"A concept wrapped in skin and chemicals," I repeated. "That sounds like a human being to me."
Scout shook her head. "No. There's more to it than that."
I didn't argue - what did I know what human beings were or weren't?
And so to the last of my Clarke Award reads: Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts, a rather different beast from its fellow shortlisters. Its devices and designs - "purely conceptual" fish that feed on thoughts, un-space tunnels beneath city streets, an assembly of planks and computers on a carpeted floor that abruptly transforms into a ship on the ocean waves, etc. - are more fantasy than science fiction, and they may not even be 'real' in terms of the story's own world, let alone our own. But as the title suggests - generally I am suspicious of punning titles on anything that is not deliberately a comedy, but this one is at least clever - the novel aims to be a psychological mirror, with what we see reflecting both the protagonist's mind and our own expectations.
We begin with a man, our narrator, coming to on a bedroom floor as if recovering from drowning: choking and gasping for air, vomiting at the shock of sensation and the extremity of his disorientation:
Static behind my eyes bacteria-swarmed dangerously towards another blackout and, snow-blind and and shaking, I pushed my wet mouth down tight into the palms of my hands, [...] Slowly, slowly-slowly, the world began to reappear in sickly greens and thumping purples
It is a visceral, overtly physical way to open a book that is really all about the mind, a sharply evocative piece of writing whose central issue only becomes clear gradually, to both reader and character:
It isn't all coming back to me. I don't know any of this at all.
I felt that prickling horror, the one that comes when you realise the extent of something bad - if you're dangerously lost or you've made some terrible mistake - the reality of the situation creeping in through the back of your head like a pantomime Dracula.
I did not know who I was. I did not know where I was.
The man finds a letter addressed to him - from someone claiming to be himself from before the memory loss, who signs off as "the First Eric Sanderson". Memento-style - and this is not the last place in which Raw Shark Texts has an element of the seen-it-before derivative about it - Eric has left himself instructions on what to do when this situation arises: the phone is set to speed-dial his psychiatrist, Dr Helen Randle, the car keys are in front of him, and there is a map to tell him how to get to her. No explanation, only the slightly-too-glib, "It's very important that you go straight away. Do not pass go. Do not explore. Do not collect two hundred pounds."
Dr Randle tells him that this is not the first, although it is certainly the most complete, of his memory loss episodes; she suggests that Eric's condition is a long-term response (albeit of late presentation) to the shock and grief of losing his girlfriend, Clio, to an unspecified accident while they were on holiday in Greece together. Eric's reaction to this is bewilderment; he remembers nothing, feels nothing, and asks only whether there was anything he could have done to prevent the accident. Dr Randle knows nothing of his family or friends; Eric, it seems, cut himself off from everyone he knew before he came to her for treatment.
Dr Randle also warns Eric not to read any further messages from himself, worried that this will harm his progress. For months, he obeys this, and although new letters and packages arrive each day - sent, as per the promise in the original letter, by some pre-arranged system apparently triggered by the final loss of his memory - he simply piles them in a cupboard, unopened. He potters around in the house that doesn't feel like his, uses money from the well-stocked bank accounts, and feeds the unfriendly ginger cat ("a sort of whirlwind made of blades", in Eric's words, whose collar names it 'Ian') he doesn't recognise. He gets by, trying not to probe too deeply.
These opening chapters are readable and effective - lucidly-written, fast-paced, intriguing and disconcerting - and the links between memory and selfhood explored quietly rather than heavy-handedly. That Hall can write, and in several different registers as the story demands it, is clear. Particularly enjoyable (although rather too rare, overall) are the engaging little snippets like this thumbnail sketch of the psychiatrist:
Dr Randle was more like an electrical storm or some complicated particle reaction than a person. A large clashing event of a woman whose frizzy hack job of white-brown hair hummed against a big noisy blouse which, in turn, strobed in protest against her tartan skirt. She had strontium grey eyes which crackled away to themselves behind baggy lids. She made the air feel doomy, faintly radioactive. You half expected your ears to pop.
