Milan Kundera wrote “Beauty is a world betrayed… [t]he only way we can encounter it is if its persecutors have overlooked it somewhere.” You know that feeling of discovering something beautiful? Something, perhaps, overlooked? In the case of a book, chances are that you didn’t really “discover” it, not in any real sense of the word. Someone else discovered it, and then a lot of other people discovered it too – after all, there it is, printed and bound and sitting in your lap. But maybe you feel like you discovered it … anyway? Words on a page that speak to what you secretly think is your own impeccable taste, your own unique sensibility? Writing with the capability of surprising you — YOU, of all people? YOU, the most cynical, critical, jaded person you know?
Ok so I didn’t discover it. And it was pretty far from overlooked. Just check it out on Amazon: “A thrillingly original novel published in thirty-three countries to worldwide acclaim, The New York Times Magazine called The Raw Shark Texts a genre-founding work of fiction.” But I actually only found this book after reading an excerpt of Steven Hall’s forthcoming second novel The End of Endings in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4 (Vol. 123). Right away, I knew we had something very special. It was the same great beginning I felt when I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad – knowing I would stalk her, study her, and read everything else she had ever written.
The Raw Shark Texts is Hall’s debut novel, and he was definitely NOT joking around. He is going to grab you by the neck of your cutesy Vineyard Vines jammies and take you on a very serious TRIP. I’m not going to pretend I can summarize the plot of this book and do it any sort of justice. But rather than google and steal someone else’s synopsis, I’ll just go ahead and assure you that the story is gripping, engrossing, beautifully detailed, and at times, yeah, possibly a little abstract. It is not just creative in a narrative sense; I didn’t know how else to explain this, so I stole this much from the internet: “The book uses different typographical sizes and structures to create pictures as a literal way of highlighting the cross-over between the objective reality and its description. Several pages form a flip book animation of a shark attack made out of text. The author has stated that he was interested in “text imagery” and “‘exploring ideas about language and the evolution of ideas and language in a visual sense.'” There are even negatives or “un-chapters” of this book floating around out there, and the many glowing reviews on the book jacket include descriptions like “postmodern,” “cerebral,” “meta-fiction,” and “cyberpunk mash-up”. While all of that sounds pretty much right to me, those also aren’t words that would necessarily be selling points for me, and I just don’t want you to miss the fact that this is a really great story. So at the risk of oversimplifying something insanely inventive, let me just say that Eric Sanderson’s epic journey into the unknown to fight the Ludovician – a thought tracking, mind reading, identity consuming, human erasing “conceptual shark” that will rob our main character of his memories and intrinsic sense of self – is truly something to behold. Struggling to recover – and perhaps, as much, repair – bits and pieces of his former self, Eric also seeks to understand the circumstances surrounding the death of his love, Clio. The story’s shrinking of time and of memory brought me back to those beautiful, horrifying sequences in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where each viewer re-lives, in his or her own way, the sad trajectory of the great love of their life – the one that got away – and not just all over again, but in all of the agonizing detail we weren’t sharp enough or wise enough to process the first time around. As cerebral and sci-fi as the story may be on the surface, it floats on solid themes of a life just missed – or barely grasped – and the yearning for closure and peace that comes along with that, which really are rendered quite beautifully by this writer.
While the story is truly thrilling and the ending works well enough, I think my favorite lines stood apart from the action, just sort of acting all casual across the room – lines that tended to contemplate and lament that place of real peace we all seek out so earnestly yet never seem to find. Hall writes: “The truth is, stillness is an idea, a dream. It’s the thought of friendly, welcoming lights still shining in all the places we’ve been forced to abandon.” Precisely. So much like the Ludovician, the ceaseless chatter all around us mercilessly seeks us out, diluting our brains, stealing our time, and robbing of us our peace. Halfway through the story, it was not hard for me to picture my own Ludovician hovering bloodthirsty and camouflaged in the same ocean of prattling television shows and celebrity coma websites and targeted email advertisements in which you can usually find me adrift. But there is yet time. Hall writes, “I think there’s still a small block of original quiet that exists in the world. 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. – a last natural wilderness, time’s shrinking little Antarctica.” Hall’s story made me want to wake up and take advantage of that small block of original quiet.