The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall

Harper Collins Canada, 2007, 428 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-00-200840-2

The intrepid life of a book reviewer is always thrilling, but some work-related afflictions are more dangerous than others. Somewhere in the upper tier of the job’s hazards is an insatiable lust for novels that play with the very notion of novels. Books such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery or Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series: Not-entirely-serious experiments with the form, borrowing elements from typography, fiction theory, genre analysis and goofy ideas to produce something that can only exist as a novel, yet isn’t “just” a novel.

This may explain my odd affection for Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, even despite some damning problems with the book’s pacing, achievements and conclusion. It’s a novel that has fun with the idea of being a novel, and in its own way, it’s unlike anything else you’re likely to have read before.

Readers of the Canadian hardcover edition get a hint of what’s in store from the design of the book itself. A shark-shaped hole has been cut out of the front cover, giving us a glimpse at the text written on the book’s end-papers, which is a curious warning to the reader from the “curator of the Webster Fragment Collection” about the typographic effort spent in reproducing the original text as faithfully as possible.

For the first few pages of the novel, this is a story that jumps into weirdness. A man awakens with no memory: his name is Eric Sanderson and the only link to his past is a series of written instructions to call a psychologist who will help him make sense of it all. The official story is that Sanderson is prone to occasional memory-wipes, and that he’s erected an entire support network designed to help himself re-emerge from those memory blanks.

But there’s more to the story, and the story that emerges from the book definitely takes a turn for the fantastic: Sanderson seems to have become the target of a memetic shark feeding upon information, and the shark’s attacks are what debilitate Sanderson’s mind. In an effort to hide from the shark, previous Sanderson instances has planned defenses made of chaotic information and nonsense chaff, but this particular Sanderson iteration doesn’t intend to wait for the next attack: he goes on the offensive, investigates his own situation and comes to realize that he’s in the middle of a fight between opponents who make a memetic shark look downright plausible.

The best thing about The Raw Shark Texts are the odd bits of invention and whimsy that Hall manages to include in his story. A typographic pipe-bomb; a scene in which the shark is glimpsed in tiles; a flip-book sequence showing and approaching shark; keyboard code-breaking; a hideout made of books; memetic boat creation; various other typographical tricks and so on. There’s a clever smile every ten pages, which goes a long way to pave over the book’s other problems.

Because ultimately, Hall teases more than he satisfies. The glimpses at his imagined underworld are intriguing, but never cohere in a consistent fashion. The pacing of the book is uneven, with scenes of fascinated interest jammed between other scenes where nothing happens for a long time. The ending is one of those badly-paced sequences, never managing a clear victory where we should have felt triumph. Part of the problem is that Hall chooses to make his story flirt with horror, which invites greater scrutiny than, say, Jasper Fforde’s mostly-comic escapades.

This may or may not make the novel less appealing to readers who don’t care about genre-bending meta-fiction, but it may serve to explain why some jaded readers will give high marks to this book despite problems that would have poisoned a less-ambitious novel. If your last few reading experiences have been too ordinary, take a chance and leap in The Raw Shark Texts. It’s a promising and inventive debut: Hall’s next novel should be one to watch.

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