In a 2012 Guardian profile around the publication of “Umbrella” — the first book in a planned trilogy that includes the recently released “Shark” — British novelist Will Self said, “I don’t really write for readers.” He expressed impatience with naturalistic fiction. “I just find it dull,” he said. “You cannot capture what’s going on with that form. . . . You can create a very fine entertainment, but you can’t reach any closer to any kind of truth about what it is to exist.”
So what is Self’s higher truth, his alternative to beginnings, middles and endings, to rising and falling action, to character-driven narrative?
In “Shark,” the novel takes the form of a single, 466-page paragraph that begins in midstream and dispatches with many of the conventions of traditional storytelling: There are no chapters, no quotation marks around the dialogue, no break from Self’s dense, allusive, headlong, italic-dash-and-ellipsis-ridden prose. Time ebbs and flows, from the 1970s to the 1940s, to before and beyond, the present careening into the past, the point of view shifting continuously from consciousness to consciousness.
Further challenging the reader: Nearly all the characters are schizophrenic residents of an experimental psychiatric community called Concept House in suburban London. One would be hard-pressed to find a more motley collection of unreliable narrators.
There’s Claude Evenrude, a.k.a. the Creep, who censors everyone’s mail, mutters to himself in a “verbal bouillabaisse” of flashback and song, and acts as a menacing presence, “singling out one or other of the women for attention, making them . . . his favourite for a day or a week.” Claude is a survivor of the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and he witnessed the deaths of hundreds of crew members, many by shark attack. As a lieutenant of the U.S. Army Air Force Material Command, he also claims to have been a spotter on the Enola Gay mission.
Another habitue, Michael Lincoln, has a similar history. Also involved in the bombing of Hiroshima, as an observer with the British Royal Air Force, he is scarred by what he saw: “You’d not’ve thought it possible, Michael says, to smell human flesh burning at sixteen thousand feet, but I swear by all that’s sacred, it is.” Genie, a drug-addicted sometime prostitute, is also haunted by her past, frequently flashing back to scenes from her childhood at the hands of her violent, alcohol-and-sex-besotted faded beauty of a mother. There’s also Michael’s adopted son, the outer space-obsessed Christopher “the Kid” Titmuss, and a grown woman, Podge, who acts like a toddler (“I’m a little rainbow baby and I’m hungry: I want milky!”).
Concept House co-founder Dr. Zack Busner gives LSD to the residents in a wildly misbegotten effort to provide therapy. Indulging in the drug himself, he spends a good part of the novel tripping, “watching rainbows being sucked back into the chimney pots and garden gnomes reeling in their hooks.” Although the psychedelic scenes are vivid and often hilarious, they do little to provide grounding in a story gone mad.
Self does signal a method in this madness on a few occasions, notably in an early scene where Busner is trying to make sense of the Creep’s behavior: “Without the compass of orthodox psychiatry or psychoanalytic theory, Busner finds it next to impossible to get a fix as he bobs up and down on Claude’s choppy wordsea, its surface criss-crossed by narrative currents swirling into whirlpools of song that subside into glassily superficial doldrums of what might be anecdotage, but beneath which, Busner is convinced, fluxes and refluxes of dangerous repression coldly circulate.”
This passage provides a key to approaching the story and a justification for the form. Self rejects the orthodoxy of traditional narrative, choosing instead to present characters without labels (such as “sane” or “insane”) and a world without boundaries. His text is more ocean than land, a strange, fluid, weightless place where present and past, surface and depth constantly converge, where terrors, both literal and psychic, loom. It helps that he’s an extraordinary writer sentence by sentence. His ideas, when you catch them, are brilliant, and there’s much to admire in his project. It’s a throwback to modernism, a continuation of the experiments of his literary influences, especially James Joyce and J.G. Ballard.
Fans of experimental fiction will likely devour the book and applaud Self for inventing a dark stream of consciousness all his own. Other readers may find “Shark” impenetrable or frustrating for its absence of plot and lucid characters. While the novel astonishes and confounds, in almost equal measure, I’m unconvinced that high modernism of this sort comes any closer to what it feels like to be human. Perhaps there’s a reason why the fiction Self dismisses has been the prevailing form of storytelling for centuries. Beginning, middle and end mirrors the arc of life: People are born, they endure, they die. Stories provide an order against the chaos of thought streams, a vessel upon which to travel the turbulent waters.
Shreve’s fourth novel, “The End of the Book,” was published this year.
By Will Self
Grove. 466 pp. $26