Then Eric has another episode, and the story proper gets underway. He is 'attacked', in his living room, by a flood of water (there and then gone, leaving no trace) and some dark thing that lurks at the edges of his vision and seems to disturb the fabric of reality around it. ("The idea of the floor, the carpet, the concept, feel, shape of the words in my head all broke apart on impact with a splash of sensations and textures and pattern [...] I went under, deep, carried by the force of my fall.") This, he realises once the attack is over, is what has left him feeling like he is drowning.
Panicked, he sets about reading the First Eric's letters. He learns about Clio - although still not about how she died - and a little more about who he is, although still he can connect with none of it. First Eric's snapshot of his and Clio's last holiday together is a particularly fine passage, bringing the sunset skies and clear water of the Greek island to life beautifully (and also, along the way, explaining to us why the cat is called Ian - "Un-catlike and inappropriate in a fundamental way, but still confusingly feasible", the name was picked by Clio and him to freak out anyone who asks).
Through First Eric's letters, our narrator also discovers what is attacking him and causing his memory loss, and what he can do to try to stop it:
The animal hunting you is a Ludovician. It is an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tide of cause and effect. This may sound like madness, but it isn't. [...] The streams, currents and rivers of human knowledge, experience and communication which have grown throughout our short history are now a vast, rich and bountiful environment. Why should we expect these flows to be sterile?
The idea of a conceptual shark, stalking Eric through the waters of his mind - through writing and conversations and ideas, seeking to eat him by stripping away his memories - is a wonderful one. Hall sensibly keeps the shark on the margins for much of the book, making it a half-glimpsed threat, continually pursuing but rarely seen. Even when we do see it, we see its effects rather than any direct description (and arguably, its effects are what it is):
I turned. Less than fifty years behind us and keeping pace, ideas, thoughts, fragments, story shards, dreams, memories were blasting free of the grass in a high-speed spray. As I watched, the spray intensified. The concept of the grass itself began to lift and bow wave into a long tumbling V. At the crest of the wave, something was coming up through the foam - a curved and rising signifier, a perfectly evolved idea fin.
Soon, Eric is on the run from the shark, and following First Eric's suggestion of trying to get in touch with some people who may be able to help him, the "un-space committee" who are equipped to deal with such things. He teams up with a young woman named Scout, who bears more than a passing resemblence to dead Clio (although it takes Eric a long time to spot this) and who is herself fleeing with identity-stealing predators. They travel through a series of tunnels under Manchester to see Dr Fidorous, who comes up with a plan to help capture and kill the conceptual shark.
So far, so fun. Where the book disappoints is in its curious lack of adventurousness. Having set up this scenario, and gestured at the tension between reality and imagination and mental illness in Eric's perspective on the world, Hall has surprisingly little to say. The ideas are interesting, the writing smooth and economical, and the typesetting games range from ploddingly obvious (Eric's desperate running footsteps in an echoingly empty building are represented by a series of "thud"s scattered about a half-empty page) to the inventive and entertaining (a particular favourite was the fifty pages of the conceptual shark, drawn with words, getting bigger and bigger as it swims up on our narrator; the Jaws music was made for such moments). Not necessarily original, but fun.
Yet the metatextual riffs - the various layers of recollection, story, and reconstruction that go into making up Eric and his world, coupled with the way the book, as both vehicle-for-story and artefact, is deconstructed through the typesetting - are nice, but underdeveloped. This latter point is only highlighted by Hall's choice of authors for his epigraphs: Calvino, Borges, Murakami, all of whom do this sort of crumbling-self, crumbling-world thing in much more stylish and fascinating ways. Furthermore, the story itself, and its message, is banal: boy meets mysterious girl, boy sleeps with girl and wakes up with starry eyes, there's a bump in the road because girl has Secrets, but ultimately they realise they love each other and that she was his dead girlfriend all along and that he just had to learn not to blame himself for her death... Even the 'shock' problematising ending comes as no surprise at all.
Sweet, but oddly conventional subject matter for a book striving so hard to be the opposite.