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Saturday, April 28th, 2007
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The Raw Shark Texts

by Steven Hall

The Raw and the Spooked

A review by Gerry Donaghy

The plot of the Raw Shark Texts is fairly straightforward: man wakes up one day to find that he is an amnesiac and spends the rest of the narrative trying to figure out who he is and reclaim his lost identity. But such a superficial description does a grave injustice to the ingenuity and literary pyrotechnics displayed by debut novelist Steven Hall. Far more than a generic potboiler, Raw Shark Texts is a stirring meditation on the nature of loss, the fluidity of language, and the peril of reckless adventure.

Eric Sanderson, the protagonist of the novel, is not only suffering from amnesia, but he is repeatedly losing what new memories he acquires. But this isn't a case of lacking the ability to retain short-term memories. Finding instructions he left for himself, Sanderson makes his way to a psychiatrist who tells him that this is the eleventh occurrence of amnesia stretching back over three years. But while Sanderson's memory is tabula rasa, his mind is animated with both a rigid logic and a primal fear. Utilizing a cache of journals that he has kept, as well as packages he sent to himself in anticipation of a relapse, Sanderson begins to piece together not only what has happened, but that his very existence is in jeopardy.

Amnesia as a plot device is hardly original. What Hall does with it, however, is entirely original, turning it into a metatextual shark hunt; as if Jaws were written by Roland Barthes. The shark of the title is a construct that feeds on words, language, and memory, and when it first appears, it's very similar to the opening scene in Jaws, where the hapless skinny-dipper is gnawed, throttled, and finally devoured. But in this case, the shark attack is happening in Sanderson's living room. Once Sanderson figures out a way to keep the shark at bay, he beings a journey that is at once fantastic and poignant.

I defy anybody out there to find a more original and audacious debut novel this year. Hall's prose shifts effortlessly between the despair of his character's mnemonic void, the menace of the unknown, and the tender recognition of loss, as he skates across various stylistic devices such as mystery and adventure, diary fiction, the epistolary novel. Reading this novel reminded me of the first time I read Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. Hall displays a lot of the same literary ambition, compulsive readability as Mitchell did (and continues to). And, like Ghostwritten, The Raw Shark Texts leaves a trail of ciphers, some of which emerge immediately, some of which stay buried awaiting a re-read. In this regard, The Raw Shark Texts is a logic puzzle of immense proportions.

Some readers may tire easily of the games that Hall plays with typeface, especially the flipbook shark which goes on for about fifty pages. But these tricks serve to remind the reader first and foremost that they are reading a book, turning it into a literal page-turner. Hall isn't afraid to risk estranging the reader with his typographical smoke and mirrors, and by doing so, brings the adventure novel (to use a very broad term) into the post-modern realm.

It is very rewarding to read a debut novel like The Raw Shark Texts, and the sense that you get of not only better things to come, but the satisfaction of getting in on the ground floor of what is sure to be an amazing literary career. I have the feeling that a few years down the line, Hall will be a Booker shortlisted author, and there will be teams of readers smug with the knowledge of having discovered him the first time out. The plot of the Raw Shark Texts is fairly straightforward: man wakes up one day to find that he is an amnesiac and spends the rest of the narrative trying to figure out who he is and reclaim his lost identity. But such a superficial description does a grave injustice to the ingenuity and literary pyrotechnics displayed by debut novelist Steven Hall. Far more than a generic potboiler, Raw Shark Texts is a stirring meditation on the nature of loss, the fluidity of language, and the peril of reckless adventure.


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