23 February 2017

Review: The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

Trade paperback, 428 pages
Published 2007

Acquired July 2014
Read October 2014
The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
since his death my Granddad had become more a collection of scenes than a real man to me. (79)
When I was assigned to teach The Modern Novel, I wanted to teach a novel about being a book-- in the physical sense. Novels are often books, of course, but in this electronic age they don't have to be. My students were pretty split on the far-out ideas Hall advances in The Raw Shark Texts-- some thought the book was baffling in the extreme, others thought it was the coolest thing they'd ever read. I'm okay with such a contradiction.

We read the book in the context of what N. Katherine Hayles in Writing Machines calls the "technotext": "When a literary work interrogates the inscription technology that produces it." (An "inscription technology" is a device that initiates material changes that can be read as marks, e.g., print books, computers, telegraphy, video and film, basically any technology that produces interpretable, linguistic information.) When a print book calls attention to the fact that it is a print book, it is a technotext, and Hayles argues that you should look at technotexts not just to see what the text "means," but how that meaning interacts with the material form of the text. (Hayles has actually written about The Raw Shark Texts herself, but ended up going in a different direction than what I'm going to do with her ideas here.)

The Raw Shark Texts is preoccupied with inscription technologies and how we're remediated through them: there's the quotation I opened this review with, but also: the idea that when a person dies, they leave an afterimage in the machinery they set up to run their life, which slowly runs down and dies itself (101); "I think we’re going to wear away from the world, just like the writing wears off old gravestones in the aisles of churches" (229); the narrator, Eric, reading the guidebook of Clio, a woman he supposedly had a relationship with but doesn't remember (266); Eric's admission that the journal we're reading is incomplete: they were never that witty or cool, Clio wasn’t always sexy, and all he has now is stories: "well edited tall tales with us in the starring roles," as the characters in the journal aren’t the two of them but actors regurgitating Hollywood clichés (412-13). And of course The Raw Shark Texts itself is a life remediated through an inscription technology: we only know what happened to Eric Sanderson because we have this book to tell us.

The book ends ambiguously. Did Eric die? Was anything Eric experienced even real? My students wanted to say "no" to the latter question, that he was hallucinating to cope with grief, but I reject that interpretation on the grounds of it not being very interesting. As for the first question, I think it depends on what you mean by "die." As the book emphasizes over and over again, we are the marks we make on the world. We are the scrapbooks, the gravestone inscriptions, the journals, the stories we wrote down about ourselves. Eric Sanderson didn't die fighting the conceptual shark, and we know this because we're holding Eric Sanderson in our hands. The Raw Shark Texts records his very existence. He is the sum of the inscription technologies used to mark his place in the world, much as we all are. The postcard at the end of the book-- another inscription technology-- shows that he continues to exist, that he hasn't worn away from the world yet.

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