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Reality bites: Mark Lawson on “Shark” by Will Self

Will Self’s latest novel is a hard read, but it rewards the attention demanded.

In cold blood: from science and war to Jaws. Image: Rex Features

Will Self
Viking, 466pp, £18.99

The star rating system on Amazon has drawbacks as a form of literary criticism – from the ease of pursuing feuds to voters awarding or withdrawing points for punctuality of delivery – but it is very good at identifying authors who violently divide readers. At the time of writing, for instance, Zadie Smith’s NW is a 30-30 draw between five-star and one-star hauls, while Will Self’s Umbrella is at 25-24.

It’s no coincidence that both Smith and Self inspire tight fights, because such a range of ratings often affects authors who innovate with form or language. Two other contemporary modernisers or postmoder­nisers, Philip Hensher and Ali Smith, are currently losing, on the above grounds, 15-18 and 25-35 with The Northern Clemency and The Accidental, respectively. But the Cup final of such a competition could be fought around Will Self’s Shark, which is in publishing chronology a follow-up but in story order a prequel to Umbrella.

The two-dozen Amazon voters who gave Umbrella a 20 per cent approval rating were presumably objecting (except for those furious with the tardiness of the postman) to its narrative opacity and jitterbug point of view. Though loosely linked by the figure of Dr Zack Busner and his work in reviving victims of “sleeping sickness”, Umbrella occupied three time zones (1918, 1971, 2010) and numerous viewpoints, frequently traversing them between, or even during, sentences. Most notoriously for the one-star Amazonians, the novel, in effect, consisted of a single paragraph lasting about 400 pages.

Continuing this experiment, Shark is a chapter-free, gap-less, italics-and-ellipsis-strewn chunk of 480 sides, with the clarity of the action further compromised by Busner being on LSD for at least part of the time. The trip begins in 1970, a year before Busner – as survivors of Umbrella know – will resurrect with drugs the sufferers from the paralysing First World War sickness. In this book, the shrink is running Concept House, an experimental London residential treatment centre for schizophrenics, who include a patient who is (or claims to have been) a Royal Air Force observer on the Enola Gay, the B-29 plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Through the stream of Self-consciousness pioneered in Umbrella, such biographical details emerge in fragments, interrupted by other strands, introduced through friends or relatives of Busner and his colleagues and case studies, including a tribunal considering an appeal of conscientious objection to the Second World War, the peace camp at Greenham Common, CND marches during the cold war and the anti-Vietnam student protest at Kent State University in 1970.

As this summary suggests, Self’s recent novels, though obliquely told, are tightly controlled around a theme: in this case, war and anti-war protest. Although Self’s modernism has clear literary forebears – lines from James Joyce and T S Eliot are included in the deluge of allusions – his project is perhaps better understood in reference to cinema and television. Still apparently shocking to some 21st-century readers of the novel, the web of references and apparently unlinked images would seem an enjoyable and rewarding puzzle to viewers of films such as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin or Adam Curtis’s TV documentaries The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self, which overlaps with the books of Self in its concern with psychiatric methodology.

Whether or not Self has been influenced by Curtis’s work, both clearly seem to know John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy (1930-36), which innovatively merged literature, newsreel, movies and music. The prose of Shark is a calculated chaos of historical and cultural nods or nudges including Ypres, Chappaquiddick, Hollywood, The Waste Land, Rolf Harris and Lee Marvin records, the catchphrases of Jimmy Savile and Richard Nixon, the writings of H G Wells and the lyrics of Tim Rice.

From the title onwards, imagery of oceanic predators – relating to business practices, the trim of a BMW, or the “dorsal” nose of a drinker – subliminally flashes and, in a very Dos Passos/Curtis way, the kaleidoscope of Shark eventually focuses on Busner, in 1975, with his young son at a screening of Spielberg’s Jaws, a movie that has been interpreted as a metaphor for America’s cold war fears but also bears a Freudian interpretation that ties in with much of Busner’s work and sex life.

Although driven by considerations of plotting and pace, the structure of a work of literature often also acknowledges the ease of the reader: the crime writer Peter James recommends short chapters so that people can read two or three before going to sleep. In that sense, the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break. But, in an era when publishers and reading groups exert so much pressure towards the soft read, Self (along with Hensher and both Smiths) is saving the life of the hard read that rewards the attention demanded. 

Mark Lawson is the author of “The Deaths” (Picador, £7.99)

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis