Bookshots: 'Shark' by Will Self

Bookshots: 'Shark' by Will Self

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review



Who wrote it?

A journey of language, of character, of unsettling fragmented narratives, of tricks, twists and turns.

Will Self, the man behind works such as The Quantity Theory of InsanityGreat Apes and Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2012. Shark is Self's eleventh novel.

Plot in a box:

Building off (or building to?) the events in UmbrellaShark again follows the exploits of psychiatrist Zack Busner, a recurring character in Self's literary canon. Busner is running Concept House, some sort of experimental psych ward where patients aren't treated with psychiatrics, per Busner's anti-psychiatric leanings. I can't tell if they're being treated at all, to be honest.

Invent a new title for this book:

One Swam Under the Cuckoo's Nest

Read this if you like:

Old-school literary practitioners like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, that newer-school J.G. Ballard cat, shark movies and LSD trips.

Meet the book's lead:

The always antagonizing Zack Busner, a psychiatrist who hates psychiatry.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:


Michael Keaton.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

A psych ward with no psych, with this cast of characters? Yes, please.

What was your favorite sentence?

In the inkiest, dankest hours of the suburban night, when the rails at the end of the garden had ceased their electro-hum, it was this canniness that Busner suspected was indicative of the deepest and most dreadful truth about the Creep, namely, that, far from being the most seriously disturbed of the Concept House's residents, he might not be disturbed at all!

The Verdict:

If you've read Will Self, you undoubtedly know he doesn't write to make readers feel comfortable. It's just the opposite, really; Self writes to make readers feel uncomfortable, with themselves and with the world around them. Shark is no exception.

Like Self's previous novel UmbrellaShark is told in a stream-of-consciousness style that changes time and place and levels of sobriety and point-of-view, although I'm not sure about the latter. And that's fine. I don't have to be sure, and neither do you. That's most of the fun of reading Shark; it's not hard to read, but it also is — in a good way.

Shark's waters are populated with a bloody good cast of characters, namely Busner's patients: the wholly immature Podge, a woman who acts and thinks like a baby; Christopher Titmus, an aliens-are-coming loon; Michael Lincoln, a war hero and Christopher's adopted father; Genie, a drug addict; and Claude Evenrude, a.k.a. The Creep, Busner's pyschiatric Golden Ticket and the most unreliable narrator you'll read this year.

The Creep is easily the most enjoyable part of Shark. He was on board the USS Indianapolis when it was sank by a Japanese sub in the summer of 1945 and may or may not have helped navigate the nuke that leveled Hiroshima. He meets Busner decades later, in 1970, and their journey together at Concept House begins.

Your journey, as a reader, never ends, however. Good luck following along with the "plot"; there isn't one that's easily definable, far as I can see. But that's what reading Will Self is, a journey from beginning to end, 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.

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 4, 2014 - 2:37pm

This one's in the pile. Do you think it matters that I haven't read Umbrella?

Ryan Peverly's picture
Ryan Peverly from Ohio is reading The AEgypt Cycle by John Crowley November 10, 2014 - 2:06pm

No, I don't think it matters. It stands alone. Only if you want to completely follow Busner's exploits does it really need your attention.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 20, 2014 - 1:18pm

This book is confusing but engrossing. The way Self puts words together makes me want to smash my fingers with a hammer. He's that good.