Tuesday 17 February 2009

The Raw Shark Texts

“He would have done anything to save her, wouldn’t he?”
“Yes, I think that’s right. Is that the way you feel about Scout?”
When someone asks a question out of the blue, there’s a chance the guards will be caught sleeping. When this happens, the brain sometimes responds before the mind has a chance to lock the doors and winch your standard mind your own business flag up the flagpole. Sometimes the brain surprises everyone, even itself, with its answers.
“Yeah. I mean, maybe if things had carried on and if this hadn’t –”

(Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts, p. 276-277)

This is what The Raw Shark Texts is all about, the everyday experience that we don’t pick our words, but that what we say is there before we know it. It’s a hell of a lot worse for you lot, native speakers, but even my artificial speech is crowded with unintended fillers like “I’m not gonna lie about this,” and “innit”, “do you know what I mean”?
And the more people around me use these chunks of junk-language, the more I hear myself repeating them. It’s as if I’m not using these phrases, but they are using me. They are using me to procreate.
Since I read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, I’ve accepted that I’m just a lumbering robot, constituted by a colony of genes that are able to copy themselves thanks to ‘me’. And I’ve accepted that there’s a massive amount of freeloading genes in my genome, bits of DNA that don’t have any effect on my phenotype, but get copied along with all the other DNA anyway. That’s called junk-DNA.
From here, it’s not that hard to image that other types of replicators, which are not molecules, use this survival machine (me) to replicate themselves just like the junk-DNA, such as the phrases “at the end of the day”, “he was, like, well, yeah”, “y’know”. Dawkins calls these linguistic equivalents of the genes memes.

“They say life is tenacious. They say given half a chance, or less, life will grow and exist and evolve anywhere, even in the most inhospitable and unlikely of places.”
(Hall, p. 55)

Now, the memes are small building blocks, like genes. And what Hall has done in his novel, is ask the question: What if, parallel to genes building huge survival machines, memes have evolved along a similar track?
Conceptual fish might be swimming in the sea of words we blurt out continuously – fish appearing in an earlier stage of evolution than mammals – without us even noticing, simply because we aren’t looking for it. After all,

“Sometimes it’s just hard to see what’s in front of you. But once you do see it, or once something connected to the it touches you, I don’t think there’s any going back.”
(Hall, p. 232)

The Raw Shark Texts takes place in our own world, and makes the aspect of the memes incredibly tangible, by sending Eric Sanderson, our main character, on a quest for his love, Clio Aames, in the realm of the ideas.
Hall uses vivid images to make his point. For example, when Eric and Scout reach Dr. Trey Fidorous, they have to go through a maze of books. The walls are covered with all types of books, no, in fact, the walls are made of books. When I read this, I swore this book will be turned into a film soon.
The conceptual shark which is after Eric, is literally (pun intended) devouring him. Words, the lesson is, are just as real, if not more real, than anything else.
When I wait at the traffic light, I don’t wait at a blue canvas, grey patch on the lower halve, with one black streak in the middle with a red circle on top. I wait at a traffic light, and that’s exactly why I wait there. Because I see the word ‘traffic light’. And that silver blur that comes whizzing by is a Mercedes, immediately. The age of the impressionists is over. My world doesn’t consist of impressions.
Before the ‘raw data’ is there, I see things by their names.

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