All entries for Friday 05 October 2007

October 05, 2007

Book review: The Raw Shark Texts

3 out of 5 stars

Needing a book to read on the plane over, I chose this more-or-less at random at the airport. I liked the title, the premise seemed vaguely philosophical and sci-fi-ish and I enjoyed this sentence on the first page:-

My eyes slammed themselves capital O open

The idea of the book is intriguing: the world of ideas, thoughts, language and communication is a rich eco-system, and every rich eco-system spawns life and parasites. Therefore there are monsters afoot in this eco-system, and they eat memories, which explains (a) certain diseases hitherto thought to be degenerative conditions of the brain, and (b) why our hero wakes up with no memory on page 1.

It’s a nice conceit, but one which is hard to put into practice. Are these actual monsters, which you can see and hear and touch? It seems so, but describing them presents a challenge which is never really met. And this is either a problem or a strength depending on your desire for clarity in your fiction. The title of the book – Raw Shark Texts – is presumably a play on Rorschach Test, with the implication that you can see what you want to in the book; either it’s a literal action adventure, or, if you prefer, it’s a metaphorical meditation on memory and identity. Or maybe it’s both. The book certainly borrows liberally from other sources; there’s a bit of the Matrix in there, some of Memento, and the last quarter is a more-or-less straight-ahead recreation of the final battle scene from Jaws, with the minor caveat that we don’t really know whether the shark, the boat, the sea and the people are real or imaginary. The ending also struck me as reminiscent of the ending of Life on Mars.

There are plenty of references and bits of word play within the text to keep you occupied if you like that sort of thing; Mycroft Ward, one of the villains, sounds a bit like Microsoft Word. Our hero’s sadly deceased girlfriend – or is she? – is called Clio, after the goddess of history, daughter of Mnemosyne, whose names means memory. The word play even extends to some cute typographical tricks; there are flip drawings and other non-linear text devices scattered throughout the book.

The intertextuality, the sense of playfulness in the writing, goes some way towards making up for the dialog, and indeed some of the characters; the scenes between the hero and his then/now girlfriend border on the painful. Ultimately, whether you’ll like this book depends on whether you’re prepared to accept something which is deliberately ambiguous and, even being generous, improbable. If you’re the sort of person who wants clear outcomes and who snorts with indignation when things which palpably couldn’t happen, happen, then I suspect that you won’t just dislike this book, you’ll hate it. But if you’re happy to go with the flow, to accept what on a literal reading is somewhat ridiculous, to turn a deaf ear to some clunky dialog and characterisation, if you enjoy spotting references and allusions, then this could be worth a look. At the very least, I’d have thought, you won’t find yourself thinking “Not another typewriter bomb” when one pops up, and typewriter bomb isn’t a bad metaphor for the whole book.

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