Wow! A twofer!
After writing at such great length about how rare it is to find a well-written and genuinely strange book that is set in the "real world," I have managed to find two in a row. Coming up on the heels of "Atmospheric Disturbances" is "The Raw Shark Texts," which is arguably even odder and more hallucinatory than the other entry.
I honestly don't remember where and what I've read about TRST previously. I do know that it came out last year, well before Atmospheric Disturbances, and it sounded sufficiently intriguing to make my list. However, it did suffer from the New Author Curse - I'm generally less motivated to pick up a book by someone I haven't previously read than someone who has already gotten their hooks into me.
I guess the most important word I can apply to TRST is "creative." The author, Steven Hall, really goes all out in doing unusual things with the book. Not only is the story intriguing, but the framing device is unique as well, as are the modes he uses for expanding the narrative beyond the predominant first-person. The most unique element will need to lurk behind a SPOILERS tag, but let's just say that I've rarely seen typography put to such effective use in a novel before, and I do not envy the work necessary to convert this story into a paperback.
I just recently finished the book and my mind is still kind of swirling with reactions to it, so I'm just going to toss out things as I think of them. Apologies for the even-greater-than-usual lack of focus that this will cause.
This book is fundamentally ABOUT language in a way that's very common among postmodern writers, but in a way that feels fresh and original. The sheer power and vitality of Hall's literary vision lifts it beyond the stage of merely being clever and brings a nearly physical force to the writing. Early on in the book you learn that the shark is a creature of the mind - but not the individual mind; rather, it swims through the realm of collective thought, carried along by books and emails and newspapers and letters. Because of the nature of the threat, much of the book is devoted to explicit reflection on writing itself. The shark tracks Eric through the media of the world, seeking out his scent through his encounters with texts. To thwart the shark, Eric works hard at developing avoidant techniques: a false identity to confuse the shark; mountains of postal mail to throw off his scent; chattering recorded voices of strangers to form an impenetrable wall of misdirection around himself. Eric doesn't come up with these techniques himself; or rather, he sort of does: the instructions are delivered in letters written by himself before his mind was taken. Words link himself to himself, and he tried to tie the self he is with the self he once was.
Like I said, this book is about language and writing. It's impossible to read TRST and not think about the curious streams formed by the written word, which forms a creek in the fourth dimension extending into the future. Thousands of years ago someone writes holy worlds down in a book, and those words shape minds and lives and societies, perpetuating themselves forward and washing against our everyday lives. I read about California's early settlers and I am somehow connected to that time hundreds of years ago, the words carrying thoughts and images and attitudes forward to me across the centuries. Have you ever gone back and read something that you wrote years ago? Maybe a short story from elementary school, or a term paper from college, or even a blog post from last year? I tend to feel a sense of strangeness when I do this. I feel like the author isn't exactly me even as I recognize shades of my own voice in it. The words help bind my old self to my new, illustrating the differences even as it affirms our commonality.
In some ways, TRST is that same feeling taken to the extreme. Eric has lost ALL memory of past, and so the writings from "The First Eric Sanderson" really do come from a stranger. There are some parts of the book that might be maddening to some readers: interspersed with what I think of as "the shark passages," which are incredibly kinetic and exciting, are "the Greek passages," which by comparison seem completely same. They talk about walks on the beach, conversations between two lovers, the little pieces of happiness and crisis that make up our lives. You may be tempted to skim over these intermezzos, but their existence is really profound, because these are the real memories of the first Eric Sanderson, and are valuable beyond measure to the second Eric.
(In a very subversive twist, the last such passage we read casts doubt on their value. The original Eric has re-read these writings and become dismayed at how inadequate they are... they seem to describe him and Clio, but he realizes how incomplete the accounts are and how language cannot help him close the gap. By pretending to be accurate they conceal the real, not including the most mundane and unpleasant activities that make up the bulk of our lives. Again, this is something that feels very familiar to me... sometimes, I'll be surprised in re-reading a piece of my writing, and curious why I chose to emphasize one particular part or omitted another. I'm not sure what the take-away from this final reversal should be.... I like to think that language is inadequate, but it's all that we have, and we need to do the best we can with the tools we are given.)
And how about that shark, huh? I thought this was just incredibly fun and cool. It reminded me of ASCII art, but taken to a whole other level. There's a weird sort of pointillism about it as well. You turn the page and see the shark, but then you look closer and start reading the words that make up the shark. They don't make sense, not exactly, but they do contribute a mood and sense of unease. I'd be very curious to hear where Hall came up with these - are they fragments from his own writing? Random words he developed just for the shark? I also loved the excerpt from Eric's quest to find Dr. Fidorous where he comes across a representation of a virus mosquito, who is rendered in recognizable source code. Very cool touch.
I found myself briefly thinking about the one and only James Michener book I've read. I've long forgotten the title, but it dealt with four interlocking stories in the literary world: an Amish author, his agent, the publisher, and the critic. One of them interacts with an up-and-coming wunderkind author who uses special quality paper in order to render a technically complex and interweaving story. Anyways, I thought that Steven Hall could be a good stand-in for that author, even though the Michener book was written long ago.
