The OF Blog: Will Self, Shark

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Will Self, Shark

DAY – TUBE – WORK – DINNER – WORK – TUBE – ARMCHAIR – TV – SLEEP – TUBE – WORK.  HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE?  ONE IN TEN GOES MAD, ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP... and this mantra stayed with him – although, after much repetition, it dawned on him:  this ability of capitalism to so accurately identify its own symptoms was itself... part of the doctor-created disease. – The house opposite stares back at Busner through its own...glaucoma tulle, and he considers its solidly fanciful form:  the three-sided bay windows on the ground and first floors separated by chunky pilasters...plinths, really – crying out for the honour of aldermen's busts or hippogryphs – supporting half the vertical section of a tower which, at roof level, is surmounted by three quarters of a turret, the back of which is buried in the roof tiles.  The whole façade has been recently painted an unbecoming colour – somewhere between off-white and pale yellow – that suggests to him the strong likelihood of an institution yet to come into being that will... one day be ubiquitous. (p. 6)

Will Self's latest novel, Shark, is a sort of sideways sequel to his 2012 Booker Prize-nominated Umbrella.  Like that earlier novel, Self utilizes certain modernist techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness narrative that condenses a complex multi-narrator story into a single paragraph running hundreds of pages, in order to strip away certain literary conventions that place distance between reader and fictitious event.  It is not an easy style for readers to parse, but Self manages to make his narrators' voices clear and distinct, leading to a story that details the horrors of the second half of the 20th century with a similar level of bite (sorry for the pun) that Umbrella possesses.

Dr, Zack Busner, he of the 1971 LSD experiment that semi-restored Audrey Dearth in Umbrella, again is one of the narrative voices in Shark.  Here in Shark, we see him before he makes his decision to experiment with using LSD on Audrey.  We learn how he came to change as a doctor and a person, particularly in his outlook on mental illness.  During his sojourn in Concept House, which acts as a sort of concrete test for his theory that sane/insane is more an issue of societal psychosis than something that can be classified according to clinical assessment, he encounters a man, Claude Everude (a fitting surname), whose behavior is so out of bounds socially that it forces him to reassess his views on mental illness and the treatment of people afflicted with it.

Yet there is more to Shark than seeing Busner at an earlier point in his career.  Everude himself is a fascinating character, one who may or may not have been involved in one of the more infamous events in World War II.  His fleeting moments of lucidity make for an interesting contrast with his episodes of "mad" behavior.  In him can be seen a symbol of how societal traumas, in particular war-time PTSD, can affect individuals.  Certainly Claude's experience on the USS Indianapolis and having to swim in shark-infested waters, somehow surviving when most of his fellow sailors died, serves as a metaphor for what transpires in Concept House.

Unlike Umbrella, which had only three (or rather two of Busner at different points of his career, along with Audrey) PoV narrators, Shark shifts between multiple characters at Concept House, each with his or her own issues of identity.  In a very real sense, each of these characters, including Busner, are adrift in a shark-infested sea, trying to stay alive at any cost, even that of their sanity.  Self does an excellent job of building up this collective sense of horror at the things each character has witnessed, utilizing direct emotional language in a fashion similar to Joyce's in Ulysses.  While there might be occasional lapses in narrative flow, for the most part each word, each descriptive passage, is designed to convey this sense of mounting horror that the characters have.

Shark was a more challenging read than Umbrella, yet its non-concluding conclusion was even more satisfying than its predecessor.  The characters are dynamic and their thoughts, insane as many of them might be, are vividly present for the reader to consider.  The result is a brilliant novel, one that merits multiple re-reads in the future in order to glean even more from it.  Highly recommended.

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