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A colossal fish story

The Raw Shark Texts A Novel Steven Hall Canongate: 436 pp., $24

March 25, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds is a staff writer for The Times.

WE never stop looking for the Master Plan, for the Wizard Behind the Curtain. Where is the puppeteer, the genius who plays us like pawns on a chessboard, arranges us like numbers in a matrix, creates scenarios in which we awaken to a new reality -- new body, new century, new planet -- and have to figure out, from scratch, who we are and what the heck we're supposed to be doing? This is a construct that has fascinated novelists since the form was born. Paul Auster, Philip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami, Steve Erickson, Ursula K. Le Guin -- to say nothing of Beckett and Borges and Kafka -- have all swum in the murky waters of identity, the borders of self, the meaning of life and, of course, death.

The storyline may be timeless (and timeworn), but "The Raw Shark Texts" is surely a post-Internet version. The sheer lack of solid ground, the shifting landscape, the use of words and concepts as things we can smell and eat and swim in -- the possibility that ideas exist in physical form, not just as mental constructs, and the notion that your personality is something you can sum up in a few answers to some simple questions and then transpose into another body, the whole darn virtual world slipping and sliding like a vast ocean around our little daily ruts and routines -- this is the stuff of an imagination comfortable with disembodied relationships, hypertext and following endless links (sans breadcrumbs) to the far reaches of consciousness.

Once you get out there, by the way, there's no such thing as death, because, well, it's all a question of perception and shape-shifting. Which brings us back to another old-fashioned fictional thread, this one romantic: how to punch our way through the walls between the living and the dead so that we can stay with the ones we love forever.

Eric Sanderson returns to consciousness from some dark post-traumatic space only to find that he is the second Eric Sanderson. The first Eric Sanderson went to Greece with his girlfriend, Clio; she died in a boating accident and he went nuts. Eric the second follows a few clues and learns that he is being hunted by a Ludovician shark, a "purely conceptual fish which swim[s] in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect."

The shark "feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self." In one of several letters from the past, which the first Eric Sanderson signs, "Regret and hope," he admits that in his grief over Clio's death he fell into a "conceptual loop," thereby giving himself to the thought shark, and "it ate and ate, growing bigger and bigger and now it's an adult and there's no stopping it." In these letters, the first Eric Sanderson shows the second how to throw the Ludovician off track by taking on different personality traits, getting a job and changing his name.

As Eric Sanderson the second struggles to learn more about who he is and to escape from his unearthly predator, he learns more about the world of conceptual fish and personality transfer. It appears that two forces are battling it out in the oceanic world of consciousness. In one corner we have the evil genius Mycroft Ward who, at the end of the 19th century, in an effort to evade death, perfected this art of personality transfer and, in a later incarnation, the art of reproducing his own personality into hundreds of bodies (at last count, 600). Mycroft Ward's worst enemy is, of course, the Ludovician shark, for whom Ward and his many iterations represent a true smorgasbord.

Meanwhile Dr. Trey Fidorous sits, Yoda-like, in front of a computer screen at the end of an enormous labyrinth made of books, creating language viruses and false conceptual loops to evade the predatory fish. He is also in the business of saving languages (words, phrases and whole dialects) from extinction, but that seems to be a sort of hobby. He has created several "artificial memes," he admits in his first meeting with Eric (II), but they are mere "single-celled animals," nothing like those enormous conceptual fish that have "evolved naturally." Dr. Fidorous is Eric's only hope for getting the shark off his back.

And there is a love interest. Eric (II) has enlisted the services of a plucky girl named Scout, who leads him to Dr. Fidorous. Scout is the incarnation (or iteration) of Clio, down to the smiley face tattooed on the underside of her big toe as a sort of last laugh (she envisions the mortician, after her death, putting a tag on that same toe).

Together the three create a conceptual shark-hunting ship, the Orpheus, and go in search of the Ludovician -- Dr. Fidorous in the name of science, Eric (II) to be free of the predator and Scout in the hopes that the Ludovician will give her back her old life and personality, which has been eaten by Mycroft Ward. They chum the waters with Eric's life story (at least the last six months of it), which he had written in the air the night before.

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