Since the publication of his 2012 novel, Umbrella, Will Self has become a strong advocate for resurrecting modernist literature in the 21st century.
In a series of articles and public lectures, Self has pointed out that modernism never really got a foothold in English culture. In its place, he argues, has evolved a form of Anglo-Saxon realism that reeks of snobbish bourgeois values.
Shark, Self's 16th work of fiction to date, can be seen as a kind of distant cousin to Umbrella, featuring some of the same characters. And, like its predecessor, it's also spread across numerous decades of the 20th century. Both novels fit right in with Self's modernist advocacy, defying normal conventions that we've come to expect in standard narratives: Chapters, line breaks or even just indications of when a passage is beginning or ending.
And 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, which mirrors the way human consciousness doesn't process thoughts in logical succession.
The main story in Shark begins in May 1970, in the north London suburb of Willesden. Here, Dr. Zack Busner and his colleague Roger Gourevitch have just set up a therapeutic community called the Concept House. It's a social/medical experiment that aims to monitor mentally ill patients without prejudice, subjectivity, or authority. The doctors want simply to quantify how their patients experience the world.
The characters we meet in this liberal asylum include a prostitute with a heroin addiction, and a former U.S. Navy officer who claims he was involved in the Enola Gay mission to bomb Hiroshima. After being pressured by Gourevitch — who believes certain illegal drugs can be used for medical purposes — many of the patients embark with Dr. Busner on an LSD trip.
Through uncompromising stream-of-consciousness modernist prose, Shark aims to understand the connection between violence, mental illness, and the negative effects of capitalism on the human psyche.
Both Shark and Umbrella are concerned with violence: Umbrella finds the roots of 20th century horrors in rapid industrialization and modern mechanized warfare; while Shark is intent on exploring the ways in which nihilistic violence has become a normal course of action in Western capitalist culture.
But once the reader settles into Self's style — prose that often jump between decades, flashbacks, hallucinations, alternative realities, and chaotic random thought processes, often mid-sentence, without so much as a comma for a warning— the task in hand isn't that difficult. And it pays off handsomely.
Self has a penchant for messy, sporadic and haphazard sentences. While they may come across as slightly arbitrary, 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.
This is, I suspect, because Self has such a sharp ear for dialogue. His characters are witty, usually working class, and don't hold back with airs and graces. And his third-person narration adapts according to whatever mind he's inhabiting at any given moment. It's a considerable task he's taken on here, but he pulls it off with aplomb, humor and style.
If high modernism leaves its footprints all over this novel, so too does the post modernist cross-referencing technique that Self employs in his central plot line.
The film Jaws, and most importantly, the image of a killer shark, is a leitmotif he returns to again and again. At one point, Dr. Busner goes to see Spielberg's film in the cinema and has an epiphany, confirming his worst fears: the shark represents anxiety, uncertainty, and the predatory nature of a world which consumes the individual's sanity and self-worth.
Self's prose leaves the reader guessing: Are the stories here drug induced hallucinations or actual reflections of reality? But I'm not too sure that really matters — Self seems to be hinting that Western capitalism is in itself a complete fiction anyway, and inducing confusion in the reader may be more important than the actual plot.
Shark bears an uncanny resemblance to Umbrella in many respects, but Self hasn't executed it with quite the same panache. Still, he has nevertheless written 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 is a freelance journalist based in London who writes mainly on books. Follow him on twitter: @johnpaulomallez