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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Book Review: 'The Raw Shark Texts' by Steven Hall

Rifling through the bookshelves at my grandmother’s house a few years ago, I discovered that my grandfather used to make pencil notes in the fronts of the books that he read. His intentions, I suppose, were a little like my reasons for writing book reviews on this blog – a way of processing his thoughts on what he had read, what he could learn from it. In one of them (possibly something by Samuel Butler), I found the phrase ‘too much philosophy, not enough plot’. Now, I like my books with a dose of philosophy, but I also understand the need for an engaging story, so when I heard about The Raw Shark Texts, it seemed to be just the sort of thing I was looking for. This book shares DNA with works by Umberto Eco or Scarlett Thomas (and it was no surprise to see that latter named in the acknowledgements page), blending the conventions of a tight thriller with big philosophical ideas. We meet our protagonist, Eric Sanderson, with no memory of his past or his identity – the victim of a Ludovican thought shark, one of many species of conceptual fish which have evolved to swim in the ebb and flow of human ideas. With no memory of his previous life, Eric is already in critical condition, and it seems that the shark will return to eat away at his consciousness until there is nothing left.

Thus starts a journey into ‘unspace’, the nameless service roads, carparks and passageways which form the cracks in the modern world, to find the one person who might be able to help. Along the way, Eric is joined by ‘Scout’, a young woman using unspace to hide from a shadowy and terrifying being known as Mycroft Ward. I do not want to spoil Ward’s secret, but he is one of the most original and unsettling antagonists I’ve read about recently. Scout’s explanation of Ward’s backstory is one of the novel’s finest moments, and it is just a shame that he stays too remote to feel like a real threat for most of the book.

In some ways, this is very much a novel about how it feels to be hunted, with Scout and Eric both running from forces which will not stop. The idea of ‘unspace’ is also an attractive one – a sort of alternate world which is both mysterious and mundane, and easily believable to anyone who has ever explored and abandoned building, or looked into the organic, messy ways that cities grow.
Scout is a well written character – plucky and adventurous, but forced to live in a self-imposed exile which cuts her off from the real world. She also acts as a useful guide, helping us to understand the world that Hall presents us with.  Though his portrayal of the relationship between Scout and Eric, Hall demonstrates and understanding that even if a fast paced thriller, tension comes from the dynamic between characters as well as from external threats. However, Hall also creates a connection between Scout and Sanderson’s dead fiancée which is never satisfactorily explained. Novelists are entitled to maintain a sense of mystery, but this one opens up possibilities which do not feel entirely consistent with the rest of the story.

Mention of Clio Aames, Eric’s fiancée, brings me to another element of the novel. Alongside the tense thriller, we are given a picture of grief over the loss of a partner and a relationship which seem almost too perfect. This is made somehow more poignant by the fact that the protagonist has no memory of anything which happened before the start of the novel, and can only find out about one of the defining parts of his life the same way we do – by reading a fragment of a story written by his previous self. His most significant relationship is essentially something which happened to somebody else.

The novel is particularly interested in identity and memory. Eric draws a clear distinction between himself and ‘the first Eric Sanderson’. Our memories of others can affect their identities too. We like to think our dead loved ones live on somehow in our memory, but  Hall makes clear that this is just a version of that person – an image seen from only one direction and distorting as we get further away: Hall calls attention to this idea in making the relationship between Eric and Clio seem so perfect. I wonder if the same principle applies to living people too; our ideas of them may not match up with their ideas of themselves, and our true identities probably lie somewhere between our own self-images and the images that others have of us.

The question of identity is taken in a chilling new direction by the Mycroft Ward subplot, which spoilers prevent me from detailing here.  That’s the great thing about fiction – you can take and idea and stretch it to breaking point while retaining the emotional impact which the abstractions of philosophy sometimes lose. In the end though, the novelist must come to some sort of resolution. After spending the majority of the novel feeling like an imitation of the first Eric Sanderson, our protagonist is able to become the real thing, combining his new experiences and adventures with those aspects of the original that he has been able to glean from the record his predecessor left behind. While the ending wraps up some of the philosophical questions a little too neatly, Hall is able to draw the thriller plot to a satisfying conclusion.

The Raw Shark Texts is not a perfect novel. It experiments with extracts of ‘found’ texts and with the shapes of the text on the page in ways which never feel fully realised, and in times of intense action the author adopts a rather breathless, fragmented style of writing. Words flying off the paper. The reader struggling to maintain footing. An author overusing the present participle. Perhaps it is just the grammar nerd in me which objects to this, but I found that while the lack of a proper main-verb to anchor the sentences helped to create a sense of pace, it also jarred me out of the world of the novel and back on to the train, where Eric Sanderson and the Ludovican existed only as names on a page. Despite these criticisms, this is an ambitious and entertaining read which largely succeeds in balancing philosophy and plot. There is also a cat called Ian, and as I would recommend the book for that reason alone, we are both lucky that Hall does such a good job.