Big fish, little fish

<strong>The Raw Shark Texts</strong>

Steven Hall <em>Canongate, 368pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 18419590

"Conceptual art" was always a philistine misnomer, as though literature were not already conceptual art. Now, arriving on a tsunami of hype, comes the first novel by a young conceptual artist, which riffs on the idea of a "conceptual shark" (d'après Damien Hirst's famous pickled fish) and transforms it into a book. Will the execution, as is so often the case with conceptual art, turn out to be secondary to the idea?

The idea itself is rather lovely. Imagine human communication - through books, speech, television, letters, everything - as a vast network of streams, rivers and oceans. Why should we assume this environment to be sterile? "Life will always find a way," warns one of the novel's characters; and indeed, these waters are home to numerous species of "thought-fish". The most fearsome is the "Ludovician", the conceptual shark itself, which feeds on people's personalities and leaves them empty, amnesiac husks, to be misdiagnosed by passing psychiatrists - hence the title's punning allusion to the Rorschach ink-blot test.

Such an empty husk is Eric Sanderson, who wakes up at the novel's beginning not knowing who or where he is. Gradually he starts to receive letters from his former self, "The First Eric Sanderson", whose personality was eaten by the shark. The letters contain tips and clues to re- educate his amnesiac future self in the lore of the Ludovician, and send him on a quest to defeat it.

So far, so like Memento, Christopher Nolan's wonderfully tricksy backwards thriller about a man suffering from memory loss. And as it proceeds, it becomes clear that The Raw Shark Texts is largely a gleeful mash-up of cinematic tropes. You can imagine it being pitched, with deadly accuracy, as "Jaws meets The Matrix". Numerous scenes and devices may be traced easily to the latter work of mystical sci-fi; and the chase finale is modelled directly on Spielberg's aquatic thriller. There is a nod, too, to Japanese horror film Ring, and perhaps one to A Nightmare on Elm Street. "It's like Dawn of the Dead or something isn't it?" someone says at one point. Yes: or something. The novel concludes not with words, but with an old movie still, exploiting borrowed emotion.

Eric is accompanied by a wonderfully moody cat, Ian, who is Jones from Alien ("Something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?") crossed with one of the laconic felines from the novels of Haruki Murakami. Other literary forebears include Jorge Luis Borges, Neal Stephenson, Mark Z Daniel-ewski (whose page-layout games from House of Leaves are imitated) and David Mitchell (who would have made a better fist of Steven Hall's attempt at a Zen fable set in ancient Japan).

Good poets borrow, of course, and there is no reason why such an obvious constellation of influences should not result in something marvellous. The Raw Shark Texts does - but only sporadically. The style, for a start, is a curious hybrid of the embarrassingly bad and the strikingly original. Eric acquires a female comrade called Scout (green eyes, spiky black hair, wisecracks: every geek's fantasy), which gives the author leave to perpetrate the following description: "Her long neck, ice-bridge collarbones, small breasts - old world marble sculpture rising a little way naked from worn functional bra cups . . ." Let us thank the gods of literary decorum that her bra cups were functional. And throughout there is a sort of naive insistence, as in the early and worrisome "My eyes slammed themselves capital O open", which abnegates style in favour of emphatic orthography.

As the novel proceeds, indeed, the consistent tone of hysteric peril becomes somewhat wearing. Bodily functions are repeatedly described using the language of the physics of radioactivity (someone has "strontium grey eyes"). Everything is recounted in the most apocalyptic terms possible, as in this woefully cheap shot: "Dust collecting itself in corners, my own Hiroshima shadow building up on the windowsills and the skirting boards." At one point, Eric describes "the reality of the situation creeping in through the back of your head like a pantomime Dracula". Well, the prose itself is like a pantomime Dracula, with too little of the Count's suavity and menacing calm.

Yet there are also fragments of vivid imagery - a boat floating on a lake bobs in "yin-yang slices of morning" - and bits of choppy thrillerish prose can be given a nice twist: "Deep thick silence thundered from behind the closed door. Pure. Heavy. Pregnant. The sound of being stared at." Hall sometimes drops into the affectless descriptive style of an early text-adventure game, to eerie effect; and he has a lot of fun relating the delightful variety of contemptuous expressions on the face of Ian the cat: "Ian gave him the sort of look you might expect from an orbital laser defence platform."

Consider how, meanwhile, you might make the reader see a "purely conceptual" monster. Hall's attempts are often too abstract and self-consciously "poetical" to tickle the retina. But the following passage, as the Ludovician chases the hero across some grass, is a success: "A muddy spray of split-second impressions - rainy-day football matches, yellow stamping Wellingtons, skidding trainers - a million tiny moment fragments were being blown free from the wet grass in a fast stripe of pressure moving down the lawn from the hospital towards us. A large conceptual thing just below the soil." The shark is temporarily defeated, at this point, by the use of a "letter bomb" - a firework bound up with old typewriter keys. A satisfyingly ingenious solution.

It is always intriguing, too, when a literary conceit re-explains what we thought we already knew, and Hall supplies such pleasures throughout, suggesting, for example, that "Some of the great and most complicated stories like the Thousand and One Nights are very old protection puzzles, or even idea nets by which ancient peoples would fish for and catch the smaller conceptual fish." Geniuses don't go mad; they get eaten. And you can by now guess what is claimed to be the real pathogen of Alzheimer's disease. There are also numerous diverting games played with ciphers and mysterious text-fragments or imaginary encyclopaedias. In this way, despite the wildly uneven quality of the writing and the cartoon flatness of the characters, the novel lures the reader on with a trail of conceptual breadcrumbs. Imagination and pure narrative speed compensate for refinement.

But about three-quarters of the way through, the book jumps the shark, so to speak; and the climactic hunt owes lamentably little to its monstrous forebear, that of Moby-Dick. At a crucial moment, in fact, the novel becomes a flicker-book, with bits of text and inky shapes arranged into pictures of a shark for 38 pages. No doubt this is a clever homage to an old game for the Sinclair ZX81 home computer, 3D Monster Maze, in which a Tyrannosaurus rex was generated by alphanumeric characters (capital Us for the upper teeth) and blocks of black and pixellated grey. Alex Garland made subtler and cleverer points about a videogame-saturated consciousness in The Beach; and Hall's text-shark is not as scary as the dinosaur was on screen. It is a poignant exercise, really, to compare this long passage of schoolboy doodling with the song of Ishmael. If you invent a shark made out of words and then abandon the medium of words to represent it, what is the point?

For sheer exuberance and invention, roughly crafted though it may be, The Raw Shark Texts is easily preferable to yet another fastidiously sensitive workshopped "literary" novel about growing up in the regions. But does it indicate that fiction is coming to accept a place subservient to film in people's imaginations? The anxiety of influence now keeps an obsessive eye fixed on the silver screen, and Hall, in his acknowledgments, even thanks the people who have already been working on the Ludovician's "celluloid cousin". Indeed, The Raw Shark Texts reads mainly like a novelisation of a film yet to exist. The novelist is dead; long live the conceptual noveliser.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide