It’s not often I get hit as hard by a book as I did by The Raw Shark Texts. I just finished it this morning on my way into work, and, wow. I am completely bowled over. And this is just author Steven Hall’s first novel.
It is the story of a man named Eric Sanderson who wakes up with complete amnesia. He has no idea who or where he is, only that he has just woken up in extreme panic. (I might skip the rest of this paragraph if I were you. At least not if I didn’t like spoilers.) Finding a note giving him instructions, he calls up a psychiatrist, Dr. Randle, who has been handling his case. This was the eleventh recurrence of his memory loss. Sanderson begins to receive letters and packages from his past self, set on delay to arrive periodically. By following the instructions and crawling further and further into a strange world, Sanderson tries to escape from his recurring and ever increasingly real dreams of being hunted by a giant shark. Not only is he haunted by the shark, but also by his past which always sits just out of reach. The text continues to follow Sanderson deeper and deeper into either insanity or enlightenment; it’s never clear which. The shark, it turns out, is a conceptual fish, hunting Sanderson, wanting to consume his self. Eric must find a way to kill the shark, there is no other escape. The further Eric goes in his search, the more he enters a world where text and concepts are alive, not just on paper, but in three dimensional reality. In the end, he ends up on a small conceptual fishing boat, on a conceptual ocean, hunting the great conceptual shark. This may not sound like much of a story, but that’s the beauty of the book. The world only makes sense if you walk in Eric’s shoes step by step. If you do, it all comes together, just as it did for him.
The universe set up by Hall grows more and more Kafka-like as the story unfolds. The main character simultaneously existing in two worlds: the normal and the impossible. It doesn’t come off as a copy of or homage to Kafka, more like the author was reincarnated to write a psychological mystery/thriller. The first few paragraphs hit with a perfect and steady stream of completely original and incredibly convincing descriptions. It immediately grabbed me and jerked me into the story.
The story is told by Eric Sanderson himself, and it’s never completely clear whether we can believe any of what he says, or if he really is completely delusional. The first 60 pages or so definitely owe a debt to Memento, and the last 60 to Jaws. Some have claimed that the story is, in the final section, simply a regurgitation, and, to a point, it is. But that was the idea. In the world that Hall created, this is how it must be.
While some of the dialogue seems a bit stiff or typical, somehow the characters come across as being so real. Even the cat was written perfectly. I believed every second of the book. At one point Eric lashes out at another character, and it definitely rubbed me the wrong way. Then I realized why: Eric wasn’t acting like a character in a book, he was acting like a real person. I re-read the section, and am still amazed at what Hall did. Still, he has room to grow as an author, and I hope he does.
There are so many ideas and clues scattered throughout the text that I’m sure only a second reading will fully bring out. This might not be the best book every written, but there is definitely something there to talk about. This book has something to say, and I think it enormously clever of Hall to say it in a suspense novel. Though I’m still not one hundred percent on what Hall wants me to see, the knowledge is somewhere there beneath the surface, waiting for a chance.