First things first. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall will knock your socks off. Look at me. I’m totally sockless.
A story at the CBC says that the title is a play on the Rorschach Test. I suppose that means that the book is open to numerous interpretations that reveal something about us as we project our our own reading onto the material. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it sounds deep.
This is my third attempt at writing a review of the book. I’ve tried mightily not to tell too much of the story (that’s the fun of reading the book), not to reveal what I think it all means (especially as it may reveal something about my psyche), and not to talk too much about things external to the book that have been the focus of too many other reviews (marketing, Hollywood, advances, etc.). It has been difficult, but I’ve pared things down the best that I could.
The book begins with Eric Sanderson regaining consciousness on his living room floor. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or how he got there. He’s freaking out. Eric finds a note from “The First Eric Sanderson” that provides a brief orientation to his immediate situation. We learn form Eric’s therapist (phone number provided in the note from ES#1) that he has suffered a “psychic break.”
This episode marks his eleventh such break. With each break he remembers less of his former life. Eric describes himself as feeling like he has had his mind scooped out like a decorative egg. This idea is carried forward later in the book when another character begins to refer to him as the “Tin Man.” Subsequent notes from Eric #1 provide Eric #2 with some necessary pieces of his back story and also provide details on the elaborate security precautions that will be needed to survive in this new life. That’s where the shark comes in.
A conceptual shark soon begins to hunt Eric. You may well ask yourself what, exactly, is a conceptual shark? The Annotated Raw Shark Texts wiki describes the Ludovician (the species of conceptual shark after Eric) like this:
Ludovician: Member of the Cognicharius family, a species of predatory, purely conceptual fish that flow in the rivers of human knowledge. They are solitary, territorial and see only people, especially the ones they are hunting. It eats memories and is the biggest and most aggressive of the conceptual animals—rogue males sometimes focus on one food source.
You can get a feel for what a conceptual shark might look like in these fan-created clips that use actual text from the book (1 and 2). Hunted, alone, and just needing more from life, Eric #2 decides that he has no choice but to leave the safety of the cocoon that he has created. He sets out to find some answers.
Like Don Quixote before him, Eric begins what will become an epic adventure armed only with the everyday items that he believes will provide him with the armor to survive his future battles. Also like Quixote, the adventures that Eric takes part in may or may not accurately reflect the reality around him. However, I believe that the tales in Eric’s head are what give him comfort and give his life meaning (just like the Spaniard).
On this journey, Eric is accompanied by his cat. (I hesitate to carry this analogy too far and call the the cat his Sancho Pan.) Here’s Eric on Ian the cat:
A cat is a responsibility after all. And feeding and keeping and caring about a stupid fat cat isn’t much, isn’t much in the entirety of what counts for being a person and the huge range of what people do, but it is something. It is something and it’s something that’s warm and that I still have.
Ian the cat is one of my favorite characters in the book. And I am not a cat person at all. Hall’s description of the looks that Ian gives Eric #2 throughout the book provide the comic relief. We learn from clues to Eric’s past that Ian was part of what was a feline duo – Ian and Gavin. Eric wonders what has happened to allow one to live on while the other has been relegated to the dust bin of memory. That might be an important aside.
Near the end, the book includes a harrowing encounter with the conceptual shark that is given immediacy through a (featured in this clip). The ending is an emotionally gripping, page-turning roller coaster that becomes even more draw dropping as “what it all must mean” begins to dawn on you.
The Raw Shark Texts can be read as many things. It can be read as a mystery, a psychological thriller, science fiction – it has something for everyone. Something that I think has gotten lost as reviewers have focused on the flashier elements of the story is that The Raw Shark Texts is a love story above all else.
Prior to developing his “condition,” Eric was a regular (if anxious) guy who lost the love of his life, Clio, in a senseless accident. For me, this tragedy is the lens through which the rest of the novel must be viewed. It drives home some of the book’s themes: the demons of the past, the double-edged sword of memory, love and loss, hope, and finding a way to reclaim a treasured past. The book left me asking a central question, “If you lose someone that you love, which is harder: letting pieces of them go so that you can live or doing whatever it takes to keep them alive in your mind forever?”
There’s so much more that I want to talk about – Unspace, Mr. Nobody, Mycroft Ward, the Shark, Scout, other conceptual animals, the conceptual shark hunting boat… This is such a rich book of ideas. I had the luxury of having multiple copies lying around, so Mrs. Cayenne and I were able to read the book simultaneously. That never happens.
Each night we’d catch up on where we were in the book, speculate about what would happen next (we were almost always wrong), and sort through what it all meant. Then our friend Weezie came to town after having both read the book and having seen the author read in San Francisco. So we got the opportunity to rehash it all over again over adult beverages. If you decide to read the book, get a Raw Shark buddy. This is a book that begs to be talked about when you are finished, and I can think of no higher praise than that.
One of the things that I enjoy when reading a novel by a British author is when the U.S. publisher makes the always correct decision to publish the book as written – with British usage and spelling intact. I always learn something new. For American readers of the book, here is a brief collection of helpful tidbits:
- The cat’s name is funny in the same way that an American cat named Bob or Harry would be funny. (Thanks, Weezie, for that piece of intelligence.)
- A biro is a ballpoint pen.
- A strimmer is a weed eater.
A tale of two reviews:
This is at least the third time that I’ve mentioned here that the half-assed New York Times review of this book is the laziest possible reading of the book. Don’t believe me? Compare that review to the infinitely more thoughtful Los Angeles Times review.