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’.

To judge by his title, Hall’s starting point seems to have been the scene from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986 graphic novel The Watchmen in which Rorschach, an alienated outlaw convinced that the world has no meaning other than that which we impose on it (which is why he is named after the ink-blot test), is betrayed to the police. As his betrayer places the fatal phone call, Moore and Gibbons show a boy reading a cartoon in which a shipwrecked sailor stabs at a marauding shark circling his life-raft; when they cut back to the police station, the detective mishears the information he’s being given, and repeats: ‘Raw shark?’

Like Moore and Gibbons’s sailor, Hall’s hero, Eric Sanderson, is a lone survivor, following a sea-accident in Greece; like their outlaw, he’s obsessed with the idea that the world lacks meaning, and with the patterns in which things arrange themselves. Finding himself back in the UK, traumatised, isolated and amnesiac after the accident, he tries ‘to develop some parameters’, to assemble ‘a postage stamp of control in miles and miles of empty moorland’, to construct ‘a little block of self in the world’. A nicely written early passage shows him studying a kitchen that, although his own, has now become a stranger’s:

I noticed little lived-in things. The limescale on the kettle, the half-used bottle of washing-up liquid. The couple of pieces of dried pasta in the gap between the fridge and the kitchen units. All the marks of use. Recent habitation. I was searching the cupboards for a tin of baked beans when I came across a packet of Penguin biscuits. There were two missing … The me who had eaten those biscuits had been real and alive and here, living in this house.

Rearranging magazines and furniture, and wondering which of his walls and barriers are defensive and structural – which ones are ‘shoring everything else up’ – he decides to ‘make myself an inside and an outside’, a kind of three-dimensional embodiment of his psychological state, until his living-room reverberates with ‘the sound of being stared at’.

This is textbook post-traumatic territory, and textbook literary alienation. The necessity – and impossibility – of watching yourself from the outside is what drives The Picture of Dorian Gray, or Frankenstein, or the films of David Lynch. To watch yourself from outside is, according to the textbook, to watch yourself as dead – and both Hall and his hero understand this all too well. Holed up in his flat, Eric Sanderson reads letter after letter sent to him by ‘the First Eric Sanderson’, an earlier version of himself who has now – it seems – become another person. In one of the letters, ‘First Eric’, knowing that amnesia will soon wipe out his identity, informs ‘Second Eric’ that ‘I’m not around any more’; in other words, Eric appears to himself, but only in deceased form.

Into these familiar waters swims what marketing people would call the novel’s USP, or ‘Unique Selling Point’: a conceptual shark. After it looms like some giant hallucination out of Eric’s carpet, surges up and overturns the sofa on which, like a paddling surfer, he lies face down as he watches the static buzz of his television screen, it reveals itself to be an amalgam of data-fragments reassembled from the flows of human interaction – in short, a cyber-Kraken that waketh and wreaketh ontological havoc. The floor melts into fluid ‘liquid concept’, Eric splutters under ‘rolling waves of association and history’, and we’re plunged deep into Matrix-style sci-fi.

The shark is a ‘Ludovician’, an eater of selves that feeds on ideas, thoughts and memories, taking a bite out of any weak mind that drifts into its territory. To beat off its onslaughts, Eric, following the instructions left him by his previous self, sets up a ‘non-divergent conceptual loop’ made up of Dictaphones whose continual playback forms a protective wall around him, a shark-cage within which his identity might be preserved. He then goes to ground, seeking out members of the Un-Space Exploration Committee in text-lined subterranean labyrinths accessed through a trapdoor in the shelves of the Manchester Deansgate branch of Waterstones. Hooking up with Dr Trey Fidorous, a maker of ‘language viruses’ (‘phrases, words, alternative spellings, abbreviations, corruptions’ that infiltrate the media and promulgate through websites, radio programmes and voicemail messages, just like organic viruses invading human hosts), he boards his techno-boat and sets out to hunt the hunter, ‘chumming’ the conceptual sea by tipping bucketfuls of text overboard in an attempt to lure the Ludovician near.

There’s a lot of this conceptual currency going around in contemporary art schools, and to anyone familiar with the syllabuses in those places Hall’s sources will be very evident. His vision of Un-Space – car parks, stairwells, lifts, industrial estates and so on – owes more than a little to Marc Augé’s notion of ‘the non-spaces of supermodernity’: negative, transient places such as hotel rooms and motorways and airports. The flickering light bulb that transmits Morse-encrypted information to his hero is taken from the work of the artist Cerith Wyn Evans, who has light bulbs, chandeliers and public signage do exactly that (he recently made the ‘O’ and ‘I’ of the Centrepoint sign in London flash Morse-encoded passages of Merleau-Ponty across the city). Most of all, Hall draws on William Burroughs. Burroughs asserts his belief that ‘the word is a virus’ at every second turn; in essays such as ‘The Invisible Generation’ and The Electronic Revolution he outlines methods by which playback from several tape recorders can be used to neutralise the lines of association imposed on us by the ‘control machine’ of power that lurks within the data field.

