Sharkby Will Self
Following the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella, Shark is a mind-bending novel of the intersection of pathology and war, set in the 1970s but pivoting around the dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima.
May 4, 1970. A week earlier, President Nixon ordered American ground forces into Cambodia to pursue the Vietcong. By the end of the day, four students will be shot dead by the National Guard on the grounds of Kent State University. On the other side of the Atlantic, it’s a brilliant sunny morning after an April of heavy rain, and at the “Concept House” therapeutic community he has set up in the London suburb of Willesden, maverick psychiatrist Dr. Zack Busner has been tricked into joining a decidedly ill-advised LSD trip with several of its disturbed residents. Five years later, sitting in a nearby cinema watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Busner realizes the true nature of the events that transpired on that dread-soaked day, when a survivor of the worst disaster in the U.S. Navy’s history—the sinking of the USS Indianapolis—came face-to-face with the British Royal Air Force observer on the Enola Gay‘s mission to bomb Hiroshima.
Loosely following on from his Man Booker-shortlisted Umbrella, Shark continues Self’s exploration of the complex relationship between human psychopathology and human technological progress and, like Umbrella, weaves together multiple narratives across several decades of the twentieth century to produce the tapestry we’re enmeshed in.
“I had planned to write Jaws without the shark,” Will Self in The Guardian.
“A portrait of madness and sanity in the 20th century, tracing the effects of the machine age as well as the information age on people’s stubbornly fallible psyche. . . . Yet the apparently anarchic writing is moderated by careful plotting and sympathetic character development. . . . for all his newfound seriousness of intent Self remains a superb comic writer. . . . An intoxicating experience. Self’s powerful command of language animates the intense prose while his dry wit is given a freer rein than in Umbrella.” —Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times
“Willfully neglected history, man made catastrophe, hubris—and, yes, Jaws—all circulate through Will Self’s latest novel, Shark, which is determined to stoke our collective memories of humanity at its worst. . . . reflects a respectable urge to capture the mental and social collapse Self sees as a legacy of the world wars . . . Self wants to grab our heads firmly, turn us toward the mushroom cloud, make us look at the bodies Claude claimed to see within it, and never flatter ourselves that our capacity for self-destruction is distant history or somebody else’s problem. . . . one of [Self’s] most compassionate and earnest books.” —Mark Athitakis, New York Times Book Review
“Self writes in a high-modernist, hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness style, leaping between sentences, time periods, and perspectives. It can be difficult to hang on, but if, like the titular creature, you keep moving through the ‘verbal bouillabaisse,’ the reward is a strange, vivid book.” —New Yorker
“You will be tossed about in the roiling ocean of words that make up the stream-of-consciousness narrative Self favors . . . the riptide force of Self’s postmodern brilliance will suck you in. . . . Shark is as trippy and fanciful as falling down a rabbit hole . . . pushes me out of my comfort zone. . . Persistence pays off because Shark will stir up a reading frenzy.” —Carol Memmott, Chicago Tribune
“[Self’s] 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’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.” —Porter Shreve, Washington Post
“Shark has no time for pause and no space for blankness, churning up clumps of words and polyrhythmic phrases and sounds at a breakneck pace. . . . [Shark is]an attempt to offer unfettered access to the minds of the book’s characters. . . . here is a hunk of modernism that poignantly, beautifully, and, it seems, genuinely render mental states of sanity and insanity while smudging the gradations in between.” —Full Stop
“Self’s sentences move with sharky verve: a playful, allusive, associative flow that traces frantic minds connecting the dots between past and present, ideals and reality. . . . Shark will challenge and disturb, exasperate and entertain. Self’s prose demands real attention, but is never less than sharp, biting and incisive. Prepare to be eaten whole.” —James Kidd, Independent
“A journey of language, of character, of unsettling fragmented narratives, of tricks, twists and turns. Shark will latch on to you and pull you under if you’re not careful—and that’s a good thing.” —Ryan Peverly, Lit Reactor
“Like the work of the great high modernists from the 1920s, like Joyce, Woolf and Eliot, there is a kind of chaotic beauty in Self’s unrestricted writing. . . . There is an amazing consistency to his tone and style; he holds the narrative firmly together at all times, however random and complicated the structure of the book may appear. . . . It’s a considerable task he’s taken on here, but he pulls it off with aplomb, humor and style. . . . An outstanding work of literature that seeks to question and explore the fundamental components of what constitutes ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behavior in our society. . . . Go read it now. You’ll be simultaneously entertained, mesmerized, intellectually stimulated, baffled—and laugh your ass off.” —J.P. O’malley, NPR Books
“Intellectually dazzling . . . Shark confirms that Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation, a writer whose formidably intellect is mercilessly targeted on the limits of the cerebral as a means of understanding. Yes, he makes you think, but he also insists that you feel.” —Stuart Kelly, Guardian
“A maddening, uncompromising, serious, self-indulgent, and beautiful work . . . comes as close to capturing the frightening bad trip of modern life as any book in recent memory.” —Publishers Weekly (boxed review)
“A truly wonderful novel . . . the language feels urgent and necessary . . . It is an exciting, mesmerizing, wonderfully disturbing book. Go with it, and it’ll suck you under.” —Jon Day, Daily Telegraph
“Highly enjoyable, vividly, even profoundly imagined. Self is creating something rather grand.” —Sunday Times
“Breathtaking and dazzling. An exhilarating tour-de-force . . . immersing the reader in a trippy Odyssey.” —Daily Mail
In the first few years after the war he’d consulted eminent doctors who referred him to compassionate psychiatrists. They hadn’t helped. He’d also made several visits to a modish psychoanalyst, who was long-haired and self-regardingly dishevelled in a brown corduroy suit. The analyst asked Michael again annagain whether his mother had breast fed him . . . which was idiotic, and if she’d cuddled him often . . . the very idea! However the analyst had no sig” int. when it came to identifying the skin angels with their alien faces. Michael thought he might’ve been able to bear it if he’d recognised them—if it’d been Tufty, Claus, Jimmy, Jimp, Jacko, Hobbles, the Scamp, Smalls, Dotty, Tommo, Taffy, the Barrel—or indeed any or all of the aircrew he’d served with who’d gone for a Burton and remained in the celestial saloon, playing crib, throwing darts and with cries of Here’s how! . . . drunk themselves stony until they were petrified into memorials of ther own truncated lives.
But it wasn’t their faces that haunted him—and it wasn’t their victims’ faces either. On that day—the day the skin angels alighted on him and commenced their vampiric feeding—there’d been a photo of Rita Hayworth torn from a movie magazine stuck to the bulkhead at the back of the cockpit . . .breast feeding, and he’d curled the sweet tongue of the chewing gum he was offered into his dry mouth, and he’d taken a look through the Norden bombsight out of courtesy to the proud bombardier, but he hadn’t done anything at all himself—only watched. Perhaps the narcissistic shrink would’ve said this in itself was a form of doing, this voyeurism—and as culpably perverse as any sadism. Yet how could you desire to watch what you’d never seen before, never so much as entertained the existence of before: these others, these Windmill girls who cavorted for him in skimpy skin skirts . . . torn from their own bellies and who, batting their lidless eyes, seduced him again annagain, while silently screamingly entreating him with their lipless mouths . . . We are Jap-a-nese, if you ple-ease . . .