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.