‘The Raw Shark Texts’

When you’re in a bookshop with your mind set on a specific kind of book, you’re less likely to see the other stuff. Even if there’s something good, it’s in the periphery of your attention.

That’s one of the delights of going to a bookshop with an open mind. You might get lucky and discover something wonderful through the power of serendipity.

I remember seeing The Raw Shark Texts in a bookshop when it came out in 2007. I picked it up and looked at it, and then I put it down again and forgot about it. It wasn’t the kind of book that I was looking for… at the time.

Now, over a decade later I’m interested in it just when Steven Hall’s new novel Maxwell’s Demon (2021) is out. Instead of reading that one I’ve opted to see what all the fuss was about with The Raw Shark Texts.

You can’t help admiring Steven Hall for his ambition and his desire to make his literary fiction novel accessible and fun. The Raw Shark Texts is a work of meta-philosophical-fiction. The quotes that begin the sections give away its influences. They’re from Borges, Carver, Murakami, and Calvino.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of not very ambitious books published every year, ones that are chasing the tail of mediocrity, and hardly getting a bite. The truth is, I’ve got a lot of respect for anyone who gets a manuscript published these days, but especially when it’s something like The Raw Shark Texts. It’s a quirky novel, some might call it gimmicky. Sometimes, I wonder how things like this manage to get published. But, thank god, books like this still seem to make it through the pipeline.

I don’t know if the Concrete poetry shenanigans were in the original manuscript or if they were added later after a few conversations. You might call it gamification (which is apt because Steven Hall also writes computer games, and popular, big titles at that). There’s also semi-ASCII art type graphics. This kind of thing usually makes me sigh and roll my eyes when it’s done by writers who think they’re incredibly avant-garde (it’s like Dada and the 1960s never happened). Paradoxically, it’s a cliché of ‘experimental writing’. But, every few years someone manages to pull it off, like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. Even Irvine Welsh incorporated some playful text formatting into his novel Filth.

It definitely works with The Raw Shark Texts. The artwork expands on the novel’s theme that explores the relationship between concept and reality. It’s all part of its meta-fiction core, and virtual reality, which is handled with the metaphysical panache of Donnie Darko.

The text and graphical games are like a code linking ideas with experience. There’s a conceptual shark that lives in the space between life and death. A shark that seems to devour consciousness itself. This evokes the magical realism of Murakami. The twilight consciousness that exists between worlds also reminds me of Alex Garland’s novella Coma, and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything.

The tone is akin to an awake dream, like the film Last Year at Marienbad (1961) — the delirium of the brain fighting for life, fighting for memories of life while in a state of purgatory. The text formatting games brought back memories of Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves and the novel’s playful fascination with the book-as-artefact (along with its fictional reference matter) evoked J J Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. (2013).

This is clearly a novel where the journey is the destination. The remarkable thing is that it’s been delivered so coherently. I’ve been more confused reading some mainstream action thrillers. Plus, anyone who can get a manuscript published with 29 blank pages in it gets my vote.

Verdict: Interesting.