Experimental novel haunts, mesmerizes

Fifty-two pages of The Raw Shark Texts are taken up by a word-picture of a shark approaching the reader, as though it were a flip-book rather than the delicately masterful first novel author Steven Hall succeeded in creating. Similar pictures appear earlier, and help create the eerie atmosphere Hall intends.

As you may have guessed, it”s an experimental and innovative book. Shark pictures aside, the book tells the story of Eric Sanderson, who wakes up at the novel”s beginning with his memory wiped completely blank. His psychiatrist tells him he probably has a dissociative disorder, and has been seeing her through eleven other episodes of memory loss. Eric”s letters to himself (signed “from the first Eric Sanderson”) tell a different story.

It”s complicated, so I recommend reading the book to figure it all out, but essentially, The First Eric Sanderson claims he”s been attacked by something called a Ludovician, or a word shark, which stalks select people and steals their memories. This can be counteracted by burying oneself in mail (that is, letters) or running a specific tape loop around oneself. The First Eric Sanderson recommends also taking on a false identity to throw off the fish.

As the book grows more and more surreal, we”re caught between the increasingly unbelievable events of the narrative, which include a melting man and a strange conspiracy of a man who can split his identity between hundreds of bodies. Though it makes almost no sense, it”s nonetheless intriguing and suspenseful enough to hold a reader”s attention. In fact, I couldn”t put it down until three in the morning one Saturday night; my social life may have suffered, it was worth it.

The love story between Eric and his dead fiancée forms a counterpoint to the drama of Eric”s paranoid quest to find the doctor who can kill his Ludovician. On the way, his adventures resemble the abrupt, highly stylized drama of an action-adventure film, complete with a beautiful and mysterious woman, a motorcycle and a bomb, though this bomb, true to form, is a “word bomb.” It proceeds to melt into a mystery, in which Eric and the woman he”s found along the way travel through the sewer to find the mysterious doctor, using codes along the way. It touches on the Matrix, with a computer-run journey into an alternate reality wherein what is textual comes true, then makes its way into Jaws territory with a surreal shark hunt, for which Eric uses a spear he”s made with a pen he used to write his life story.

The beauty of the book is that this all manages to make sense, even if its obvious self-referentiality might seem smug. The emotions ring true, especially Eric”s feelings toward his dead fiancée. The way Hall narrates their experiences together brings a much-needed sense of realism and emotion to the book, which would otherwise run the risk of falling over the edge into gimmick.

There was one problem with these “flashbacks”: they were set aside from the rest of the book in their own sections, and it was never quite clear if they were all dreams or if some were recollections, since Eric claimed not to recall anything. It felt cowardly of Hall not to label the nature of the flashbacks, which couldn”t simply be background in a first-person narrative.

The ending may annoy those who found The Life of Pi a little frustrating in its refusal to label its reality conclusively. We never find out how much of the fantastical tale of Ludovicians and fishing-boat adventures is a simple delusion, brought on by his dissociative state. While this is an interesting concept, it”s also an overused one. Nonetheless, The Raw Shark Texts was the best sort of disturbing: it touched me as few other books have. I recommend it highly.

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