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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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia