By Steven Hall
368 Pages, Canongate.
We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Idea
By Pat Black
Conceptual art – it’s the Robin Williams of the creative industries. Some love and admire it and engage with it, even for all the undeniable rubbish that has emerged under its name. Others simply loathe it and mentally hibernate whenever it shows up on their sonar, ignoring the wit and the sometimes genuinely startling examples of work. So, nanu-nanu, be warned. To read The Raw Shark Texts is to dive head-first into conceptual art-infested waters.
The blurb on the cover refers to the high concept – “The bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and the Da Vinci Code!” I think this hyperbole might actually have come from the otherwise wonderful Mark Haddon, the guy who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. This description of The Raw Shark Texts, if we were to represent it visually, might look something like this:
e e fly
fly c c fly
Pong pong pong pong pong
Pong Brown Pong
Pong pong pong pong pong pong
That is to say, shite.
What you see above is a key part of Steven Hall’s debut novel – not shite, of course, but the graphical representation of ideas and images using letters and symbols to make concrete forms. It pervades this strange, occasionally desolate but never dull piece of work and provides flashes of colour, even brilliance.
Much as you see my word turd above and cease to see it as a collection of words or even letters, but rather as a fixed shape, so too will you see the ferocious Ludovician – the shark promised in the play-on-words title of this book. It’s not a real flesh-and-blood fish, but a conceptual fish. Although its bite is real enough; this laddie will still pull you under the floor if you’re not quick, if you’re not smart.
Hall is obviously a Jaws freak; I’m guessing he grew up watching the greatest of all scary stories and loved it, before working out his own unique way of spinning a big fish tale of his own over the course of a lifetime.
I’m a Jaws freak, too. I’ll admit it, the idea that a shark might be lurking beneath the cover is what first caused me to take a look at this book in the shop. (The same instinct drove me to buy James Delingpole’s Fin last year, but with decidedly different results.)
This shark doesn’t just eat people, though – this one eats memories and identities, leaving people amnesic and confused if it doesn’t outright scoff them. It does not exist in the real world, but rather in the conceptual world, or Un-space. It’s an idea of a shark, only visible on strange tableau throughout the book. Sometimes it’s visible in the static on a television set, sometimes as a moving shadow across the shaded tiles of a drained swimming pool.
The story concerns someone called The Second Eric Sanderson, who wakes up with no idea of who he is with only a series of guiding notes from The First Eric Sanderson to keep him out of the Ludovician’s jaws. Through conversations with a psychiatrist, he discovers that he is suffering from a dissociative condition, or fugue. His psyche is blocking out something terrible that happened while he was on holiday in Greece – an accident that killed his partner, Clio Aames.
Except, that’s not the way either Eric Sanderson sees it. He thinks it’s all to do with Un-space, and his job in mapping out this strange, sometimes deadly territory. Creatures from Un-space, as one of his letters to himself says, “do not see physical plants and trees and animals. They do not see the sky or the moon. They only see people, and the things that people make and say and do”.
Eric finds out that he used to work for the Un-space Exploration Committee, and that the Ludovician represented his way of attempting to preserve the memories of Cleo in Un-space. But there’s another girl in the Second Eric’s story, too – a spirited creature called Scout who seeks to use the Ludovician to destroy the sinister internet presence known as Mycroft Ward. But why does she remind him so much of Clio? And why does she have the same tattoo as Clio (a smiley face on her toe to let the mortician in on the big joke)?
Throughout the text, we get illustrations of these conceptual creatures; starting off small with ickle fish, then stunning us with some fantastic, unexpected shark moments. The only books which ever gave people “jump scares” before are ones that fell off bookshelves or had guns concealed in them. But the Raw Shark Texts has one part that’s as close as you’re going to get to an author leaping off the page and shouting “Boo!” at you.
Using text as illustration in this way is nothing new; Irvine Welsh used to enjoy using word chunks as building blocks in some of his fiction; Alfred Bester took the form one step beyond in parts of The Stars My Destination nearly sixty years ago; concrete forms in poetry has been around for a while, and I’m sure I recall someone sending in artwork to a kids’ TV show, a picture of Prince Charles’ face created entirely on a typewriter. (Poor devil! Can you imagine that effort? And for what reward?) I gather the House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski takes a similarly experimental tack, though I haven’t read it. Here, it is part of the story itself, almost an entity on its own. It forms part of the central intrigue; what is the shark? Why is it pursuing Eric, and what does it have to do with the trauma his mind won’t face?
