When I finished reading Steven Hall’s debut novel, “The Raw Shark Texts” I wasn’t sure if it was brilliant, or if it was rubbish. I was not even sure that I was smart enough to tell the difference. What I did know was – it’s one of the most original and thought provoking concepts that I had read in a very long time. I needed a day or two to mull it over – and mull I did.
“The Raw Shark Texts” tells the story of Eric Sanderson. It opens as he awakens in a room with no idea of who or where he is. He finds a note to call one Dr. Randle, who will help him make sense of what is going on. It seems that he is suffering from memory loss, which is in some way tied to the tragic, accidental death of his girlfriend Clio a few years earlier. Dr. Randle is some help, but shortly after arriving back home, Eric receives a letter from himself; apparently mailed months earlier. In it, he tells himself not to trust Dr. Randle, and that things are not what they seem. It is signed – “The first Eric Sanderson”. That’s when things get interesting.
It would be impossible for me to succinctly explain the events that then unfold. What I will say is that what follows is a story about the deep loss you feel when you lose someone you love. It’s a story about the power of memory and an exploration of what make us “us”. It’s a story about ideas and identity, about shared experiences, about the ties that bind us together. Most importantly, it’s a story about finding the strength to define who you are, and will be, on your own terms. As Eric says in the book:
It isn’t just the past that we remember, it’s the future too. Fifty percent of memory is devoted not to what has already happened, but to what will happen next. Appointments, anniversaries, meetings, all the rolling engagements and plans, all the hopes and dreams and ambitions which make up human life – we remember what we did and also what we will do. Only the knife-edge of the present is “hard” to any degree. Past and future are things of the mind, and a mind can be changed.
“The Raw Shark Texts” is a multimedia reading experience, presented in a mono-media environment. Hall uses text, images, and visual concepts – all to bring his world to life. It’s not only a book you need to read – it’s a book you need to see. His prose is sometimes angular, but always entertaining. I felt like Hall had gotten a peek behind the curtain and was showing us a glimpse of what is really going on around us. That he had tapped in to a hidden vein of truth behind not only how we affect ourselves, but also those around us. About the traces that we leave behind us wherever we go. It was that fundamental insight that I kept coming back to. Sanderson says it best:
Imagine you’re in a rowing boat on a lake…Now, right on that…stop. Stop imagining. Here’s the real game. Here’s what’s obvious and wonderful and terrible all at the same time: the lake in my head, the lake I was imagining, has just become the lake in your head. It doesn’t matter if you never know me, or never know anything about me. I could be dead, I could have been dead a hundred years before you were even born and still – think about this carefully, think past the obvious sense of it to the huge and amazing miracle hiding inside – the lake in my head has become the lake in your head.
When I finished the book, I wasn’t sure that I understood it – and I will go back and read it again, as I’m certain that there are layers that I missed. But as I sat with it for a few days, as I replayed it in my mind, I realized that I did get it. I understood the central message of Sanderson’s journey – that the echoes we leave behind are as real as the air that we breathe. That finding the idea of happiness is the first step to actually finding happiness. I saw the lake in his head.
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