Now, I have a niggling uncertainty about Hall’s use of Burroughs. Whereas Burroughs’s visions and procedures came out of years of experimenting with reel-to-reel tapes, text and images – cutting, splicing, superimposing – and, as a consequence, still come across, decades later, as interesting and original, for Hall they’re readymades, straight transpositions. This might be unfair: Burroughs, after all, got his ideas from somewhere too. But his project envisages a monumental investigation and subversion of the whole symbolic order; Hall doesn’t aim so high. The most damning thing one could say about The Raw Shark Texts is that it reads like a movie treatment – a rather good one, but, post-Matrix, a rather conventional one too. Reading a sequence in which Eric’s vomit mutates into swimming ‘Luxophages’ (little techno-fish with sucker mouths composed of 8s and zeros), I found myself thinking: ‘Oh yes: Cronenberg.’ As he speeds off on a motorbike with a sexy woman a few pages later, dynamiting the pursuing shark with a typewriter-key bomb, I saw Keanu, and then, inevitably, Arnie. The problem isn’t that Hall is aware of film, or even conversing with it – many novelists (Joyce, Pynchon) have done this to great effect – but rather that film seems to be his writing’s mode, medium and magnetic north. Where Burroughs leads us into uncharted territory, here we are being led straight to the multiplex. All ambiguity and indeterminacy get jettisoned en route.

This is true of Hall’s USP as well. The great monsters of fiction are all eerily ambiguous. Frankenstein’s creation represents both the rise of industrial culture and the Luddite machine-breakers who opposed it; the monster both issues the taboo-flouting demand to mate with his own sister-creature and, when he intervenes to prevent his inventor consummating a dubious marriage to his own semi-sister, affirms the very law that prohibits incest. Benchley’s shark, as Slavoj Žižek points out in The Plague of Fantasies, embodies both the Communist threat stalking America and America’s own capitalist propensity for consumption; and plenty more besides. And don’t get me started on Melville’s whale. All these things are, according to the necessary pun, free-floating signifiers. Hall’s shark, representing self-loss plain and simple, isn’t; held in the aquarium of one-to-one correspondence, of allegory, it quickly grows tame.

What saves this book, and in fact makes it really quite good, is the most conventional thing in it: a love story. Interspersed among the dramatisations of what are, ultimately, commonplace theories about virtuality and the emergence of artificial life are scenes that, without the slightest hint of sci-fi, depict a real life – that of Eric’s girlfriend, Clio – lost. Hall describes the couple holidaying on Naxos, playing and bickering, discussing where to go for dinner and so on. It makes for a different texture:

Clio sat staring out at the horizon, her hands tucked under her knees so the hem of her little blue summer dress stretched tight across her legs. Her feet kicked gently in mid-air. I tried to match her time, swinging my feet with hers, but my legs are longer and so slowed out of synch after a couple of beats – I had to keep stopping and restarting to get back into time. There was a slight breeze coming from the sea and the sky hazed around the edges.

Old-fashioned realist passages like this, with their human-scale measuring of time and experience, turn the novel into something more interesting: a study not of cyber-terror but of mourning. Accordingly, the book resets its mythical compass halfway through, and you come to realise that the Greek story you’re reading is not Theseus and Ariadne’s but that of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Before the fateful holiday, Clio was first diagnosed with then cured of cancer. Scout, the sexy flick-chick on a motorbike with whom Eric later flees the shark, and whom we are clearly meant to understand as a kind of reincarnation of Clio (she even has the toe-tattoo that Clio always wanted), has a form of cyber-cancer, a malicious virus that’s managed to jump from her computer to her brain. And so, like Eurydice, she comes back from death only to succumb to it again – and is well on her way to a third succumbing by the time her rescuer gets his act together. The lump in Clio-Scout’s brain turns out to be a part of Mycroft Ward, the 21st-century legacy of a 19th-century scientist’s attempt to preserve his identity against death by duplicating it: in the digital era this identity has multiplied into a giant, oppressive self dispersed throughout the planetary computer networks. Aboard his techno-boat (which, just in case you missed the classical pointers, is called the Orpheus), Eric uses telephone directories and a wireless internet connection to plug Ward (too much self) directly into the shark (too little). Like matter and antimatter, the two spectacularly cancel one another out, curing Clio-Scout-Eurydice and leaving her and Eric-Orpheus to, as Burroughs so nicely phrases it in Nova Express, ‘lam out on the blast’.

We find out near the novel’s end that Clio died while scuba-diving. Sympathetic Greek police provided Eric with the underwater photographs she snapped in her last moments. Hall, like every art school graduate who’s read Roland Barthes, will know that the photograph is always linked to death. In her deposition to the INS, my sister talked of top surfers’ predilection for having themselves photographed from sea level in close-up so that they can both experience the intimacy of being in the wave and watch themselves experiencing it from outside. The shark carries that desire’s logic to its ultimate conclusion: the cold glass eye watching you from within the water was always already providing that photographic service, a service whose completion demands you be consumed and die. But with his references to photography, Hall is interested in more than the narcissistic complex: in his story, another person is involved. Back in the UK, Eric stares at Clio’s photographs until he knows every fish and every composition, ‘the ones too close or motion blurred, the three where Clio’s thumb was a pale pink moon over the corner of the frame’.

These photos, in their turn, become the hinge in the plot around which two possible endings swing and counterswing: one in which Eric and Clio are reunited, another in which Eric goes insane and dies. Both work; each cancels out the other. This, too, is movie-oriented – it’s like the final sequence of Solaris (in the Clooney remake, in which the dead wife plays a much more prominent role than in Tarkovsky’s version), and demands the same dual reading – but it’s excellently done. Then, in the endpapers of the book, Hall, I suspect taking yet another cue from cinema – this time from John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Seconds, in which Rock Hudson’s Arthur Hamilton, having first ‘died’ then returned to watch his old life from the outside, sees an idyllic beach scene at the very moment of his second, and real, death – reprints a picture of two figures frolicking in waves tending towards the colour of pure light, as in overexposed snapshots. It’s strangely beautiful, and crowns a climax that pulls off the genuine achievement of finding proper Un-Space: not a prefab art-theory one, but the exhilarating one of impossibility.