This week I finished The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, and boy is it a read and a half! At the start our protagonist, Eric Sanderson, wakes up and doesn’t know who he is. So far so Memento. Pretty soon Jaws and The Matrix come along, as we find out that he is being hunted by a memory-shark, a Ludovician. He receives letters from himself, with encrypted clues about what happened to him previously, and in order to find answers he has to delve into un-space. It’s all very unsettling, confusing, overwhelming, and you really feel Eric’s frustration – it is first person narrated, so we only know as much as he does, and there’s a lot he doesn’t know! It’s also worth remembering that this was written in 2007, before things like Facebook and Twitter had quite taken over the world.
Now, some folks don’t like the similarity to Jaws, but to be honest, if you’re going to have a monstrous predatory animal flowing through the ether of concepts it might as well be a shark, and if it’s going to be a shark you might as well embrace the Jaws connection that people are going to make anyway. One of the characters even comments on comparing things in real life to things in films. Besides, there are only 6 original stories (or whatever the number is that ‘they’ say), and the author brings his unique take on these ideas. The use of images and ‘text images’ is fascinating (everybody loves a bit of ASCII art), and more intriguingly, there are 36 Negative Chapters out there to be found – for every chapter in the book there is an un-chapter. I haven’t read any of them yet, but my curiosity is certainly piqued. The author’s forum has much more information on this (spoilers).
This book explores the power of concepts and the flow of ideas – one passage I found particularly mind blowing was when Eric reads one of the mysterious letters, which describes the scene of a boat on a lake, asking Eric to imagine this scene. It continues, “Here’s what’s obvious and wonderful and terrible all at the same time: the lake in my head, the lake I was imagining, has just become the lake in your head.”
How do you ever read anything again without thinking about the connections between you, the author, and everyone else reading it? And what about movies, paintings, popular culture? Ask people to draw you a light sabre, and you’ll probably get very similar, specific, images. “Imagine two Italian plumbers” and you’ve probably already got Mario and Luigi running around in your head. I guess the concept of language itself relies on shared ideas – when I say chair, you know exactly what I mean. But this book takes the connections between those shared ideas to a whole other level.
It’s also a bit of an odyssey – Eric journeys from place to place, having to take risks and face dangers, accompanied by his trusty companion, the cat called Ian. Along the way he meets characters that help and hinder him, all the while uncovering more snippets of the elusive truth, and more questions as well. And in the end, well, you can interpret the ending to be as straightforward or as complex as you like. I loved it, and I’m looking forward to these un-chapters.