Ironically, confusion is the best defence Eric has against the shark. When he posts letters to people who can help him, he’s advised to do it just before the postman empties the box, with the other mail acting as a screen of static. The shark can sense whatever conceptual moves you make, much as a real shark will sniff out a cloud of fresh blood in the water. Only other concepts, ideas and communications can confuse it and throw it off the scent. Eric has to run dictaphones in the background when he’s making calls; he even uses a psychic defence mechanism, thinking of a completely false identity and name ,when he knows the Ludovician is on his trail. It is the logic and logistics of a lunatic, and it fits in well with the general drive of the book.
There are clues, enigmas, mysteries and puzzles dotted throughout, and it’s here that Hall might lose some people. The Ludovician is a barmy idea, and it – and the entire book – will only work if you give the author’s imagination a little leeway. This is a story about positives and negatives, matter and anti-matter. It is also littered with references which hint at the plot – Casablanca is a strong one, as is the obvious Jaws, and there are also nods to work as diverse as that of Jorge Luis Borges and Frank L Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Some you’ll get, a few you won’t, and some you may not care about either way. But there’s no doubting the skill that went into creating the conundrum. There are “lightbulb fragments”, journal entries where the original Eric Sanderson recounts his time with the lost Clio; there’s a keyboard-based Morse code that the narrator has to crack. There’s the mysterious Mr Nobody, a sinister presence who represents the Mycroft Ward entity – itself an enigma.
And what’s with these names, anyway? Is Mycroft Ward a piss-take of Microsoft Word? I’m rather tickled to think that it is. I imagine Steven Hall losing a document or something, unable to retrieve it, raving mad about it, and taking this most delicious revenge. What about Dr Trey Fidorous, the scientist? It seems like it must be an anagram.
If you don’t like the sound of these linguistic games, then the bad news is that it gets worse. Hall has set up a number of Easter Eggs surrounding the Raw Shark Texts since it was published – “negative chapters” which complement the “positive” ones printed in the book. These are sometimes hidden around the internet, or even in the foreign language versions of the book. It’s possible that there is a definitive version of The Raw Shark Texts out there, but it’s never been collected in one volume in English before so far as I can ascertain.
Where the whole thing threatens to sink is in the final section. I’m not spoiling much for you by saying that this part is effectively a “reimagining” of the movie, Jaws. Eric, Scout and the expository Dr Fidorous head out on a conceptual boat, into a conceptual sea, to hunt their conceptual shark. It’s a bonkers leap of faith for a reader to make, going from the trio basically setting up a wendy house in a real-world basement to imagining they’re out at sea in the very familiar story of three shark hunters on the trail of a monstrous fish. (During this section there is also a wonderful “flip-book” style piece of self-service animation, running to dozens of pages, which I guarantee you’ll want to go back to again and again.)
Hall just about gets away with all this. Not through any metaphysical jive, but because at the heart of this story there is a human tragedy. The flashback (or “lightbulb”) parts of the book which detail the First Eric Sanderson’s relationship with poor, doomed Clio Aames are luminous, striking for their lack of conceptual clutter. There’s a glorious phrase where he describes her embrace of the European style of sunbathing – “she went continentally tits-out”. They take pictures of each other. They send postcards. They make love and frolic in the sunshine. They are free and happy. It has a strong sense of a young couple on their first vacation together, and there’s a kind of innocence in their time spent on the Greek island. Something to be looked back upon like a photograph that’s started to bleach in the sun, just leaving shades of white and very, very pale blue.
And it’s that sense of tragedy and lost love which might just make you fall for this book, very hard. It’s almost certainly the reason why, according to some reports, Nicole Kidman begged the author to allow her to have the film rights. I think it would make a great movie; for me, Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) is the man to direct it. He does love his puzzles, his duality and his ciphers; The Raw Shark (Rorshach?) Texts seems tailor-made for him.
This is a triumph of a novel; I’m at once envious of it and in awe of it. No matter how much I want to be snarky about certain parts, something makes me bite back my comments. Some new idea connected to it that I hadn’t considered before. Only the best books, the best films, can have this effect. I look forward to reading it again.
When you enter this world, you’d be advised to dive right in. Immerse yourself in it, allow yourself to go deep, to drink in the freedom of ideas, the neatness of the concept. These are warm seas. But beware – keep your wits about you. Don’t linger in the deep places. Because you never know what you might