The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

If you liked “The House of Leaves” the innovative way the text was displayed and used to convey a feeling or a situation, you might have heard about “The Raw Shark Texts” or the book where a shark made of words and letters is trying to eat a man.

I read the Raw Shark Texts a while back and I didn’t think too much of it at that time. It was praised as groundbreaking and innovative and a thrill to read. It bored me to death. The story follows Eric Sanderson as he fights a conceptual shark called a “Ludovician” which he accidentally released from the “un-space” when he tried to revive the memory of his former girlfriend as a concept. Did I lose you yet?
Let me elaborate.

“The bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and the Da Vinci Code!”

The story takes place in our own world; however, certain aspects that do not exist in our familiar world exist in the book, hidden from the general public by dedicated organizations. Foremost among these are so-called “conceptual creatures”, life forms that exist within and feed upon ideas. Another new concept is the idea of “un-space”, the unvisited, unnamed, and uninhabited empty areas beneath the normally-used parts of the urban landscape. This area is documented and managed by a group known as the Un-Space Exploration Committee.

Plot summary

Eric Sanderson, a British man in his late twenties, was working with the Un-Space Exploration Committee after the death of his girlfriend, Clio Aames. His hope was to preserve his memories of her within the body of a conceptual creature.

It’s a stark thought that when we die most of us will leave behind uneaten biscuits, unused coffee, half toilet rolls, half cartons of milk in the fridge to go sour; that everyday functional things will outlive us and prove that we weren’t ready to go; that we weren’t smart or knowing or heroic; that we were just animals whose animal bodies stopped working without any sort of schedule or any consent from us.

This leads to his intentional release of a Ludovician – the most dangerous of the conceptual fish – on himself. He loses memories of his life as they are devoured by the Ludovician, but still the Ludovician pursues him until all is lost and he awakes as the Second Eric Sanderson. Eric is told by doctors that he has a dissociative condition known as fugue.

“Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there’s not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.”

However, the First Eric Sanderson, even as he was losing his memory, has left him with a large number of letters explaining Conceptual Fish, the death of his girlfriend, the Un-Space Exploration Committee, and other such things. When Eric Sanderson is attacked once more by the Ludovician, he decides to go in search of a doctor named Trey Fidorous, who is a member of the Un-Space Exploration Committee who may be able to explain what is happening to him.

While there was still distance to travel, there was still the slim chance of finding answers. While there was still a journey to be made, my crumbly little self could exist in the potential of making it. But what when the road came to an end? What would I be then?

Eric travels through Britain in search of clues, and ultimately finds one in a hotel he is staying in during a rainstorm. He is contacted by a mysterious figure known as Mr. Nobody, who is actually a part of a larger, internet-based intelligence called Mycroft Ward. Mr. Nobody attempts to subdue and control Eric with a smaller Conceptual Fish, but Eric manages to escape.

Time is always running out … Life’s much too uncertain to leave important things unsaid.”

Eric soon meets with a member of the Un-Space Exploration Committee named Scout. Scout and Eric have a close encounter with the Ludovician before venturing into Un-Space in search of Trey Fidorous. It turns out that Scout has a small bit of Mycroft Ward in her, but is not truly a part of the intelligence. Eric and Scout develop a romantic relationship throughout their un-space journey. However, the relationship becomes turbulent after it is revealed that from the beginning, Scout sought out Eric and his Ludovician in order to destroy Ward. When they find Fidorous, they help him rig up a conceptual boat with which to hunt the Ludovician. The climax of the book takes place on a conceptual ocean, aboard the Orpheus, the shark-hunting boat. In a climactic encounter, a laptop hooked up to the Mycroft Ward database is thrown into the mouth of the Ludovician, destroying both. Trey Fidorous is killed in the sinking of the boat, and Scout is lost at sea. Eric is then seemingly given a chance to return to the ‘real’ world through a postcard showing his house; he declines, choosing to remain in the conceptual world. Scout returns to the boat unharmed, and together with Ian the cat. She and Eric, now reconciled, swim to a “conceptual island” which resembles the Greek island on which Clio and the first Eric holidayed before she died. At this point, it is strongly suggested that Scout is in fact Clio, and that the first Eric Sanderson’s plan to preserve his memories of and life with Clio via the Ludovician has succeeded.

The book ends with a newspaper cutting reporting that the body of Eric Sanderson was found. The newspaper clipping mentions that a postcard from Eric was sent to Dr. Randle just prior to the discovery of his body. The postcard is shown on the next page, and claims to be from Eric, stating that he is unhurt and happy, but will never return.

