Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

I don't claim to have a sure grasp on Steven Hall's novel The Raw Shark Texts. If I did claim such a thing, you'd probably know I was lying, or just stupid, and even the Raw Shark Texts discussion forums make clear that straight answers are not close at hand.

Steven Hall's first novel exists as a conundrum, a puzzle and a maze. Eric Sanderson wakes up prone on a living room floor, devoid of memory, and the only clue offered out of this predicament is a letter he wrote before, signed "The First Eric Sanderson". This latest Eric Sanderson therefore must follow subsequent clues and put pieces together to recover his identity. Such a neat little premise is complicated, however, by the fact that Eric's conciousness has been attacked by a "conceptual shark" and that Eric remains under threat.

A conceptual shark? Constructed of the words and ideas it feeds upon, this shark is the concept of a shark quite similar to the shark you now see in your mind as a consequence of the words and ideas I've just given you. And so not entirely farfetched after all. Hall's novel stands as metaphor for what language and ideas can do, the power of books. Notes Eric Sanderson, "it was possible to create a maze from stacked, written-on paper. Bizarre, unlikely, stupidly time-consuming and dangerous, but, yet, possible." Which, with his novel, Hall has demonstrated.

Of course in addition to the metaphor, this book's literal function is essential. The Raw Shark Texts is an adventure. When Eric Sanderson makes the preceding remark, he is in fact crawling through an underworld maze actually constructed of stacked telephone directories. Under threat from his conceptual shark and with the clues from the First Eric Sanderson, Eric has descended into this world of "unspace", in which he can be relatively safe from his predator. He teams up with a girl called Scout who has her own motives for involvement, and together they're looking for a way to defeat the shark and save themselves.

There is something, albeit undeniably clever, of the "look ma, no hands!" variety about this book. Steven Hall seems intent on demonstrating the innumerable powers a book is capable of, employing typefaces, codes, images, and even a flipbook. In lesser hands this postmodern extravaganza might have been rendered quite hollow, narratively speaking. But no, Hall is not so cheap. The best trick of all is his story: Eric Sanderson's entire plight is the result of errors made in a fury of loss after the death of his girlfriend Clio. And that Hall's conceptual people, his conceptual love, that this stack of written-on paper so managed to break my heart and have me longing for appropriate resolution is a testament to Steven Hall's skill as a writer. It serves to underline his entire thesis: that a book really is a most powerful thing.