If Mark Z. Danielewski and Haruki Murakami got together to write a romantic/mystery/horror story, it might turn out something like "Raw Shark Texts," the debut novel by Steven Hall. While the initial handling of some concepts is a bit clumsy (unspace?), the vivid writing and clever twists come together nicely. It's weird, stark and bittersweet.
A young man wakes up with total amnesia. A doctor explains to him that he's suffering from dissociative disorder, due to the loss of his beloved girlfriend Clio. The man -- Eric Sanderson -- attempts to muddle back into a life he doesn't recognize... but soon starts receiving letters and packages from "the first Eric Sanderson," warning him of something far more sinister. He tries to ignore the letters, but strange occurrances start haunting him.
The letters include items encoded with info, transcribed memories of his last days with his beloved Clio, and the revelation of what destroyed his memories -- a Ludovician, a conceptual shark existing in un-space. Now Eric -- and a strange girl who is strangely reminiscent of Clio -- try to escape the conceptual beast, and salvage what is left of his memory and life.
Lots of movies and books start off with an amnesiac seeking answers. But the story of "Raw Shark Texts" is a bit different: a postmodern horror/romance/mystery/action novel, which spins up some surreal creations, and doesn't give a tidy answer to its questions. In a way, it's a story about how the sadness and dreams of lost love can devour our minds. Yet it doesn't have to be the end -- love can be found again.
It would have been a disaster (conceptual sharks?), if he weren't such a solid writer -- he spins up the complex, wrenching emotions of a lost soul, written in vivid, colourful prose ("her normal smile turns sharp like little blades, and her eyes go all shiny and electric"). Yet his writing also gets dark and grotesque, such as Eric's confrontation with the soulless, disintegrating Mr. Nobody.
Like Danielewski, Hall has lots of typographic trickery (sharks and lampreys composed of words, blurred postcards, distorted books) that adds an extra surreality to the story. And there's the concepts of the Ludovician and unspace -- all the empty in-between places of the world -- which are introduced rather clumsily and hastily, but which are fascinating in themselves.
Eric himself is a likable guy -- geeky, mild-mannered, and loving, and who is tormented by the loss he can't remember, and the fear of losing what is left of himself. The other characters are well drawn as well -- his past and future girlfriends most of all, with their little quirks and oddities. And of course, that adorable cat Ian.
"The Raw Shark Texts" has some first-time stumbles, but Stephen Hall's debut is a clever mix of intellectual horror, romantic loss, and philosophical struggle with the emptiness of a strange, vivid world. An astounding postmodern thriller.