Stephen Hall

"The Raw Shark Texts"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross NOV 18, 2007)

"I did not know who I was. I did not know where I was.

That simple.

That frightening."

There's a very thin line between being influenced and being derivative, and this debut novel teeters rather uneasily between the two, paying homage to its influencers while rarely transcending them.
It may be trite to do so, but it's also next to impossible to write about this book without mentioning, oh, say, Auster, Borges, Calvino, Carver, Gaiman, and David Mitchell, Murakami (just to hit the obvious ones), along with films such as Jaws, Memento, The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix and the collected works of Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Charlie Kaufman. Unfortunately, all these explicit and implicit nods to other work only serve to remind the reader how much generally better they are than the one being read.

The story concerns Eric Sanderson, a young man who wakes up in a house with no idea who he is or why he's there, or indeed, any memories. The first section of the book consists of him finding his ground in the world and trying to make sense of it. Meanwhile, he's been receiving mail and packages from his pre-amnesiac self, which he has refrained from opening. After this enigmatic prelude, we are finally let in on the secret: Eric is being stalked by a "conceptual" fish, a "Ludovician shark" which preys on memories and one's own sense of identity. This metaphysical predator appears to be able to wreak real damage in Eric's world, and eventually he tears open the letters and embarks on a journey to kill the shark. Along the way he hooks up with a sexy young woman who offers to guide him to the one man who might be able to help him -- an expert in conceptual fish. It seems she's on the run from her own peril, the exponentially cloning consciousness of a Victorian-era mastermind (rather lamely named Mycroft, referencing Sherlock Holmes' famously more intelligent brother).

This all sounds pretty good, and edited down, it might be. However, the book suffers mightily from Eric's lack of personality (In a sense, the author has painted himself into a corner in that the shark is attracted by Eric's personality, and thus he has to subsume it much of the time.) and the sheer amount of time the reader has to spend in his head. As one reads, it's not hard to imagine how much leaner and better the material would be as a film (especially in the hands of Terry Gilliam). There are a host of interesting ideas, such as the protection offered to Eric by large bodies of words (libraries, bookstores, masses of telephone books, etc.), the semi-subterranean world of "un-space", a whole slew of cryptographic gymnastics, and various typographical experiments (including a flipbook within the text). Ultimately, beneath the tricksy postmodern storytelling lies a very conventional story of love and grief. However, the prose isn't nearly up to the cleverness of some of the ideas and while it can be an exhilarating read at times, it can also drag quite a bit. It'll be interesting to see whether Hall's next book exhibits better control and writing.

Note: There is a rather substantial web site devoted to discussing and decoding the book's various elements and influences.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 110 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Raw Shark Texts at The New York Times

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About the Author:

Steven HallSteven Hall was born in 1975 in Tameside, Manchester, England. He studied art in the Sheffield Hallam University. He has produced a number of plays, music videos, concrete prose/conceptual art pieces and short stories, including "Stories for a Phone Book," featured in New Writing 13. The film rights to The Raw Shark Texts have been optioned by Film Four in association with Blueprint Pictures and PathÉ in the UK.

Steven Hall lives in Hull, England. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014