Published by Kettle Mag 17/09/2014
Will Self is often accused of being incomprehensible to the average reader. His vocabulary too verbose, his analogies too deeply drawn, his ideas too, well, difficult for a light read. Shark, his second installment in a trilogy of psychology, technology and pathology, is guilty of all of these things and more – and it’s all the more glorious a literary morsel because of it.
Reading anything written by Self can often feel as though you’re diving into murky waters without the aid of a searchlight, and for anyone who reads to give their overworked brain a rest, Shark is simply not the novel for you.
If, however, you’re looking for a cerebral workout and an exhilarating narrative to boot, you’ve probably come to the right place.
At first, being plunged into the middle of a sentence which begins a book-length paragraph of stream-of-consciousness style narrative, might seem superfluously maddening. But the effect of Self’s prose is to drag you incessantly inwards and onwards, rather than leaving you hopelessly adrift.
Much like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, trying to second-guess the narrative will only damage your understanding of this book; keep on swimming in Self’s psychological sea, and you’ll soon make the necessary leaps required to keep your head above water
Following on from Umbrella – or, for a more accurate chronology, preceding from it – Shark’s currents pull us deep within the swelling minds of the residents of Concept House, with the aid of Self’s oft-used antagonistic protagonist, the anti-psychiatrist Zack Busner.
Based firmly on the houses R.D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association set-up in 1965, Shark drops us into the 1970s, where Busner has taken the idea of therapists and patients living together as equals one-step further; and thus, birthed The Concept House.
Our anchor in the washing tide of the residents’ intersecting streams of consciousness is, as it was with Umbrella, the wayward psychiatrist. This time, though, he’s been tricked into embarking on an ill-advised acid trip with his patients.
From this fixed point the ebb and flow of memories circles back and back, cutting across events including the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the shark-infested South Pacific, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and the life of a girl who, abused by her mother as a child, enters into a young womanhood of prostitution and drug addiction.
Circling the kill
These events may at first appear discrepant, but as ever, Self’s masterful structuring of his narrative ensures that – as long as you pay attention – you’ll find your way safely back to shore.
The shark-like narrative circles back on itself again and again, until subject and object are united and we end up right where we began. Self’s universe is the realm of confusion and chance, serendipity meeting superfluity, and above all, psychology meeting pathology.
And while it might appear as though he’s simply thrown caution to the wind and scooped us up into an infuriating whirlpool of never-ending cause and effect, with little thought as to its consequence on the reader, this structure is intensely apposite.
Self has taken Hiroshima as the eye of Shark’s storm, and in fact the circularity mimics more than just the sharks going in for the kill. The structure of his book, quite unbelievably, recreates the orbit of the proton around the uranium 238 atom, and so in a very real sense we find ourselves reading the path of the nuclear bomb that decimated a city.
A slippery sea of thoughtfish
To attempt to describe the numerous rivulets of experience that form the larger waves of Shark’s narrative flow, would be both impossible and unhelpful. Suffice to say, that Shark both precedes Umbrella chronologically, whilst continuing its author’s examination of the relationship between humans and technology, through a wide-arching psychological dissection that questions whether this relationship is productive or pathological.
Reading Shark is a sometimes disorientating and at all times rewarding experience. Throughout its 466 pages the reader is repeatedly tossed across stormy seas, which at times will leave you feeling a little battered and bruised.
But in the end, Self sets you down with a fulfilling bite of literary fiction, and ensures that even the most ardent of serious readers will finish the journey feeling fully satisfied, and still wanting more.