The Raw Shark Texts, By Steven Hall (Cannongate £7.99)
One day, Eric Sanderson wakes up not even knowing that he's Eric Sanderson, until he finds a note from "the first Eric Sanderson" telling him to contact a psychiatrist he used to know. Dr Randle tells him that he's suffering from a dissociative disorder, probably in response to an earlier emotional trauma; that this isn't the first time he's completely lost his memory; and that reading any more letters from his former self might be dangerous. The next letter from his former self tells him not to believe Dr Randle.
Thus far, Steven Hall's much hyped and optioned-by-Hollywood first novel is an urgent and exciting puzzle of a story, but then things start to get peculiar: alone in his living room, reading something he shouldn't be reading, Eric is attacked by the Ludovician, a shark which is the largest and most dangerous of "the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect". It is this very shark that has eaten away Eric's memories, and it is hungry for more. Eric can only insulate himself from the currents of human communication that are around us for so long, so the only thing for it is to join with Dr Fidorus of the Un-Space Exploration Committee, and a sexy woman who may or may not be his dead girfriend, for a rip-roaring finale of a shark hunt borrowed scene for scene from the Spielberg thriller Jaws.
Steven Hall's novel only works as a propulsive page-turner if we're prepared to invest in the idea that on some level of reality the Ludovician shark does exist, which not every reader will be prepared to do after that startling opening in which he had us convinced that his narrator is mentally ill. Readers who've also enjoyed Murakami, Borges, Ballard, Calvino, Memento and The Matrix as much as Steven Hall clearly has, though, shouldn't have a problem.
Quirkology: the Curious Science of Everyday Lives, By Richard Wiseman (MacMillan £9.99)
In the 1870s, Francis Galton scientifically determined the best way to make tea, and measured the efficacy of prayer by analysing biographical records of the clergy, whom he reasoned pray more than the rest of us. He's the father of what the psychologist Richard Wiseman – probably because Steven Levitt's book Freakonomics was a recent hit – calls "quirkology", the scientific study of the everyday.
Everyday life is a notoriously messy thing, and I'm not convinced that Wiseman's own experiments were all conducted on a big enough sample or sufficiently controlled for him to be so confident of his findings. There are just too many variables to consider when trying to measure, for example, whether the month in which you're born affects how lucky in life you'll be (there is a statistically significant variation in the distribution of luckiness throughout the year, Wiseman claims, just not the one predicted by astrology). But while analysing the quirks of human behaviour, covering such topics as the most likely to succeed chat-up lines and the psychology of the 10 items or less supermarket queue, he is on surer ground.
Gobbledygook, By Don Watson (Atlantic £8.99)
Cliché, wrote Orwell, "anaesthetises a portion of one's brain". Don Watson agrees, and in this impassioned, witty and elegantly composed polemic talks of "a creeping plague" of bad English which "deadens the senses". But cliché is the least of his worries. The public sphere has adopted the language of business management. Watson can show you whole paragraphs of businessese which say precisely nothing, and they are provided to him by university lecturers, hospital managers and military spokespersons alike. And where Orwell was worried about mere portions of his brain, this stuff is a general anaesthetic. "You cannot read it without losing a degree of consciousness," says Watson. "You come to, and read it again, and still your brain will not reveal the meaning – will not even try."
How insidious is the malaise? Sometimes it is the sinister doublespeak that Orwell warned us of, designed to obfuscate truth and meaning. But the deadening "sludge" is so pandemic, more often it is used simply for fear of seeming outmoded. Watson, far from the curmudgeonly traditionalist usually responsible for such diatribes, is like the fearless boy who'll point at a naked emperor.
Endgame, By Andy Secombe (Pan MacMillan £6.99)
At a party to celebrate the launch of His latest and greatest creation – humankind – God lets Himself be goaded into wagering that we'll be responsible custodians of the planet, instead of trashing the place and wiping ourselves out as Lucifer predicts.
Flash forward to now, and the angel Gabriel reveals himself to Martin, a suicidal Devonian dentist. With the help of Martin's teenage son and his son's pasty hacker friend, they uncover the Devil's plan to distribute a multiplayer online computer game, Endgame, the playing of which would win him the bet by triggering a nuclear Armageddon. It isn't said as much, but Satan is obviously a fan of the 1983 Matthew Broderick film WarGames.
For the way in which he rubs the fantastic up against a very English kind of ordinariness for an absurdist bathetic effect, Andy Secombe is a writer who has been compared to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. The image of God in a yellow Pringle sweater, golf club in hand, is one I can imagine the former, in particular, relishing. But four books into his career, on the evidence of Endgame, Secombe simply isn't so original or funny as either of them.
Things I Didn't Know: a memoir, By Robert Hughes (Vintage £10.99)
Among the art critic Robert Hughes's celebrated bons mots is the one which inverted Sophocles, directed at Julian Schnabel's memoir : "the unlived life is not worth examining". That isn't the problem with his own memoir, which covers his formative years in Australia, where he was the youngest son of a distant First World War hero he never knew; the university years, when Germaine Greer and Clive James were among his contemporaries; then to Europe where his aesthetic senses were honed, and to swinging Sixties London ("childish"), and his first marriage ("the most extreme and durable misery I had ever felt"). The book runs to 400 pages, but only gets so far as 1970, when Hughes moved to America to be Time's art critic.
Not an unlived life, then, but Hughes's sharp critical gaze is pointed everywhere but inwards. He writes about his first son's suicide, for example, in a paragraph. Doubtless he'd think it in poor taste to dwell, the way other memoirs might, and good taste is his defining characteristic. So Things I Didn't Know is an elegantly barbed and often vitriolic book that has plenty to say, but it never fully resolves itself.Reuse content