While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Review: The Raw Shark Texts

First up, I'll admit that didn’t figure out that The Raw Shark Texts is actually a pun on Rorschach Tests until I read it in another review. This was about an hour ago, long after I finished the actual book. The ‘raw’ in the title bothered me from time to time as I read Steven Hall's debut novel, but the slightly illogical and ill-fitting title seemed to fit with the way I felt about the rest of the book.

Before I go any further in bagging what is an ambitious and (commercially) successful book - which probably won’t go away any time soon (expect the film sometime in the next two years and the Matrix-meets-Jaws-meets-Da Vinci Code comparisons to be wheeled out again) - let me say that I bought this book because it sounded audacious. I’m a sucker for a good premise, and having the main character, Eric Sanderson, wake up with no memory but a series of instructions left by “the first Eric Sanderson”, is a good premise. As Steven Hall himself said, it’s a good metaphor for the way a reader discovers a character in a novel. In The Raw Shark Texts, the process of characterisation becomes the central quest for the blank slate narrator.

So I bought the book, and, unlike Leeroy from Myspace whose blurb appears in the inside cover of the paperback edition, I didn't finished it until over three months had elapsed.

The problem with a good premise is you have to follow through. Again, to take Steven Hall’s own words, "People say The Raw Shark Texts is hugely ambitious, but it's only got five characters, and two of them might be the same person." I can forgive the narrator being a cipher throughout most of the book, but the other characters also seem to have recently emerged from amnesia and have zero reality to their words and actions. When we finally meet the painfully named Professor Trey Fidorus (apparently the name is another pun), he is covered in papers like Majory the trash heap in Fraggle Rock. Fidorus goes from mad hermit, to friendly sage, to sprightly fisherman, to hopeless romantic over the novel’s final quarter, but none of these roles seems to mesh with the others. So too the obligatory love interest, Scout, seems to act according to plot requirements rather than any pre-existing humanity. While I applaud Steven Hall for an ambitious premise and the nous to execute this premise within the confines of a blockbuster grail-quest plotline, the thin characterisation was one of the big reasons I never enjoyed reading The Raw Shark Texts.

Perhaps even more significant that the lack of characters is the unconvincing spinal column of the story: the “purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect.” One of these conceptual fish is at the root of Eric Sanderson’s amnesia, and through the first Eric Sanderson’s letters, these conceptual fish are explained.

This may sound like madness but it isn’t. Life is tenacious and determined. The streams, currents and rivers of human knowledge, experience and communication which have grown throughout our short history are now a vast, rich and bountiful environment. Why should we expect these flows to be sterile? (p.64)

The First Eric Sanderson is wrong: it doesn’t sound like madness. Not to me. To me it sounds like a half baked theory which, when explored in the lengths it is in The Raw Shark Texts, without every really going beyond the details of this first explanation, cripples a story. Because, ultimately, The Raw Shark Texts is a novel meant to be read in a linear fashion, a story to be enjoyed. Like I said earlier, it took me three months to finish the novel, with gaps of two and six weeks between opening the pages. There was just nothing compelling to get me to open the book by the mid point when I knew that conceptual fish were afoot and the characters weren’t going to get any realer.

So too, the concept of ‘unspace’, “the labelless car parks, crawl tunnels, disused attics and cellars, bunkers… [insert seventeen similar places]… and behind the overgrow of railway sidings,” never became something I was prepared to believe in.

At one stage, as Scout guides Eric through unspace on the way to find Professor Fidorus, Eric questions, “why we just didn’t come down into unspace later. Like here.” To which Scout replies, “It’s just the way it works. You know, like the London Underground map isn’t accurate to the streets above.”

This is how The Raw Shark Texts deals with the hairy questions thrown up by the bridge-too-far theories which are forced to support the plot: with poorly fitting similes. The cynical reader (I am not always one, but when I’m not enjoying a book, I inevitably become one) would posit another reason for the previous 24 hours spent trudging through unspace: Eric and Scout need time together. (*spoiler* This scene comes 3 pages after they make love for the first time).

Finally, there’s the actual writing. The paperback edition comes with three pages full of glowing blurbs, some of which speak of the writing. The San Francisco Chronicle says it “reads like a deluge.” The Scotsman says Hall’s “brilliance aspires to Bach,” (I’m not sure if this quote refers to the writing, but how can a reference to Bach not encompass the aural qualities of the way words are combined?). And a writer whom I had considered a good craftsperson, Joyce Carol Oates, refers to The Raw Shark Texts as, “lyrical.”

I’m sorry but The Raw Shark Texts is anything but lyrical. I think at times it aspires to lyrical writing, but consistently overreaches. After the first page, I was already tired of the noun and verb clauses yoked by a hyphen to form beasts I can only assume ‘aspires to Bach’: world-swallowing, shudder-hacking, bacteria-swarmed. But hyphens link other things together too. Two adjectives: shaky-solid. The same word, twice: slowly-slowly. In isolation, maybe these mutations don’t sound so bad, so here’s the paragraph these last two examples come from:

Slowly, slowly-slowly, the world began to reappear in sickly greens and thumping purples and after maybe a minute, it steadied itself into a shaky-solid kind of balance.

Remember, this is all from the first page. This is Steven Hall’s debut novel, his debut page, and already I’m thinking: is this £8 well spent?

Eric Sanderson step-staggers and bang-clatters his way through the entire book. Perhaps Steven Hall came up with a surprising word combination once, and joined the words with a hyphen and it worked well in context, and his teacher gave him a gold star, or a reviewer quoted the passage. This is a warning to all teachers and reviewers to think carefully about your actions.

I’m harping on about language here because a) it’s what humans use to construct novels (even ones with text-art sharks) and b) I was similarly disappointed when I read Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke which was vaunted as having "prose of amazing power and stylishness " (Philip Roth). For a detailed look at the language in ToS, read B.R. Myer’s review here.

But all this criticism is actually leading to a more personal point. The one thing I will take away from The Raw Shark Texts is the knowledge that even in a frustrating, over-written, over-thought and under-executed (oh God, look how many hyphens I use!), there is room for truth.

It isn’t just the past we remember, it’s the future too. Fifty per cent of memory is devoted not to what has already happened, but to what will happen next. Appointments, anniversaries, all the rolling engagements and plans, all the hopes and dreams and ambitions which make up any human life – we remember what we did and also what we will do. (p 262)

Perhaps this excerpt appealed to me because I had recently blogged about time, memory and travel (here and here), and this felt like an extension of those thoughts. I would dispute the claim that fifty percent of memory is forward looking (it’s probably more like 0.5%), but let’s set that aside. I think I would still have folded the corner of page 262 regardless of what I had been thinking about lately. The reason: this passage contains a sort of truth sadly lacking elsewhere in The Raw Shark Texts. These words present an idea which feels intrinsically true, but is expressed in a fresh way. Sure, Hall may be crimping from a French Philosopher or a documentary on Alzheimer’s, but as it sits on page 262, this idea is fresh. It is unobtrusive stylistically but obtrusive theoretically. It calls into question one’s own conception of memory and links back (and forward) to all the other theorising about memory in the novel. And it does so without compound words and unspace and purely conceptual fish.

I guess, then, that this unobtrusive-stylistically-but-obtrusive-theoretically stuff is what I wanted to stem from the amnesia premise. But good on Steven Hall for writing the book his way, and I’m happy for all the people who found this Raw Shark Texts enjoyable – the world would be a terrible place if fiction only catered to my tastes.

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