This is not the first time I’ve read The Raw Shark Texts; in fact, it was only a conspicuously-short time ago that I read it for the first time. Having recommended it to a number of people, I revisited my review of it and was perturbed to find it less than stellar—more confused than anything.
The truth is, The Raw Shark Texts is one of my favorite new books of the last few years. It’s interesting and experimental and daring in a way I don’t see very often.
It starts out normally enough: our main character awakes in a strange house to find that he has no memory of anything. He finds a letter, apparently written by himself to himself, instructing him to visit a psychiatrist named Dr. Randle, who gives him an appropriately medical diagnosis: Eric is an old patient of hers who suffers from a recurring dissociative disorder known as a “fugue.” It all stems, he’s told, from the accidental death of his girlfriend, Clio Aames, while the two were vacationing in Greece.
Here’s the thing you need to understand about The Raw Shark Texts: it thrives in its mysteriousness and ambiguity. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Eric Sanderson the Second has either stumbled upon a whole new world (or a whole new way or looking at the current one) or is completely batshit insane, as his psychiatrist may attest.
For Eric Sanderson is hunted by a large Ludovician—a “conceptual shark,” one of many species of conceptual creature that have evolved to live within the ever-present current of concepts, ideas, and communication that invisibly inhabit everything we do. Eric Sanderson explains it the best in a fragment of text he leaves to his next self, wherein he asks the reader to imagine something, and when the reader has an image of that thing in his head, questions how it got from the writer’s mind to the reader’s—that is to say, there’s a something, some medium in which that idea lives between minds. This is the conceptual sea in which the Ludovician lives, and it’s the idea of ideas that Hall will manipulate throughout the rest of the book.
If I’m sparing with plot details, it’s because it benefits you, the prospective reader, to learn it all in time. One of the great joys—and frustrations—of The Raw Shark Texts is its purposeful ambiguity. You will find that most every element can be taken two ways different, one of which underscores the validity of Concept as Tangible, and one of which indicates that Eric is deeply entrenched in a dissociative episode. I’ll warn you: the ambiguity is never resolved. Hall opts for a “The Lady or the Tiger” kind of ending which is both unsatisfying and irrefutably appropriate. The very title is a play on “Rorshach”1, the famed inkblot tests that mean different things to different people. One might almost say that ambiguity is the point of the book, though I fear that’s dangerously pomo of me to say.
This book is like porn for typographers. There’s a span of about 50 pages, for instance, comprised entirely of a flipbook2 of a shark made entirely out of letters. The whole book is full of word art, linguistic/typographic puzzles, and funny little turns of phrase that force you to stop for just a moment and consider how the conceptual might behave if it was sudden literal or physical. This is what is so fascinating about The Raw Shark Texts. Yes, it’s well written—Hall has marvelous prose, though it does have moments where it lags or where I was unimpressed with the direction of the plot—but it’s so damned interesting that I find myself drawn into it, blind to the world until I finally turn the last page. Even then, I find myself thinking about it for days afterward, trying to piece together the clues into some kind of coherent working theory.
I suppose you could say it’s easy to write a book with no real resolution, since you tie up loose ends by simply ignoring them. Whatever structural problems The Raw Shark Texts may have, I think it more than makes up for it with its innovative media and compelling story. I heartily recommend this book, and very much look forward to Hall’s forthcoming work.