Straight to the Multiplex

Tom McCarthy

  • The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
    Canongate, 368 pp, £12.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 84195 902 3

Six years ago, at the First Committee Meeting of the International Necronautical Society, an organisation set up to explore ‘the cultural parameters of death’ – why not? – the INS’s Chief Obituary Reviewer (my sister Melissa) announced that she would be conducting a study of surfers, whom she ‘suspected were onto something’. Six months later, I and other INS committee members cross-examined her about her findings in an art gallery that had been adapted to look and function like a sinister Hearings Camera: microphones, stenographers, press area – that sort of thing. Surfers were making sporadic appearances in obituary pages around that time, and my sister had seen connections between their funerary rituals, which involve decorated boards, and Melville’s Queequeg’s copying of the tattoos adorning his body onto his own coffin – the coffin that ends up serving as a floating board for the shipwrecked Ishmael. The best surfers frequently check out in style, wiping out and drowning as they attempt to surf the unsurfable wave. A particularly legendary surfer, diagnosed with cancer, paddled his board towards the horizon with no intention of returning; then, after a lifeguard hauled him back, deliberately crashed his camper van into a tree. Most impressive of all, though, are the statistically small but psychologically significant minority who get eaten by sharks.

Reviewing a long Rolling Stone obituary of a member of this last group, my sister announced to the committee that its writer had borrowed, via Paul Virilio, a passage from Gaston Bachelard in which a water-bound creature is described as a ‘principle of vertigo’, dying at every instant as it sheds its substance. Melissa argued that the surfer’s symbolic relation to the shark confirmed Virilio’s adage that every technology creates its own disaster: the shark, she said, is ‘the direct other half of the surfer’ – id to his ego, other to his moi. More than that, she continued, the shark is not merely disaster, but technology itself. It’s no coincidence that the first objects that fall from the incised stomachs of captured sharks in Peter Benchley’s Jaws are car parts: as Benchley points out at the novel’s outset, like some grotesque über-car the great white must perpetually keep moving. My sister then held up as evidence The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, in which Marinetti, declaring in 1909 that ‘time and space died yesterday’, describes driving his car so fast that it spins out and overturns. She noted that Marinetti repeatedly calls the vehicle a shark: ‘a big beached shark … my beautiful shark … running on its powerful fins’. This in turn reminded us that Benchley’s book contains a strangely Ballardian sequence in which Matthew Hooper, the marine biologist, and Ellen Brody, the police chief’s neglected wife, embark over lunch on a shared sexual fantasy that envisages them, distracted by mutual masturbation, crashing their car and dying on the freeway with their genitals exposed to bystanders.

Where is all this coming from, the committee wanted to know. ‘Greece!’ our mother (who had dutifully turned up in the gallery) piped up: the origins of all these scenes lie in the set of relations linking the sea nymph Thetis to the Argo, the first ever craft to enter water; also (fast-forwarding a little) to Theseus, who sails his own craft to and from Crete to kill the Minotaur, the sea’s monstrous offspring; and, finally, to Ariadne, whom Theseus abandons on Naxos on his way home, leaving her to while away her time by orgying with Bacchus.

Steven Hall, who went to art school and would therefore fit right in with a semi-conceptual ‘organisation’ such as ours, seems to have plugged into a very similar network of associations in his first novel, The Raw Shark Texts. The book has a girlfriend left behind on Naxos; it has a sea-bound vehicle rigged together from bits of technological hardware (its hull and cabin made from fax machines and phone lines, a garden strimmer and a steering-wheel); it has a knowing replay of the final sequences of the film version of Jaws; it even has a shark attack that looks ‘like a slow-motion car crash’.

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