Set mainly in the 70s, Shark centres around the residents of Concept House in London. Created by Zach Busner, the house acts as a live-action experiment against the use of psychiatric hospitals. The roles of ‘Doctors’ and ‘patients’ are abandoned and each member is requested to view all residents as equally sane, while the term ‘mad’ is reserved for those who support a system which categorises people under such vague banners.
Dr Busner will be familiar to anyone who has read Self’s previous novel, Umbrella and several of Self’s other novels. Shark actually forms the second of a trilogy, with Umbrella being the first, but actually comes as a prequel to its predecessor. Despite this, it is certainly not necessary to have read Umbrella before picking up Shark. However, it is definitely helpful to read the book’s blurb before beginning, as without knowing any context, (like the fact that Busner is a psychiatrist) the word ‘confused’ cannot even begin to describe the experience of reading the first few pages.
Using the same narrative style as Umbrella, Shark is very heavy-going. The novel reads as a single stream of consciousness which slides between speakers with little more than a change in tone to alert the reader. If a lack of chapters or even paragraphs were wearying enough, Self abandons all use of quotation marks and instead differentiates between narrative, speech and internal dialogue via a selection of italicisation, ellipses and hyphens.
The reading does get easier in a surprisingly short amount of time, and the attention it requires to complete the book leaves you feeling as though you have accomplished something, certainly a lot more than say, picking up a copy of 50 Shades.
The first part of the novel thrusts its readers into a sequel of conglomerated memoirs, varying from members of Concept House to those connected to the residents. The journey is a heavy one, with themes of sexual, child and drug abuse and the question of what constitutes madness. The reader is jostled along, buoyed by frequent bubbles of dark comedy.
Threading a way through such deflections into the past, we are presented with a day-in-the-life of Busner. In particular, Self explores the difficulties Busner has in conversing and connecting with the others he is living with. From the moment he is introduced, there is a tangible and often difficult distance between him and the others which makes his narrative in many ways more interesting than some of the others. However, it is the scenes of Busner’s experiences with LSD which truly swing the action of the novel into gear and fully immerse the reader into the narrative.
If you are looking for a nice fluffy read for those lazy Sundays or a quickie to fill the time between lectures, this book is not the one for you. The novel slides between subjects and speakers, approaching readers with the speed and surprise of a passing train. However, once the barrier in the language is pushed past, the narrative voices take come into their own and before you know it, one of the finest reading experiences of this year is over.
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