Okay, what else. The technique of including non-narrative passages has been around for a long time - my favorite examples being the wonderful faux-digressive passages in "Moby Dick" that veer from biological textbooks to a powerful Shakespearean drama. In modern times, there are terrific stories by Borges and other writers that masquerade as being something entirely different from stories - a cookbook, say, or a newspaper article or a piece of literary criticism. Hall is therefore in a great tradition when he breaks out the primary first-person narration to include journal passages, letters, notebooks, and more. But I still think the shark is a great invention. Yeah, I'm guessing a lot of people will view it as indulgent and silly, especially in a passage where he devotes more than a view pages to showing it swim towards the reader. (I couldn't help myself: I went back to the beginning of that passage and flipped through it while humming the theme from "Jaws," flipping faster and faster as it reached the climax.)
It isn't silly, though. I have to confess that this book frightened me more than anything I've read in a long time. Part of it may have been the mood - I seemed to always land on the most intense passages just before going to bed - but I mainly attribute it to Hall's terrific skill and powerful vision. The sense of menace he creates is almost palpable - after the first shark attack I actually felt a little short of breath, and after the encounter with Mr. Nobody I felt a little ill. Which is all the more impressive when you consider that the things it describes feel utterly fantastic. Before reading this book, I'd never worried about a mind shark eating my brain; there wouldn't seem to be a hook to hang that fear on. What Hall has done, though, is what I most love from my fantasy authors: he has created a whole system, a mutually reinforcing and fully realized world with believable logic and explanations. The little details and the powerful writing combine to create something that feels real, and because of that realness it's a little terrifying. How often can you say that you've had a hard time falling asleep, not because a movie has imprinted you with fear of harm to your physical body, but because a book has imprinted you with fear of harm to your memory?
One thing this book shares with AD is that a lot of reviewers think that it is a powerful love story, while I view that as only an incidental factor. That probably says more about my prejudices than it does about the book. I think it is valid to read both books this way... one can consider AD as a meditation on the constantly changing nature of love, can point to Rema's determined pursuit of Leo even as he falls apart, and find the end of the book to be a universally valuable reflection on the choices we make in love; similarly, TRST's overall plot can be read as a romantic description of the eternal power of love, how its emotions even survive death, and its ending can even be seen as a kind of fairy-tale resolution. Again, I can see these explanations, but to my mind, they kind of miss the point. The love interests add drama and motivation and complications, but to me they're mainly building blocks, the trees and not the forests... the love stories aren't what's original and compelling about these books, and focusing on them too much risks pulling the book into a Hollywood mode and losing what's so terribly unique about them.
That Jaws boat was really cool, wasn't it? I still haven't seen the movie but now want to more than ever. Which brings up another interesting idea - how our collective media can extend itself through society as well as through itself. Even though I haven't seen the movie I recognize the Richard Dreyfus role being played in front of me, and recognize the boat although I've never seen it. This has been a lifelong thing with me: I could carry on conversations about the X-Men in elementary school despite having never read an issue, and thanks to The Summer of Blood I feel like I know Jason and Freddy and Michael and Leatherface. How often have you quipped a catch-phrase and gotten a laugh, despite the fact that neither you nor your listener have actually seen the source?
The "water" in TRST isn't just text. It isn't just words. It's thought, it's our consciousness, spreading out through the whole human race and connecting us all together. That's what's most intriguing to me, the cusp between scratches of ink on a piece of paper, and the thought it evokes in our mind. I think that's the real lesson behind the glass of "water" that Eric must learn to drink. The task seems absurd, but really, is it any more absurd than all the other ways that words impact reality?
END OF SPOILERS
I feel like a very poor critic, since seemingly every review I write ends with "This is a good book! People should read it!" That said, I get to cheat: because I'm not a real critic, I can just read what I want, which generally means books that have already come highly recommended and that sound like things I would like. Again, my opinion is only valuable if our tastes overlap, but if you like strangely excellent writing that will challenge your ideas about what a book should and can be, I can whole-heartedly recommend The Raw Shark Texts.
Epilogue: Will this ever become a movie? I found myself wondering that with surprising frequency while reading this book. Surprising because, on its face, no book is less adaptable to the screen. I mean, come on: this is literally a book about the printed word. That just wouldn't work. And yet, in a weird way I wanted to see a movie version of this. I think that's my standard response when I read a book that is very kinetic and exciting. While reading, I came to the conclusion that doing a straight adaptation was impossible, but that I would love to watch a movie inspired by the book - one that took its themes, but used film as the subject and the medium instead of the printed work. It's a bit less universal, and you wouldn't be able to work in the awesome Bushi warrior story, but it would be more appropriate.
However, when reading through the Acknowledgments at the very end, I was surprised to read an oblique reference to someone working on a "celluloid" version of the Ludovician. That suggests to me that the effort may have started in earnest, if just in an underground way. I'm fascinated and troubled to see what comes next.