In: Criticism

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

About halfway through Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, I decided it was one of the best books I was going to read this year. It’s a total mindfuck of a novel, a literary thriller (forgive the paradox) that’s equal parts Mark Z. Danielewski, Haruki Murakami, and Jaws. Read this book read this book read this book–that’s what I feel like saying to anyone and everyone who will listen.

Then I worried that I might be a little out of my depth. Experimental isn’t a term I generally like, mostly because it’s so ambiguous, and unless you actually like the kinds of books where language serves a purpose other than storytelling, that term can be off-putting to the general reader. I’ve been asking myself if The Raw Shark Texts really qualifies as an "experimental" novel, and like the word itself (when taken in a literary context), the line is blurry at best. The structure of the novel is pretty straightforward, and the plot can be summed up in a few words–amnesiac man chases/runs from shark–but the experimental part comes in the way Hall uses words to illustrate certain aspects of the book. A quick flip through The Raw Shark Texts reveals QWERTY keyboards, smudged text, and the ever-present shark (or Ludovician, as it’s referred to in the story). Experimental, but not taken to Danielewski-like extremes. The Raw Shark Texts is unpretentious and very readable.

But it’s not just the experimental aspect of the novel that makes it stand out from the stale thriller fare that’s often on hand. The Raw Shark Texts is brimming with a certain character normalcy rarely found in these kinds of books. Aside from the fact that he’s being relentlessly chased by a shark he knows nothing about, there’s nothing truly exceptional about Eric Sanderson–he’s just an average guy, with average-guy worries, average-guy habits, and an average-guy sense of humor. He hasn’t had sex in quite some time, and he literally can’t remember the last time he had sex. He falls in love pretty easily, and reacts to emotional manipulation (which there’s plenty of in this book) in much the same way a child would. And that’s okay. Eric is a character we can relate to, one we love reading about and can’t help but root for.

Underneath the thriller-genre veneer–mysterious characters have a way of popping up at unexpected, often dire moments, characters who always know more than they’re letting on–The Raw Shark Texts’s true creativity lies in the details. Hall recycles just about every thriller genre cliché he can (locked rooms, underground passageways, an amnesiac protagonist, and a deceased lover who may or may not have come back in the form of a mysterious, sexy woman), but none of it seems regurgitated. We know what’s going to happen, but Hall brings his own touch to the novel; he gives us a style that’s intellectually stimulating, rather than a by-the-numbers narrative. The hook is great, and Hall reels you in with memorable storytelling, some truly frightening moments, a healthy dose of weirdness, and characters that could actually be the people next door.

Ultimately, The Raw Shark Texts proves that genre matters little. If it’s good, it’s good–and this book is better than good. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this year. Or in any year.

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