Published by Canongate
Review by W. R. Greer
Steven Hall's debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, is difficult to describe, and at times, it's difficult to understand. It's never boring, though, frequently thrilling, and chock full of ideas and unique ways to look at life that ultimately feel familiar. It's Alice Through the Looking Glass meets Jaws, where a man finds himself in a strange world where he must search for a way out and the thing he fears most is a shark who is stalking him.
The Raw Shark Texts begins with a man waking on the floor of his house not knowing where he is, or even who he is. While he remembers culture and history, he has absolutely no knowledge at all about himself. There is nothing in the house that tells him anything about his past except a note telling him to go see a Dr. Randle if he finds himself in this condition. The note is signed, "the first Eric Sanderson." Dr. Randle is a psychiatrist who tells him that he is Eric Sanderson and that he's been suffering from a psychotropic fugue. It has been causing multiple attacks of amnesia where each episode removes more of his identity and memories about himself until his past is completely gone. The source of this fugue is apparently the emotional trauma caused by the death of Eric's girlfriend, Clio, while they were on holiday in Greece.
The next day he receives a letter from the first Eric Sanderson telling him not to tell Dr. Randle about the letter, or any future letters, and that he has enough money in the bank for automatic payment of all his bills. It also hints that he's in danger, but if he follows the instructions in future letters, he can remain safe. Letters and packages arrive steadily after that, but Eric just stuffs them into a cupboard and ignores them. A cat he obviously owned, named Ian, comes back home. Eric spends months doing nothing but basic subsistence. He has no identity, no sense of self, no memories, no ambitions, wants, or needs. It's as if he has ceased to exist, although his physical body is still alive. What sparks him to life is an attack by a shark in his own home.
The shark, as Eric comes to find out, is a Ludovician, a creature that feeds on thoughts, concepts, memories, and identity. It moves through the world of language and ideas, and the one after Eric is a dangerous, territorial Ludovician. It will continue to attack Eric as long as it can, and he surmises that it must be the reason he's lost all his memories and identity when he was the first Eric Sanderson. He tears through all the letters and packages the first Eric sent and finds all the details about how to protect himself from the shark. This involves dictaphones in each corner of a room looping with nonsense babble to confuse the shark and assuming a false identity while in public as a disguise. The packages also include an encrypted diary about Eric's trip to Greece with Clio and instructions to find a Dr. Trey Fidorous who can help him.
When Eric reads the diary, he discovers the first Eric's obvious love for Clio:
Clio's badness smile is something else — the edges of her normal smile turn sharp like little blades and her eyes go all shiny and electric. I think, for the half-second it lasts, that mean naughty sexy cruel little smile might be the single and only perfect thing that's ever existed. A bright warm flash amongst a billion old scratchy stars.Eric sets out to find Dr. Fidorous, following the thinnest of clues left behind by the first Eric Sanderson. He knew that he would find him in un-space, the unused and forgotten empty spaces of modern life. Pursued by the shark, accompanied by Ian the cat, and rescued and aided by a young woman named Scout, Eric descends down the rabbit hole into a world known only by a few. After a year of non-life after waking on the floor of his house, Eric finds he enjoys both this sense of adventure and his quest to find his past involvement in this new world. What he finds is also unsettling, though. Not only does he feel used by Scout and Dr. Fidorous, but also by the first Eric Sanderson who had his own ulterior motives. To defeat the shark, though, he must place himself in their hands.
"I love you."
"Oh, honey," she smiled. She reached over and laid her fingertips lightly on the back of my hand. "You're so regional." When I didn't respond she leaned on the back legs of her chair and raised her eyebrows.
Here's the secret: just the idea that Clio Aames is real and in the world makes me ache.
Reading The Raw Shark Texts requires more suspension of belief than most novels. Understanding the world of un-space where streams of human interaction create their own energy flows (and where a personality virus threatens to take over the world) often takes more unconditional acceptance than thoughtful analysis. The rewards are plentiful, though. You can almost hear Steven Hall charging down new corridors of original ideas that have become his own personal playground. His shark is not just the monster at the center of Eric's quest, but one that invades the world as well. It lives to suit its singular purpose of feeding off the streams of ideas and memories. It is perhaps the only character in the book without an ulterior motive, never flagging in its desire to consume Eric Sanderson one more time. Where there's a monster, there are also the heroes and the final battle against the evil that threatens to undo them. The last section of The Raw Shark Texts, with Eric, Scout, Dr. Fidorous (and Ian) going to sea to confront the Ludovician is as exciting and page-turning as any thriller's climax. If you enjoyed Jaws, then you'll love the battle between the Ludovician and the crew of the Orpheus.
Steven Hall, for the most part, avoids the trap of letting his strange world be more interesting than his characters. The second Eric Sanderson can be a little plain vanilla at times, but then again, for the first half of the book, he's basically a blank slate. The diaries about his time with Clio in Greece show the full potential for life that he used to have, and creates the heartache that pulls the reader in. Once Eric tags along with Scout, life starts creeping back into him. As he begins to understand what happened to the first Eric Sanderson, and to Clio, he finds himself in the most human of dilemmas. By the end, his grief and his love for Clio are palpable, and The Raw Shark Texts has run the full gamut of emotions. What ultimately carries the story is not the world of conceptual sharks and un-space, but the universal story of what makes us human.
The Raw Shark Texts is one of those books you pick up on a whim, thinking it's just strange enough to be different from the usual fare. At first, it runs the risk of being too weird and it's head-scratchingly obtuse at times, but Steven Hall never loses contact with the human emotions that bring the novel back to earth. It becomes a novel delightfully full of original ideas, with its own tweaks at modern culture and identity, and what seems to be perhaps the oddest quest of them all turns out to be a classic human struggle for love and life. And what fun it is.
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