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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 28.
- Review Date: 2007-01-15
- Reviewer: Staff
Hall's debut, the darling of last year's London Book Fair, is a cerebral page-turner that pits corporeal man against metaphysical sharks that devour memory and essence, not flesh and blood. When Eric Sanderson wakes from a lengthy unconsciousness, he has no memory. A letter from "The First Eric Sanderson" directs him to psychologist Dr. Randle, who tells Eric he is afflicted with a "dissociative condition." Eric learns about his former life—specifically a glorious romance with girlfriend Clio Aames, who drowned three years earlier—and is soon on the run from the Ludovician, a "species of purely conceptual fish" that "feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self." Once he hooks up with Scout, a young woman on the run from her own metaphysical predator, the two trek through a subterranean labyrinth made of telephone directories (masses of words offer protection, as do Dictaphone recordings), decode encrypted communications and encounter a series of strange characters on the way to the big-bang showdown with the beast. Though Hall's prose is flabby and the plethora of text-based sight gags don't always work (a 50-page flipbook of a swimming shark, for instance), the end result is a fast-moving cyberpunk mashup of Jaws, Memento and sappy romance that's destined for the big screen. 125,000 first printing; $150,000 promo. (Apr.)
In search of the surreal
It makes perfect sense that 31-year-old British author Steven Hall's debut novel is all over the online publicity machine that is MySpace. The book itself challenges the traditional notion of how a novel works, so why shouldn't its marketing campaign be ultra-modern and unconventional? It helps that MySpace spreads electronic information virally; the idea of information streams and how they can both pollute and promote ideas is a key element of the book's plot.
Now about that plot. A detailed description risks giving too much away, but here are the basics: Eric Sanderson wakes up on the floor of a house he doesn't recognize, with no idea who he is and no memory of anything that happened to him before that moment. He finds a note that sends him to a Dr. Randle; she tells him he's suffering from a rare mental condition, some sort of fugue state, and that it's a reaction to the loss of his girlfriend, who died while they were vacationing in Greece. Simple enough so far.
But as Eric seeks more information about his life before the memory loss, he learns some odd things. For one, he is being hunted by a Ludovician, "one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect." That's righta shark is attacking his mind. As Eric teams up with a tough young beauty who leads him underground, the storyline grows increasingly fractured. So does the book's physical structure. In one remarkable section, the novel turns into a flipbook for almost 50 pages, with text assuming the shape of a rapidly approaching (although actually sort of cute-looking) shark.
Lest it all sound a bit tricksy, don't worrythe gimmicks are backed by stellar prose. Hall has a knack for smart dialogue and quick-sketch character descriptions: "Dr Randle was more like an electrical storm or some complicated particle reaction than a person," for example. It's nice to know the inventiveness that's hyping the book isn't trying to mask any lack of the same in the writing itself.
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.