Digesting The Raw Shark Texts

by Savannah Schroll Guz

23 July 2007

Words, these fundaments of culture and personal expression, these phonic constructions, which are so closely linked to human emotion and identity, have a profound destructive capacity.
Human Nature / Knows Doesn't Know, by
Bruce Nauman. Photo (partial) from The Tate 

By now, three long months after its American release, British-born author Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts has faced a number of critical reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and it would be redundant of me to linger on the popular contention that Hall has simply woven together a variety of foregoing inspirations to create this debut novel. Traces of The Matrix, of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s Memento, of Paul Auster’s literature (the author actually mentions The Invention of Solitude in the book), of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, of Jaws, of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (and, I would add, of John Fowler’s The Magus) are detectable in the story. However, they do not, in the end, define the book. Such a slender analysis would only provide a limited view of the author’s capacity to create a distinctly individual experience. And certainly the text, the story, and the fascinating forays into meta-science leave their own distinct impressions on the reader.

While locating the specific textual emergence of Hall’s influence is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, it is an academic mission best saved for someone’s undergraduate thesis. After all in the literary world, what is more immediate than an interpretation of the new? And in the case of Hall’s debut novel, the weaving together of influential threads has produced something that, once unfurled from the literary canon, also has extension beyond it.

cover art

The Raw Shark Texts

Steven Hall


It is Hall’s exploration of intersticed possibilities that are the most captivating part of the book. The main character, Eric Sanderson, in seeking out the mysteries of his identity, in fleeing a conceptual predator, in looking for the sensuous physical and emotional experiences once offered by his deceased girlfriend Clio, plunges into worlds between the actual and the recognizable. And he subsequently achieves an existence that operates sometimes in tandem with, but usually beneath and between, aspects of active reality.

Eric’s plunge into Unspace is one example of his dive down the conceptual rabbit hole. In searching for the doctor who will help him reclaim his memory, Eric seeks the guidance of those who haunt the vacant lots, forgotten subway tunnels, and abandoned buildings in the realm of Unspace. The suggestion offered by this name is that areas devoid of kinetic life and its attendant energy are not conventional spaces. They are its opposite—a navigable vacuum roamed by intellectual exiles and conceptual prey…not outcasts, understand, but reality’s expatriates and refugees.

True to our era this world, as well as the conventional reality from which Sanderson has come, is rich with information and output. From sound-bytes to correspondence, images to articles, take-out menus to telephone books, Sanderson’s world is seemingly blanketed with more informational fragments than there have been ashes from Mount St. Helens. And like fallen leaves and urban detritus, these fragments serve as the perfect camouflage for a man hiding from a conceptual shark, to which a single emission of personal information is like a drop of blood in seawater. Sanderson buries his own identity beneath the mannerisms and speech patterns of someone else and covers his personal possessions with the correspondence of others. He builds a figurative cage around his immediate living space with the endless informational whisperings of several non-divergent conceptual loops, played by four Dictaphones positioned around him like points on a compass.

So, exactly what is after Sanderson? He flees from a “Ludovician Shark”, which lives in a meta-reality that can impact his own reality. When the fish is summoned (usually involuntarily), it feeds on human memory. The Ludovician is, unfortunately, territorial; its victims never suffer just one attack. It tracks and attacks its prey until death. Even amnesia and insanity offer no escape: bits of your genuine and original identity are unwittingly emitted and these discharges call the shark back for another attack. In the creation of this Ludovician, Hall has provided the perfectly constructed pseudo-explanation for elderly dementia and the gradual erosion of memory in Alzheimer’s patients. 

Also, there are many well-conceived, almost tangible images in Hall’s writing, as here, when he attempts (and eventually fails) to express some incalculable fear to Clio, who nimbly diffuses his panic: “I tried my best to explain, handling and gently passing the words over to her like they were small spiky mines, careful, careful, careful.”

Certainly his terror, which stems from a fear of being trapped on the island they are vacationing on, is a portent of his ultimate intellectual and emotional suspension following Clio’s death. Again, an idea that seems to underlie the entire book: words have a profound destructive capacity. These fundaments of culture and personal expression, these phonic constructions, which are so closely linked to human emotion and identity, bear a potentially devastating traumatic force. 

Steven Hall

Steven Hall

While, as Patrick Ness has argued in his review appearing in The Guardian, Hall’s treatment of love vanished with Clio’s death, and the love rediscovered with the Unspace guide, Scout, is somewhat clichéd, whereas Hall’s characterization of Clio (despite the obvious allegorical reference to memory that her name makes) is pitch-perfect. Clio is three-dimensional and her motivations entirely believable. Yet her quick wit, affectionate teasing, and rare moments of vulnerability, allow her to remain emotionally enigmatic and intellectually elusive, as all good lost loves should be. One naturally yearns for that which can never be fully fathomed.

Hall’s captivating exploration of that which lives beyond the realm of established human cognition eclipses any quibble over trite tales of love. By making the intangible idea operate by Newton’s Laws, by extending the narrative to brush the edges of super-string theory, and by turning language and ideas into weapons (like Scout’s word bomb, tossed by Sanderson at the tailing Ludovician)—a concept that itself has nearly been forgotten in an age that focuses on spectacle and remains thoroughly saturated by image—Hall creates something wholly new, lying somewhere on the threshold between science fiction and literary adventure.

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