Identity and letdown in The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall (books 2008, 6)
Eric Sanderson wakes without his memories. In short order he starts receiving messages apparently sent by his former self, is told by his psychiatrist not to read any such messages, and starts reading them - in the wrong order, which leaves him unready for the trouble that is about to assail him.
He is attacked by a ‘conceptual shark’: a living, sentient creature that is composed of ideas, of thoughts, of words; and that swims in the sea of information that surrounds us. This is the creature that took his memories. It eats such information, and fixates on a victim, and will keep coming back to attack them again and again.
So the messages from “the first Eric Sanderson” tell him. Fortunately they also give him some tools and techniques to protect himself, and information about someone who might be able to help him.
So eventually he sets out on a quest to find the mysterious Trey Fidorous. That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot summary (it covers probably a quarter of the book).
It’s an interesting idea, that creatures composed of pure information, of ideas, can exist and can do us harm. We’re well into SF territory here, without wanting to hegemonise, and irrespective of the fact that it’s marketed as mainstream literary fiction (why, I’ve often wondered, don’t people talk about “li-fi”, or “cri-fi”, or even “hi-fi”? Why is SF so special that it gets its own disparaging abbreviation?) There was real justification for including this work in the Clarke Awards shortlist (sadly I haven’t read any of the others on the list). We are plunged into a world of infinite strangeness and difference (even though it stands alongside the world we are familiar with). We have to hang on for the ride and pick things up as we go along. These are standard, recognised characteristics of much SF.
Which may be neither here nor there, really; unless how we classify a work affects how we approach it, how we read it. And I think it’s true that it does: if you approach Iain Banks’s The Bridge, for example, as SF (it’s a ‘non-M’, so it was marketed as mainstream), then you’ll get quite a different effect from the scenes on the bridge, and with the barbarian; at least allowing for the possibility that those events actually happened in some sense, in some reality. As opposed to the assumption that they were ‘only’ the deranged fantasy of a mind in a coma, which is of course the only ‘mainstream’ reading.
We are in a similar situation here. Eric’s psychiatrist thinks that he might be going into a fugue state; and clearly something has happened to his mind. But Eric has experienced the attack of the Ludovician (the name of the particular type of conceptual fish that attacked him) and he believes throughout that what is happening is real. And all through the quest, and the love story and the fight scenes, he believes it. And so does the author, apparently.
And so do we.
Right on the second last page, Hall undermines it all. After the narrative has finished there are a couple of pages of extra material before the ‘undex’ (the point of which I’m not sure about).
The first of these pulls the rug out from under us, and dumps us more or less into “he woke up and it was all a dream” territory. Or didn’t wake up. It’s a bit like Sam Tyler at the end of Life on Mars, except there it was more or less clearly stated all the way through that he was in a coma: you just didn’t want it to be so.
The present work is less honest, in a way, since there really is no suggestion that what Eric is experiencing might not be ‘real’. Sure, it’s always there as a possibility, but I’d have to say,“What’s the point?”, really. Why would you bother to write a story that, in the internal logic of that story, all took place in the head of its protagonist, and didn’t do anything to help the protagonist, or illuminate his life, or help him to come to terms with something?
As such, this is ultimately disappointing: it’s a great ride, spoiled by the ending.
Although, a further twist occurs to me, a couple of months after reading it. If the rug-pulling element were not there, you could say, then we would have a fantasy-happy ending, like the fake ending in Brazil. That’s never a good thing, of course, but the difference remains this: in Brazil, the false ending was tacked on (or it would have been if the ‘real’ ending hadn’t superseded it). Here, the ending grows naturally out of all that has gone before. If everything was in his imagination, then fine, so was the ending. But if everything was ‘really’ happening to him, then the ending is legitimate in that context, and the additional material subverts it for no good reason.