Shark by Will Self, book review: A sequel written in one long paragraph. Brace yourself...

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The Independent Culture

Will Self's Shark is both a prequel and a sequel. The second part of a trilogy, it succeeds his Man Booker-nominated Umbrella but prologues that book's action. This messing around with time feels apt for a novel that slides easily between the Second World War and the 1970s.

Like Umbrella, Shark looks pretty intimidating. Written in one long paragraph without breaks, it can make the eyes swim during a prolonged reading. Self's narrative method also takes some getting used to as plots and narrators divert without warning. The movement feels, well, shark-like: sudden changes of direction, not only between sections but within them too. A kiss between Kins, a conscientious objector, and the forbidding Annette, takes fully eight pages to conclude thanks to a digressive internal monologue.

The effect is akin to Beckett's Unnamable marrying Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. Only Self's fictions aren't interlinked so much as interlaced into a studied sort of chaos. We begin in the experimental psychological community run by Self's regular alter ego, Dr Zack Busner, but plummet suddenly into a druggy Bohemian demi-monde, the differing war experiences of pacifist brothers Kins and Michael, or the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean where Claude "The Creep" Evenrude re-imagines the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

Self's sentences too move with sharky verve: a playful, allusive, associative flow that traces frantic minds connecting the dots between past and present, ideals and reality. There are jokes: a tripping, horny, pseudo-guru chanting, "My dick is God, God is my dick…" And there are lots of puns (including the inexcusable "Bach…worse than any bite") as one thing suggests often terrifying others.

So Busner, watching Jaws with his chatty son Mark, fades in and out as the movie strikes personal chords (Though the pedantically correct psychiatrist wrongly ascribes Brody's line, "It's only an island if you look at it from the sea", to Matt Hooper). The looming context of the USS Indianapolis (torpedoes, sharks, the Bomb) lends Busner's thoughts a nightmarish hue as phrases like "nuclear domesticity" and "Little Boy" take on sinister undertones.

But where does this flow take us? The answer is nowhere fast. Shark's movement is a circling – or in Shark's parlance, "an ouroboric process". "Round annaround" is a self-reflexively recurring motif which is re-enacted by the characters who chase their own tails through self-obsession, drugs, sex, unrequited love, trauma, insanity, loneliness and fear. A genuine "predatory dread circling…and circling … again" pervades the novel in the shapes of war, imminent nuclear holocaust, isolation from community, the inadequacy of the mid-20th century family.

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.