Mixed-Media Fiction: Sink or Swim?

“The Raw Shark Texts” is an interesting concept that never really rises above “interesting concept.” It’s a breezy read, moves very quickly and sometimes develops real suspense, and the plot is well thought-out, but it still feels superficial by the very end. Perhaps this is because the characters feel as if they could have been plucked from any novel/movie about twenty-somethings, or perhaps this is because the majority of the text is told through dialogue and seems to ignore the truly complex interiority  that it could have explored…but either way, this feels like Bud Lite. It’ll get you through the night, but it’s never going to rise above and really challenge you.

The concept, as I said, is interesting: there exists beneath the “real world” a whole other plain of existence, perhaps another dimension (though–since this book lacks much interiority and real development–we are never sure of the real facts, just the character’s observations), and in this plain of existence, there are seas and seas of creatures who feed on thoughts and memories and ideas. Most often, our dimensions never really meet, but occasionally, when someone falls into heavy thought and abstract conceptualizing…the fish are drawn to that person’s mind, and the sharks begin feeding until the person becomes a hollowed-out shell of their former self. Really crazy stuff, right? Hall has developed a nice little mythology for his novel.

And I think the overall book serves as an interesting commentary on our times, on the youth generation. We have finally entered an age where we believe we can document everything that happens in our lives: we can take thousands of digital pictures, we can write daily status updates, we can (as I am currently doing) write reviews of each book or movie or album we digest, we can blog our thoughts…We feel lost when we haven’t documented our lives. We fear a life adrift, where we cannot easily load our computers and search through all of the pictures we’ve taken over the past year. What would we do if we lost all of this? What would we do if something had feasted upon our digital selves, erased all of those memories? No matter the danger and cost, of course, we’d try to relocate our selves, which is exactly the mission of Eric Sanderson, the novel’s narrator.

In theory, it’s all very relevant, and very brilliant. It even incorporates innovative fonts, images, and a full flip-book of a shark attack. Very Millennial Generation.

But ultimately, it fails for the same reason that “House of Leaves” failed. It doesn’t really know where it’s going. The end of “Raw Shark Texts” seems to imply that the narrator has been crazy all along, and that he’s imagined all of this happening, which is a real shame and a real cop-out. “House of Leaves” failed because it decided to deliberately confuse and obscure the narrative at the end (likely because Danielewski was himself lost), and “Raw Shark Texts” does the same. Where do we take this story, he must have asked. How do I wrap it up in a way that services both the character, and the commentary I’m writing? When a book tries to serve both character and commentary, all is sacrificed because the character becomes a puppet.

Hall had a chance to truly do something special, here. But in the end, while this is fresh and often compelling, it just turns out to be an interesting little novel, and that’s sad because it could have been much more.

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