Besides being one of the "it" buzz books of the moment, Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts is a new addition to that small, and still unnamed sub-genre of horror that includes such allusion-rich and over-designed novels as House of Leaves and Demon Theory. What the former did for haunted house tales and the later did for slasher and B-grade creature features, The Raw Shark Texts does for Jaws.
The plot sounds crazy, so just take it in slowly.
Eric Sanderson is amnesiac. His therapist believes that he's suffering from a sort of extreme psychological defensive reaction stemming from the death of his girlfriend, Clio. This sounds perfectly reasonable, and would make a fine diagnosis, but a short and somewhat uninteresting novel. Mercifully, for Eric and the readers, he begins to receive letters from his pre-amnesia self. Eric 1 (pre-memory loss) informs Eric 2 (post-hunh?) that he is actually the victim of a memory- and sense-of-self eating conceptual shark. These great white mnemonivors are memes that have evolved to swim in our collective intertextuality – the conceptual sphere of ideas and thoughts and communications that flow between media and human agents – and they prey on luckless individuals like poor Eric. Normally, like non-conceptual sharks, they prey on the weak and wounded, like the elderly or those who have suffered extreme brain damage. But in this case, this thought-fish is jonesing for Eric mind-meals.
Hold on. It gets weirder.
These sharks, called Ludovicians, are territorial – in the way that real great whites aren't, but the great white in Jaws is. This means that Eric's pretty much screwed because the shark that wants him will just keep eating away at his mind until Eric dies. Unless, of course, Eric can find a way to kill the shark. This puts Eric on a quest through un-space (the unnamed and forgotten places on Earth that have vanished because they are no longer part of the collective mental map of reality), will pit him against the minions of a networked meta-entity from the late 19th century century, and, ultimately, lead to a massive self-aware Jaws homage show down in the oceans of conceptual space.
You gettin' all that?
More than either House of Leaves or Demon Theory, Raw Shark Texts embraces its weirdness. It has a sort of freewheeling goofiness that reminds of not so much of other horror writers as it does of Douglas Adams. Where House of Leaves borrowed concrete poetry methods to suggest the ever shifting maze of allusions and the ever morphing geometry of the house, Raw Shark Texts includes a flip-book style animation of a shark made entirely out of typographical mainly, I think, because it is fun. This is not to say that Raw Shark Texts completely relinquishes narrative tension in favor of laughs. There are several genuinely creepy moments throughout the novel. But in the end, it is more about wacky ideas, clever allusions, and creative execution than it is about scaring the reader.
Which brings us to, perhaps, the largest potential flaw in the text. The ultimate showdown between Eric and his conceptually toothy problem is an extended, perhaps over-extended, homage to the film Jaws. It goes on for several chapters and, barring some clever meta banter and a fairly timid sex scene (which could have happened in Jaws - things like that just happen on boats), it follows the plot points of the movie extremely closely. This does two things: One, it somewhat mitigates the suspense for any reader that's seen Jaws - and the reader that hasn't seen Jaws would have probably put down the book in confused bewilderment by this point as several descriptions are basically the author saying, "You know, like the one in Jaws." Two, it makes the reader question where homage stops and lazy theft begins.
Raw Shark Texts is not for everyone. I imagine that the relentless barrage of references and winking cleverness will strike many readers as being far too precious. It is, when all is said and done, a pretty precious book. I would understand the complaints of those who felt it was too clever for its own good. But for me, the ride was still worth it. Despite the hipper-than-thou design features and meta-literate film buff allusions, there's ultimately something of the goofy fanboy about RST which redeems it. It is a book that is meant to be enjoyed rather than studied. In this, it lack the earnestness of House of Leaves, the Ur-text off the sub-genre. It was probably a joy to write, and that fun is contagious if you're in the right mind.