Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts

I get many, many letters from readers asking me, “When will someone finally combine the work of Jose Luis Borges and the movie Jaws into a novel?” Well, readers, please do not write me any more letters, because this book already exists: Steven Hall’s first novel, The Raw Shark Texts, combines postmodern conceptuality and shark filled adventure stories into a weird genre bending book that ultimately proves a satisfying read, even if it gets bogged down a little too much with its complex plot and mythos.

The Raw Shark Texts begins with its narrator, Eric Sanderson, waking up on the floor of a house without any memory of who or where he is. A note in the house eventually leads him to Dr. Randle, a psychologist who tells Eric about his particular medical condition: after the accidental death of Clio Aames, the girl he loved, Eric lost his memory completely and inexplicably, and continues to lose it every couple of months. Randle tells Eric it’s better not to try to remember his past, and while Eric struggles to adjust to the idea of having no personal history, letters and packages begin arriving at his house, fragments of his past addressed to Eric Sanderson and from Eric Sanderson. It’s just as Eric begins to realize that their may be more to his memory loss than Dr. Randle lets on that the shark attacks.

When I read the book jacket for The Raw Shark Texts, I assumed that this shark was metaphorical, since the idea of a real, literal shark flying around someone’s house sounds, well, sort of stupid. But the novel makes it very clear: the shark is real, not metaphor but a fish made of concept and ideas that feeds on memories. Eric apparently lives in some bizarre Platonic where universe ideas and concepts are real things which occasionally attack and try to kill you. I could spend the whole review trying to explain the idea of the book’s conceptual shark and it still wouldn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. This is probably The Raw Shark Texts‘s biggest problem: as Eric seeks escape from his conceptual shark, the plot becomes intensely convoluted as Hall tries to build a mythology around the idea of conceptual fish. There are a couple of spots in the middle of the book where you’ll probably want to stop reading, where Hall starts throwing out “Luxophages,” “Ludovicans,” human supercomputers and all sorts of other pseudo-sci-fi stuff. This leads to a schizophrenic sort of book, with Eric contemplating lost love one moment and the next fighting off word sharks with a digital harpoon.

Even though the mythology is complicated and messy, I can’t really bring myself to dislike The Raw Shark Texts. Most of the characters are well drawn and interesting, and the interactions between Eric and Clio (shown in flashback) seem particularly genuine. Even Eric’s pet car Ian becomes an endearing character (and I generally hate pet sidekicks). You feel compelled to plow through all the nonsensical sci-fi stuff to see what happens to these characters, and there’s ultimately a pretty satisfying (if not slightly ambiguous) pay-off at the end, as the last hundred or so pages reenact the last hour of the movie Jaws, with Eric finally squaring off against his conceptual shark.

The Raw Shark Texts has a real heart and distinctiveness to it, for all its convolution, and is definitely worth a read for anyone not scared off by the prospect of being confused and frustrated for a few pages.

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One Response

  1. It’s funny to hear you say that the concept sounds stupid. That’s exactly how I felt when I tried to write up a synopsis of the plot. I stepped back and reread what I had written and thought, Wow, that sounds totally ridiculous! Out of context, there’s no real way to get the concept.

    Fidorous’ history is a bit much to swallow, but overall the characters were so real and believable that I’m willing to overlook the few issues I had with the book.

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