The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

17/02/07, The Times

The buzz around Steven Hall’s debut, The Raw Shark Texts, is deafening: Nicole Kidman allegedly wants Hall to change the gender of the protagonist so she can play him, the New York Times is all set to follow the author around his publicity tour as the circus breaks, the book has already been sold in 23 countries and, in daringly original critical idiom, Kirkus is calling it Moby Dick rewritten by Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami. It is just as well that the publicity is all sound and fury, for the book is, to indulge in more critical originality, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Hall’s book tries to tell the story of an Eric Sanderson in his attempts to piece together his obliterated memories, his life, his entire missing story, after becoming afflicted with psychotropic fugue, a rare mental illness, following the death of his girlfriend, Clio Aames, in a scuba-diving accident. Sanderson’s illness takes the form of a ‘Ludovician’, ‘one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect’; it is a predatory shark that ‘feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self […] until [the] victim’s memory and identity have been completely consumed’.
And what are the effects on poor Eric? The prose holds a clue: one moment it is the adverbial overdrive of ‘tear-wet frustration’ and ‘shudder-hacking violence’ – Nigella Lawson at her most rococo – and at another, the unadulterated Creative Writing School Syndrome of ‘A vague physical memory of the actuality of the floor survived but now I was bobbing and floating and trying to tread water in the idea of the floor, in fluid liquid concept, in its endless cold rolling waves of association and history’. Ah, the fluid liquid concept. Truth is, the book does indeed summon up thoughts of a lot of fluids and liquids, most of which are unprintable.

Doubly damned, first by its similarities to that compellingly intelligent film, Memento, then by its puerile emulations of Borges and Murakami – difficult authorial figures to write under, at the best of times – the book exposes its central conceit as so empty, so posturing-undergraduate, that cult-status amongst those whom Peter Bradshaw calls the ‘skinny-latte philosophers’ instantly beckons. But who would have thought that dullness would be offered gratis, and in such liberal quantities, too, on purchase of this PR confection? What Hall really wants to be is the new David Mitchell, who gives unforgettable voice, say, to a floating quantum thought particle, but Hall has neither Mitchell’s searing intelligence nor his power of executing such ideas with thrilling conviction, so we are left with only a stratospheric pretentiousness, where the writer’s barely assimilated reading of de rigueur writers, and his prodigious capacity to invent empty orthographical tricks (the book is thick with these), stalk the pages like unpropitiated and unwanted ghosts.

Despite shuttling frenetically between its consummately boring logorrhoea and its bagful of exhausted tricks – codes; explication of codes; empty pages; a shark, created out of typeface, that advances over 40 pages; chapter headings with toe-curlingly high pseud-factor (an example: ‘My Heart was Deep Space and My Head was Maths’) – the overall impression of the book is one of thinness, of stringing out a ludicrous conceit far, far more than its malleability will allow. Then there is the unmistakeable whiff of bullshit on top of that.

Nevertheless, the book is an important cultural marker: of the supreme triumph of PR machines, publicity noise, and advertising over that poor, passé little vanquished thing called writing. This is our future.