Friday, June 08, 2007


Title:Raw Shark Texts
Author: Steven Hall
Publisher: Canongate

He comes to on a bedroom floor. After a moment of panic, he realises that he is not going to die. Only from there does he start to realise that he doesn’t know where he is, or for that matter who he is. Between a letter that is waiting for him, and contact with Dr. Randle, it becomes clear that this man is Eric Sanderson. Eric has what seems to be a psychological problem, there is no apparent medical reason for his illness. Unable to get over the death of his girlfriend Clio on holiday in Greece, Eric has been having attacks, after each attack he has less memory of his life than before. This is his 11th attack, and he has less of Eric Sanderson than ever before.

Letters from the first Sanderson arrive on a regular basis, but Eric doesn’t hand them over to Dr. Randle like she requests, but neither does he read them like Sanderson requests. Instead he potters along, he has enough money that he doesn’t need to work for a few years. Hangs out and watches TV with his cat Ian and visits Dr. Randle regularly. He is coasting, going nowhere, getting neither better or worse, until the biggest parcel from Sanderson arrives. Unnoticed it sits on his doorstep till a neighbour brings it to Eric’s attention, rain soaked the box falls apart. Thus, unprepared, Eric enters Sanderson’s life, gets his first direct recollection of Clio and what happened. The next thing he knows he is paddling over deep water and he is not alone, there is a shark and it is coming for him. By sheer fluke, he escapes the shark, and finds himself back in his trashed living room.

This is Eric’s wake up call, and he makes quick work of catching up on all those unread letters. This reveals the existence of the Ludovician - a conceptual shark. One of a number of conceptual beasts, which live in the spaces between words and ideas, feeding on anything from letters to memories. This particularly beast feeds on Eric Sanderson, and is looking to finish the task. Sanderson provides defensive measures, and those could protect Eric. But he is really suggesting that the only real solution is to enter Un-Space, spaces between human spaces, human spaces when they are deserted - crawl ways, tunnels, multi-story car parks, shops at night. If he can follow cryptic clues and pathways, he might be able to find Dr. Fidorous an expert on conceptual beasts. Though it isn’t that easy - why should he trust Eric Sanderson and his rambling insistence of the existence of imaginary sharks and un-spaces? Can he trust anyone who lives in un-space? And what did Sanderson do in the first place to find any of this out?

The Raw Shark Texts is a novel of paranoia and wonder. Quickly launching itself from the mundane every day existence of an amnesiac and his cat and his therapy sessions, into the territory of otherness, the peripheral, the places that exist between one piece of reality and another. Watching a nature documentary Eric wonders at the ability of life to exist in even the harshest of environments, an idea which Hall cranks up and takes to an extreme - the idea that life can exist with ideas. Ideas that can be constructed from ideas to form new kinds of realities - structures, journeys, threats and defences. Steven Hall takes his debut novel deeper and deeper into the realms of imagination and inspiration with each turn of the page.

The novel plays games with the text. An obvious comparison would be to Mark Z Daneilewski’s House Of Leaves. The way both novels play with random inserts, follow the word games, shifting into other colours of text. With that comparison Raw Shark Texts is a much more restrained piece, to a degree that could be considered as being a tighter, more controlled work - making it that degree more coherent, approachable and readable. Though certainly for the reader to get the most from either work it takes a certain commitment. The text becomes part of the tension, the page illustrating the idea of the shark and of the threat its appearances provide. The UK hardback edition, which is the cover I like the most so far, plays similar games with the text, quotes up the spine, the first letter on the back. An embossed shark tooth image, blurring into imagery from Sanderson’s life, the whole forming a kind of Rorschach blot (get it raw shark blot).

The idea of the shark early on reminds me of Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, in which one character dreams of sharks, and another character shares the dream and thinks this dream is an omen; the later reference to Orpheus, who also crops up in Hoban’s work, is also noted. Hoban being an established writer who works in that other space in most of his writing. More conscious acknowledgement is made of Hall’s influences in his choice of quotes, his choice of pop culture reference. The novel is split into four sections, each starts with a quote from a writer - Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami and Italo Calvino - all of which capture something of what is going on in these pages. In turn, it should perhaps not be a surprise to find that Hall thanks young British writers David Mitchell and Scarlett Thomas, both of whom have also played in this kind of territory of otherness to some degree or other.

Publisher Canongate have done a good job of getting this novel on shelves, getting it included in special offers, creating enough of a buzz that people are observing the hype. Certainly some will pick this novel up based on hype alone, and they won’t get it or like it, and I can understand that. But for me, I thoroughly enjoyed this work, it’s a type of fiction that I like a lot, it just buzzes with density and ideas as far as I am concerned. Initially I can see little problems with the logic, as we go through there are points I wonder how Hall is going to manage to keep the story going. In the end I lost track of the logic issues, the whole requires a certain faith, and each stumbling block brings a twist that keeps the novel trundling along. Finishing The Raw Shark Texts I have the feeling of discovery, of delight, of having read something that was a joy, and really hoping that this is something that Steven Hall can manage to follow.

[Just come across this as I’m about to post - annotated raw shark - might be interesting.]

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