Thursday, 12 July 2007

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall (Canongate, Melbourne, 2007)

The title of Steven Hall’s much hyped debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, is a play on the Rorschach Test – appropriate for a thriller about an amnesic man that openly embraces its many allusions to other fiction. The original UK edition sports a Post-it note quote from Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Nighttime) stuck to the title page, describing the book as: "The bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The Da Vinci Code." Aside from these references, authors like Haruki Murakami, Italo Calvino and Paul Auster (who are all quoted within the text) and films such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind drift like phosphorescent particles through reviews of the novel. The fact that cinema is referenced as much as literature may explain why Hall chose to narrate the climax of the novel as a 20-some page flip book, rather than prose.

We meet protagonist Eric Sanderson as he wakes on the floor, retching for breath, with no memory of who or where he is. Cut to Dr. Randle, his psychiatrist – “a large clashing event of a woman” – explaining that he suffers from a rare form of “dissociative amnesia”, probably caused by the accidental death of his adored girlfriend in Greece three years earlier. We have just witnessed his eleventh relapse, each incident erasing more of his memory than the last. However, we quickly discover an alternate explanation: this is actually the second Eric Sanderson, inhabiting the body of the first Eric Sanderson, whose human memory and "intrinsic sense of self" has been eaten by a Ludovician – a “conceptual shark”.

Hall’s surreal and intriguing premise is that all human minds are linked by vast 'streams' of language and thought, and, swimming through these streams, are thought-fish. The Ludovician is the most dangerous thought-fish, feeding on chunks human personality and memory, or, in Eric’s case, repeatedly attacking until there is nothing left but a shell of a person.

Eric II's first encounter with the Ludovician occurs in his living room, when it bursts through his television in a scene reminiscent of The Ring (and countless other horror flicks). Hall represents the Ludovician crossing from the conceptual to the physical realm visually; the television is a square frame on the page, the shark a collection of typographic marks. Before this attack, Eric is (like the reader) aware of his fragile mental state and highly sceptical about the concept of a word-shark, but it bursts through as a real entity – for Eric the ‘conceptual fish’ becomes a physical predator and for the reader, the verbal description becomes a physical (visual) one. As the creature crosses the channel from conceptual to physical, the description crosses from verbal to visual.

This device is repeated at several other points in the novel when the Ludovician manages to locate and attack Eric (and the motley crew of characters he enlists on his quest to escape the fate of the First Eric Sanderson). The most ambitious of these is the climax, an obvious homage to Jaws, when the shark attacks, flip-book style, as Eric and co are adrift on a conceptual-boat (of course).
Despite a wave of praise for his “innovative, postmodern, metafictional novel”, Hall has been criticised, like so many novelists who integrate typo/graphic devices in their text, for resorting to visual ‘gimmickry’. Steven Poole asks in the New Statesman: “If you invent a shark made out of words and then abandon the medium of words to represent it, what is the point?” Aside from the fact that the shark IS made out of words – in fact, it’s composed of fragments of Eric’s story, highly appropriate as it’s only when Eric reminisces that the Ludovician can find him – Poole seems to miss the point that the shark only appears as typographic illustration when it breaks through the conceptual ‘stream’ and into the physical world. To describe this device as a gimmick is to imply that it serves no purpose other than attention-seeking decoration, ignoring that this rhetorical device is, in fact, contributing something to the text that the written narrative alone cannot achieve. It manipulates the reader’s experience to reflect that of the characters.

Hall addresses this criticism as kind of literary snobbishness: "these storytelling techniques are still considered 'experimental' or even worse, 'gimmicky' in some book circles; whereas in art you can sit in a gallery with a dead lobster on your head for a week without fear of being accused of either." It’s a complaint shared by Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also features a flip-book passage. He concurs that the use of images in novels is “still considered to be a gimmick or some expression of the failure of language”. In a review for the Village Voice Safran Foer states: "It's a shame that people consider the use of images in a novel to be experimental or brave. No one would say that the use of type in a painting is experimental or brave. Literature has been more protective of its borders than any other art form – too protective. Jay-Z samples from Annie – one of the least likely combinations imaginable – and it changes music. What if novelists were as willing to borrow?"

But Poole wonders whether this ‘borrowing’ is less about paying homage to other forms and more about yielding to them: "does it indicate that fiction is coming to accept a place subservient to film in people's imaginations? ... Indeed,
The Raw Shark Texts reads mainly like a novelisation of a film yet to exist."

I think what Hall, and other novelists employing typo/graphic devices, are recognising is not just the contemporary prevalence of visual story telling forms, but a changing expectation from readers. The flip book device is not just an homage to cinematic drama, but an attempt to engage the reader in a more visually evocative experience. Hall offers a succinct description of the difference between ‘gimmicky’ visual devices and those that are integrated into the written text:
“I'm a huge advocate of unusual typesetting, visual elements, even altering the structure of a book itself, but these devices must always enhance the reading experience rather than obstruct it ... this new interactivity is less about the reader having to create a story and more about offering the reader opportunities to find more of the story for themselves … It's not about creating so much as the offer of a more active form of engagement.

3 comments:

digshot said...

Hi Zoe,

Most of the reviews of 'The Raw Shark Texts' - including Poole's, I think - seem to (fairly, IMO) criticise the writing rather than its typo/graphic experimentation. But when he criticises the flip book - the 'long passage of schoolboy doodling' - I think this is fair. While I was excited about the device when I bought the book (after hearing the Open Book interview), I was distinctly underwhelmed on reading through it. This conceptual fish I was seeing was far less sinister, and less powerful an image than the one I'd been imagining - and so detracted rather than added to my reading experience.

Saying that, though, I thought the last three pages worked well: a newspaper clipping and postcard - 'proof' that it all really happened; and the Bogart still - shorthand for 'they all lived happily ever after'.

Zoe said...

One review actually described the shark as "quite cute", which I thought was hilarious (and actually fair enough). That you were underwhelmed when you got to the shark, based on the hype that had made you anticipate it (very much like seeing a film that's been nominated for too many awards!) is really interesting, and blows my 'this is not a gimmick' argument out of the water! Which is good, I think we need to be blogging this stuff to be challenged. I didn't address the last three pages but they are very interesting graphic interventions. I think it was in the Poole review that he talked about the still from Casablanca as "exploiting borrowed emotion". Great concept, and, I'd argue, a powerful tool of the image. z

Frederick Milton said...

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