Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
It is funny - I had heard about this book, I am not sure where, but when I saw it sitting in the bookshops the first few times, I passed over it, thinking it was some sort of serious documentary type book. When I finally picked it up, not sure what inspired me, I was confused as the text on the cover was repeated on the inside, and I didn't quite know where to stat. So I put the book back down again. Then I went to the Sydney Writers' Festival, and paid a small sum of money to listen to the author of this book, Steven Hall. Luckily I paid another small sum of money for a pad and some pens, so I have some record of what he said (the Festival was back in June). First the title is a bit of a play on words: some readers regard this as a love story, others as a thriller, so the text operates as a sort of literary Rorschach test. I'm not sure where that leaves me, as I saw both and more. Second, I was intrigued by his explanation of what he was doing with the book and even more as to whether he in any way pulled it off. The idea is that books are part of the stream of popular culture, by both responding to it and shaping it. So it would be very strange to encounter a book that made no cultural references, took nothing from any other source - it might even be unreadable as a result. This book is all about those streams, they make an "ocean of cultural connections we inhabit". So, since there is an ocean, then there can be a shark - a "conceptual" one in this case, one which is on the hunt for the central character. He has to fight back to survive - that fight borrows heavily from a fight against a shark we all know about: Jaws. Towards the end of the book, there is indeed a shark attack: as you flip the pages, an image of a shark gets closer and closer until At this stage, I had no idea what he was talking about, but all was made clear when the book finally turned up from the library. It starts with this fellow waking up, with the realisation that he had no idea who or where he was - he looks around and sees a perfectly normal bedroom, just one he could not recognise. Looking further around the house, he finds a letter from "the first Eric Sanderson", giving him a few hints as to how to get things started - such as by contacting a Dr Randle (psychiatrist). She of course had a particular diagnosis (some sort of disassociative disorder) - the eleventh time he has come to her in the same state (so no cure, then). She can tell him that the first loss was after an accident in which his girlfriend, Clio, died but the losses have become worse each time: now he can remember things like movie lines but not when he saw the movie, nothing at all of himself. An interesting idea to play around with in its own right, but the author has other ideas.
Curiously, a sequence of letters then starts (I say curiously, because I still don't know how they were sent, how they started at exactly the right time) from "the first Eric Sanderson" which give guidance as to how to survive this condition and maybe work out how to fix it - obviously they were written in anticipation of the memory loss by Eric for the post memory-loss Eric. Soon a cat turns up, a cat called Ian, who is a constant companion for Eric and quite a character. When he first shows up, Eric talks to him, asking where he'd been hiding ("The cat just looked at me"), whether he was hungry ("The cat just looked at me.") and what kind of name Ian was for a cat:
And the cat just looked at me, his big ginger face managing to do bored, irritated and smug all at the same time. He looked at me as though I was being very stupid indeed.Ian's reactions to what Eric gets up to are a constant entertainment throughout the book.
After about six months, Eric is finally given some semblance of the story of what has happened to him. In the meantime, he has been given various artefacts he can't really understand - such as a video of a light flashing on and off for an hour - and some story fragments which look quite biographical. His very house and existence have come under attack from the shark: he has to repeat a text completely unrelated to himself to act as a kind of camouflage, to keep the shark away from him. Here is how this shark is described in the novel:
The Ludovician fish is a predator, a shark. It feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self. Ludovicians are solitary, fiercely territorial and methodical hunters. A Ludovician might select an individual human being as its prey animal, and pursue and feed on that individual over the course of years, until that victim's memory and identity have been completely consumed. Sometimes, the target's body survives this ordeal and may go on to live a second twilight life after the original self and memories have been taken. In time, such a person may establish a 'bolt on' identity of their own, but the Ludovician will eventually catch the scent of this and return to complete its kill.The theory is that whenever he inhabits the textual world of Eric Sanderson, the shark can track him: the problem I have with this is that he can never really escape himself, except by the kind of memory loss that happened to the first (ten) Eric Sanderson(s). So, as soon as the shark picks up on the scent of the new Eric, he can't get outside of himself. Sure, I get the notion of setting up text loops around him that act as a barrier, but as soon as he goes outside the loop, the shark would be onto him - we all have a kind of textual memory of ourselves that we can't avoid. The letter bombs were a cool device: anything solid made up of printed language or letters, such as typewriter keys or, no doubt, old newspaper fonts. They confuse the textual trail for the shark.
Anyway, Eric has received some account from the first Eric of what he had tried to do to deal with the shark, so Eric decides to follow that trail, looking for a scientist (of sorts) called Trey Fidorous. Ian is with him, of course, although not very happy about it. He is also joined (well, rescued really) by Scout:
She was probably in her early twenties, pale and too thin. Her black bobbed hair was a shocking negative of her white skin and her eyes were sharp sharp green. She had high cheekbones, and what they call 'good bone structure' on those makeover programmes on TV. I realised she was beautiful, or possibly proto-beautiful - there was stilla youngness about her, as if she hadn't quite aged into the person she was going to become.Now, she's an unoffical member of the Un-Space Exploration Committee. I really like the concept of un-space, it is somewhere I spend a fair amount of time myself: things like unlabelled carparks, buried places, abandoned buildings, rooftops, ventilation tunnels, spaces not used by the public. In fact, I recently saw a movie almost entirely shot in un-space: Perfect Creature which was shot in Dunedin, but in no part I could recognise, because they kind of turned Dunedin inside out, and used the backs of buildings and little alley ways that no-one ever goes down. This Dr Fidorous has buried himself deep in un-space and Scout is going to guide Eric to him. As she does, something sparkles between them: the way this relationship came to life struck me as so naturally done, so full of mischevious humour as to be genius. [Mind you, The Australian had an opposed viewpoint, saying "Most of their repartee seems to be a hideous hybrid of Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City, with some Tank Girl heroics thrown in to make Scout seem dynamic" - but then I'm a fan of both the Gilmore Girls and Tank Girl.] It also had echoes of the relationship the first Eric had with Clio.
One part that really didn't do much for me was the introduction of Mycroft Ward into the mix: as if having the conceptual shark on their trail was not enough, we had to have some sort of cyborg, intent upon assimilating the whole world. This part of the story didn't really seem to go very far anyway.
No matter: when you decide to turn the tables on a conceptual shark and hunt him down, you of course need a boat. Not any old boat, however; a conceptual boat - this boat depended upon the conviction of its inhabitants that they were in fact in a boat, despite the physical evidence to the contrary. Once Eric was in the right imaginative space, then we have a shark hunt, just as vividly created as that in Jaws.
Of course, the other possibility is that Dr Randle is right: Eric is simply mad.
It seems that the author has had a lot of fun beyond the book. He is producing "negatives" for each of the chapters in the book, and is leaving lots of teasing comments on the forum related to it, about how there is a second book connected to this one, featuring Ian's brother, Gavin (yes, another cat). Apparently he left envelopes around the UK, just as Eric did in un-space, inviting those who found the lost envelopes to the forum. I'm wondering what else is going on beyond the book, and the project to annotate it.
Funny: I have been reading reviews at amazon; several complain about the lack of unoriginality, that there is borrowing from other authors (Borges, Auster, Murakami) and from Jaws. Given the author's notions about cultural streams, that is hardly surprising.