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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

Shark 
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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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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