- "Memory Pressed Flat into Text": The Importance of Print in Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts
The fear of obliteration obsessed the societies of early modern Europe. To quell their anxiety, they preserved in writing traces of the past, remembrances of the dead, the glory of the living, and texts of all kinds that were not supposed to disappear. Stone, wood, fabric, parchment, and paper all served as substrates on which the memory of events and men could be inscribed. In the open space of the city or the seclusion of the library, in majesty in books or in humility on more ordinary objects, the mission of the written was to dispel the obsession with loss. This was no easy task in a world where writing could be erased. . . .Roger Chartier, Inscription and Erasure
Steven Hall's debut novel The Raw Shark Texts presents a useful site of study for considering how the contemporary novel imagines its role within an increasingly variegated media ecology. Hall is among a generation of young novelists who have tested the limits of print by manipulating the "graphic surface" of their works, incorporating photography and other visual elements into the text. 1 Like Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves or Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Raw Shark Texts expands the print novel to a form that may contain image and movement. Hall's novel has more than forty pages of visual material, including photography, a film still, and a scanned newspaper clipping, as [End Page 264] well as innovative typographic images of the eponymous shark. There is even a flip-book section, where the shark appears to swim toward the reader. In an article about The Raw Shark Texts, Jessica Pressman describes this recent trend as "the aesthetic of bookishness," wherein "novels exploit the power of the print page in ways that draw attention to the book as a multimedia format, one informed by and connected to digital technologies" (465). While there of course exists a long tradition of graphic experimentation within the novel, this contemporary generation is distinguished by deliberately employing these tactics to reflect upon and challenge the marginalized position of print. At stake is the future of the book in the digital age.
The work of such novels to investigate the status of print—its affordances and drawbacks, its relationship to other media—comes, I would suggest, as a response to the evolution of information technology and to increasing scholarly attention to the history of the book, the digital humanities, and media archaeology. The Raw Shark Texts addresses a crucial problem for these fields: what is the connection between the material form of a book and its representative capacity, between medium and message? In this essay, I address the material dimensions of information storage—a topic that I argue is central to The Raw Shark Texts—as a theoretical framework for thinking through this set of concerns. The question of how a storage medium preserves its subject has ramifications for theories of representation and mimesis, as well as for theories of material embodiment. The idea of storage is given emotional valence in The Raw Shark Texts, as the book's narrative is spurred by two instances of loss: protagonist Eric Sanderson suffers from extreme dissociative amnesia, memory loss apparently brought on by the accidental death of his partner, Clio Aames. Eric's quest to recover both his memories and his lost love is inextricably linked to the question of which medium might be best able to preserve them.
My central contention is that even as Hall's inclusion of non-textual material challenges the traditional boundaries of the print novel, The Raw Shark Texts posits textual inscription as its preferred form of storage. Print itself, in other words, remains of primary importance. Textual inscription is simultaneously an [End Page 265] embodied form (a physical incision in the surface of a material body) and an informational representation (the meaning of the words). In my reading, while The Raw Shark Texts does acknowledge the ways in which print is dependent upon digital media for aspects of its production, the novel systematically problematizes electronic and...