Meg, Steve Alten

Doubleday, 1997, 278 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48905-6

There are two ways to write a novel. The first one is to reach into your personal experiences, pull out your opinions and emotions about life and write a honestly moving narrative that works for you first, and everyone else after. The second way is to tailor a product to the marketplace, designing the flow of the novel to appeal to a large public and really aim for a mass audience. In a nutshell, that’s supposed to be the difference between “literature” and “bestsellers”.

Self-proclaimed artists will try to make you believe that writing literature is considerably harder than writing a bestseller. But is it really so?

While there is some truth to the widely-held observation that bestsellers are more formulaic than other types of fiction, it still takes great skill to put together the elements of a successful mass-market novel.

It’s almost a given that first, a bestseller needs an intriguing premise. Meg not only promises something similar to JAWS by loosening a shark upon an unsuspecting human population, but actually promises more than JAWS by featuring something much bigger: A twenty-ton, sixty-foot-long Carcharodon Megalodon. “Meg” to its friends. An escaped Jurassic-era relic of unheard-of proportions: It features a head as big as a pickup truck armed with nine-inch-long teeth “with the serrated edges of a stainless-steel knife.” [P.4] And, being a shark, it has all of the superior perceptive and motor skills of the world’s most enduring predator.

The Meg is introduced in the first two chapters. The human characters come much later. There’s the brilliant-but-flawed protagonist Jonas Taylor (no points for predicting what happens to a hero with a surname like that,) a paleontologist with a deep-reaching trauma. There’s his wife, an ambitious journalist with plans to discredit her husband in order to divorce him with justification. (No point for guessing what happens to such a conniving woman.) There’s Terry Tanaka, a young Asian woman with something to prove. Plus the usual array of colorful supporting characters, whether they’re allies or not. They’re realized competently, well-within the usual standards of the genre.

What happens with this premise and these characters is, like you’d expect, a book-long monster hunt. First Jonas has to go to the Meg, deep down at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Then the Meg has to escape its natural habitat and wreak havoc, first in Hawaii then along the Californian coast. It’s all very exciting, just as we’d expect it.

Ultimately, thrillers like Meg can be evaluated on their potential cinematographic strengths. And that where this novel truly shines. By the time one throwaway scene near the end basically destroys nine news helicopters in a mid-air crash, you can only grin in sadistic delight and buy the movie rights. A shark with a head as big as a pickup truck makes for memorable scenes!

The remainder, characters, dialogue and psychological unsophistication, is just dressing on the cake. Meg isn’t JAWS, but it’s good enough to be a worthwhile read on its own. “Two Words: JURASSIC SHARK” says the end-cover blurb. Not a bad review, in a nutshell.

[May 2007: I really tried to enjoy the next two entries in the Meg series, but they illustrate what happens to a good concept when you wring it dry. Both The Trench and Primal Waters fall into the trap ofdoing the same thing over and over again: The Meg gets loose, the Meg reappears and eats people, the Meg is captured, killed or driven away. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Primal Waters is a bit more interesting than the second tome thanks to some easy pot-shots at reality TV and a delirious scene involving baseball fans, but that’s about it. Plus, there’s something depressing about each novel beginning by driving accursed protagonist Jonas Taylor deeper in despair in order to give him some dramatic stakes. Alten: Let. It. Go.]

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