Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Steven Hall's "The Raw Shark Texts"

Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts opens in the style of Philip K. Dick's Paycheck, with a near dead man trying to save his own life by following the directions of his former self, Eric Sanderson the First. Except that the thing chasing him, a Ludovician word shark (or rather, the idea of one), belongs more to the metafictional world of Haruki Murakami (yes, there's a cat in this novel), as does the underlying tale of a lost love. Any good story is built on solid foundations and good ideas, and Hall's borrowed liberally from the sturdiest of authors, culling bits of solipsism from Paul Auster and highbrow adventure from David Mitchell. There's plenty of pop culture, too, and the climax can only be described as Jaws meets Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. Above all, there are the staples of modern thrillers: a constant array of cryptographic puzzles and one long extended chase scene, which manages to avoid being repetitive on grounds of sheer inventiveness.

"Bang -- another hit directly behind and under me, much harder, like a slow-motion car crash and the back end of the sofa thrown up and coming toppling forward, sending me sprawling off into empty space and then the carpet and the floor came up at me and it -- broke. The idea of the floor, the carpet, the concept, feel, shape of the words in my head all broke apart on impact with a splash of sensations and textures and pattern memories and letters and phonetic sounds spraying out from my splashdown. I went under, deep, carried by the force of my fall and without the thought or image or any recollection of oxygen or breathing at all."
Admittedly, it gets harder for Hall to make potent observations about how minute and grain-like our petty signs and signifiers are, in light of it all. The first half of the book seems crammed full of insight ("Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there's not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago"), whereas the second half is more like a Zen action novel, with our memoryless hero exploring the underbelly of un-space, pursuing leads with shadowy men like Nobody, and sucked into the schemes of people like Scout and Trey Fidorious, who are trying hard to defeat a collective consciousness named Mycroft Ward. And yet, it all glides smoothly over this ocean of words, a world which thinks of memes as single-celled organisms of thought, ones which can gradually accumulate into larger creatures, like the luxophage, a parasitic idea lamprey that eats away at one's ability to think quickly or logically.

The Raw Shark Texts is, essentially, a symbiont, a complex organism that is living on, beneficially, within the reader, sparking the mind with a new, albeit fantastical, way to view the world. Nibble by nibble, the breadcrumb memories of this story will reel you in, until you're caught, hook, line, and sinker, racing through the words to their most satisfying conclusion.

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