Important aspects

Though Eric, as the narrator, tells us what he perceives as happening to him, this account may well be unreliable. In the second part of the light bulb fragment, Eric is shown as occasionally mentally unstable. The story involves almost surreal and nonsensical elements that separate themselves further and further from reality until the final fifty pages which involve shark hunting on an imaginary boat in an imaginary ocean. The conceptuality of many elements of the story, that is, their existence only within the mind, point towards insanity on Eric’s behalf. Some parts of the book could certainly be perceived as delusions, such as Eric becoming convinced that Scout is actually Clio. Furthermore, Dr. Randle’s description of fugue is one that fits Eric perfectly by the end of the book, as Eric has certainly left his life behind and gone on a journey. The book never makes it absolutely clear whether the conceptual creatures are real, or whether Eric is simply insane, though it provides clues supporting each conclusion. This ambiguity is demonstrated by the two documents that end the story: a newspaper article that declares Eric’s death (found alone, with no mention of Scout or Fidorous), though Eric may be living on the conceptual ocean; and a letter to Dr. Randle from Eric, saying that he is alive and well, though this may just be a joke in poor taste.

“Its hurtful and wonderful how our jokes survive us.
Since I left home on this journey, I’ve thought a lot about this-how a big part of any life is about the hows and whys of setting up machinery. it’s building systems, devices, motors. Winding up the clockwork of direct debits, configuring newspaper deliveries and anniversaries and photographs and credit card repayments and anecdotes. Starting their engines, setting them in motion and sending them chugging off into the future to do their thing at a regular or irregular intervals. When a person leaves or dies or ends, they leave an afterimage; their outline in the devices they’ve set up around them. The image fades to the winding down of springs, the slow running out of fuel as the machines of a life lived in certain ways in certain places and from certain angles are shut down or seize up or blink off one by one. It takes time. Sometimes, you come across the dusty lights or electrical hum of someone else’s machine, maybe a long time after you ever expected to, still running, lonely in the dark. Still doing its thing for the person who started it up long, long after they’ve gone.
A man lives so many different lengths of time.” 

Negatives or un-chapters
The Raw Shark Texts consists of 36 core chapters bound into the novel itself, and an additional 36 ‘lost’ sections, known as ‘negatives’ or ‘un-chapters’ which exist outside of the main printed text.[3] These extra ‘un-chapters’ (also written by Steven Hall) have been found periodically since the books initial release, hidden either online or in the real world. Unique negative content has also been discovered in several translated editions of the Raw Shark Texts since publication of the original English language edition in 2007. On 08/15/07 in The Raw Shark Texts Forum, Steven Hall wrote to following statement about The Raw Shark Texts negatives:

“For each chapter in The Raw Shark Texts there is, or will be, an un-chapter, a negative. If you look carefully at the novel you might be able to figure out why these un-chapters are called negatives. Not all the negatives are as long as a full novel chapter – some are only a page, some are only a couple of lines. Some are much longer than any chapters in the novel. About a quarter of them are out there so far. (It’s an ongoing project set to run for a while yet) Not all of the negatives are online, some are, but they’re hiding. Some are out there in the real world, waiting to be found. Anyone with the Raw Shark UK special edition will already have Negative 6/36 and anyone with a Canadian edition will have Negative 36/36 (and also a good idea of what some of the other negatives are). The negatives are not deleted scenes, they are very much a part of the novel but they are all splintered from it in some way.”

Boring parts

The last 50 pages or so are an entire retelling of the final hour or so of the film Jaws. Dr. Fidorous mentions that the idea of a shark hunting boat has been shared by the entire world for the last 25 years, about the time since the release of Jaws. It may be explained as a hallucination on Eric’s behalf that happens to take the plot of Jaws as its basis, particularly since Eric admits to being terrified by the movie.

Another boring aspect which was done better in House of Leaves was the fragmentary letters that pepper the content like linked documents. In “Raw Shark Texts”, the first Eric Sanderson communicates with Eric using letters. These letters often are written as if the first Eric Sanderson still exists somewhere, and the communication is across space, not time, using phrases such as, “It’s raining here in the past. I hope the weather there in the future is better.”

Not so boring parts

The text images of the book, known as “Ludovician Imagery” on the very first page, appear a number of times throughout, adding a unique touch to the book. These pictures, often of the Ludovician itself, are composed entirely of words and letters.

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