one of the book’s few weaknesses, and a common one to be sure, but sometimes glaring. The love scenes are composed of the same mawkish side looks, cocked eyebrows and lusty dialogue every time. It gets old.

Still, the book shines with adroit line-by-line writing, excellent setting description, and that often-elusive atmosphere which separates the good fiction from the bad. And then there’s the center of the story, which — aside from the water/language extended metaphor that runs through the whole book — Hall specifically designed to be malleable.

“I wanted to try and write a book that would be something different to every single reader,” Hall said in an online interview. “I was wondering: Is it possible to write a book that would be a romance to people who like romance, and a puzzle to people who liked puzzles, and science fiction to people who like science fiction? Is it possible to make a book that would [mash] all these ideas together and somehow reflect what the reader expected to see in the book?”

It’s difficult to say whether Hall succeeded at this because I am only one reader. But he certainly tries to combine a number of different elements into one book (which is why the book’s title is a play on words with the Rorschach test), ending up with a contraption that occasionally hiccups switching gears but mostly glides smoothly.

For Fans Of: House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski).

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