16 February, 2009

'The Raw Shark Texts' - Steven Hall

My two-word review of the Raw Shark Texts would be 'utterly compelling'. I could hardly call that impartial, however! I do regard this as one of the best novels I've read in some years, but it's not without its flaws.

The strength of the novel comes through its concept, one that explores the dangers lurking in our communications and the power of some media to enter or control our thoughts. Ironically, I feel it's a book where less communication about its content offers the reader a more rewarding experience, as they can be freshly surprised by the genius of Hall's intellectual creation as the story unfolds.

There are weaknesses in the execution, however. Dialogue, for example, can be trite, and particularly within the romantic sub-plot, it can become overly derivative. Perhaps the author is aware of that, as the key character acknowledges that he has remembered the conversations he recounts as cleverer than they were.

Hall's language skills are better employed in physical descriptions and tight scenes of drama and suspense. His language is both surreal and precise, employing cunning comparisons that allow him to place his hyper-realistic story deep within the ordinariness of our existence. On the first page, the reader is sucked in at speed:

My eyes slammed themselves capital O open and my neck and shoulders arched back in a huge inward heave, a single world-swallowing lung gulp of air. Litres of dry oxygen and floor dust whistled in and snagged up my throat with knifey coughing spasms. I choked and spat through heaves and gasps and coughing coughing coughing heaves. Snot ropes unwound from my nose. My eyesight melted into hot blurs over my cheeks.

I found this character description particularly visual:
Dr Randle was more like an electrical storm or some complicated particle reaction than a person. A large clashing event of a woman whose frizzy hack job of white-brown hair hummed against a big noisy blouse which, in turn, strobed in protest against her tartan skirt. She had strontium grey eyes which crackled away to themselves behind baggy lids. She made the air feel doomy, faintly radioactive. You half expected your ears to pop.

Hall's similes demonstrate his capacity to twist language into inventive, unexpected associations, and his obsession for language is made clear as it finds its way into so many of his comparisons: 'It was still raining outside. A dramatic wet sheet broke against the window followed by a haiku of fat rain taps as the wind took a breath'.

Conceptually, the book carries out a relentless assault. The framework of Hall's extraordinary plot allows him to take a concept down from the shelf, put in a snowdome and shake it around to see how it comes out in a new arrangement:
Maybe it's natural for questions to outlive their answers. Or maybe answers don't die but are just lost more easily, being so small and specific, like a coin dropped from the deck of a ship and into the big deep sea.

If you find the intellectual vacillations of the book a lot to take in, focus for a while on the various cameos of protagonist Eric's cat, Ian. He's a well-drawn character for an animal, his actions often described through brilliant, personifying descriptions:
After a moment, Ian's big ginger body stepped out, cautiously at first, and then, looking around with that not bad expression dads use when looking at other dads' new cars, he sauntered off into the depths of the warheouse.

The book also famously includes some dramatic typesetting, engineered by the author himself. I felt too that there was more to be read into some of the character names than first met the eye, either through aural similarity or the use of anagrams. In a book where a laptop becomes a lethal weapon, and someone's life can be endangered through an ill-chosen download, do the names Mycroft Ward and Clio Aames conjure any associations?


  1. Hi,

    I've also read the Shark Texts, strangely enough the Dr Randle description was one of my favourite bits as well!



  2. Cheers Davy. It's quite early on in the book and is a great indicator of so much inventive description to come.

  3. What got me about this book, and I did read it a long time ago so its faded a bit, but right now what I recall standing out was the sense of who the lead character really was - which incarnation was truest to his potential as a human - what did it mean to his soul that his memories were lost so many times and the memories that he did recover being 'cleverer' may have also been (and probably were) false. I always wondered if the girlfriend ever really existed or whether she was something to help him keep sane, something to give him a goal. Naturally this is all part of the beauty of existential writing and what I so love about this and other tales, like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Those eternal questions of 'who am i' and 'what am I doing here'. Can you answer one without the other?

    The other divine thing about this book was getting lost in the concept of language being tangible. What a delightful thought!


  4. That's a really good point Ang. I don't think I was as conscious of it, but looking back I do remembering being aware that sometimes the two Eric Sanderson's seemed to be different people, and sometimes he was doing exactly what you say: figuring out which one was really him. And what an awesome question: if we lose all our memories are we still the same person as we start to experience the world again? Hall's context works much more intelligently than, say, slapstick film or rom-com on the same theme.

    And to give language the potential to evolve and become something that lives and feeds - that is superb!

  5. This really is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. For all its flaws, and there are a few, the story is, as you described, uterly compelling. Like an endless rollercoaster ride on a pitch black night, not knowing where the next turn or fall is comming from, The Raw Shark Texts gives you whiplash as it weaves a thread from reality to fantasy to obscurity and back again in such compelling prose.