Unchapters and Raw Sharks

Steven Hall’s 2006 debut novel The Raw Shark Texts is a clever, layered piece of writing who’s surface is a metaphysical adventure story about a man how cannot remember who he is. Eric Sanderson suffers from a recurring fugue state brought on by his encounters with a conceptual Ludovician shark. That the book is an extraordinary piece of writing should go without saying—it is—what is more useful here is the way Hall extended the narrative out of the confines of the textual object itself. The book comprises 36 chapters and can be read (and deciphered; this is a cousin to Danielewski’s House of Leaves) within the written and visual text alone. Hall conceived of the work as a larger thing though, and 36 unchapters exist outside of the central text. From the horse’s mouth:

For each chapter in The Raw Shark Texts there is, or will be, an un-chapter, a negative. If you look carefully at the novel you might be able to figure out why these un-chapters are called negatives. Not all the negatives are as long as a full novel chapter - some are only a page, some are only a couple of lines. Some are much longer than any chapters in the novel. About a quarter of them are out there so far. (It’s an ongoing project set to run for a while yet) Not all of the negatives are online, some are, but they’re hiding. Some are out there in the real world, waiting to be found. Anyone with the Raw Shark UK special edition will already have Negative 6/36 and anyone with a Canadian edition will have Negative 36/36 (and also a good idea of what some of the other negatives are). The negatives are not deleted scenes, they are very much a part of the novel but they are all splintered from it in some way.

To date, only a few unchapters have been found by readers. Most remain undiscovered and their existence is unconfirmed. Addressed as a marketing strategy for the novel, this might seem an unsuccessful enterprise. The attention Hall and the book has received, however, is tied into this vision for a book that does not stop with the binding and endpapers. Hall suggests that an unchapter was attached to the underside of a bench outside Glossop in Derbyshire until its removal by persons unknown prior to 2009.

Is this transmedia though?

If you want your cross-media extensions to be showy, pinging across the page and constantly in motion, then it probably isn’t. If, however, you’re interested in writing that recognises the importance of story to drive a technical extension, then it certainly is. Hall’s suggestion that a careful look at the novel explains their existence can be interpreted as meaning the unchapters are the echoes of Eric’s story in our world (the book is acutely aware of its existence as a medium for story to take place in, down to the textual rendering of the shark’s appearances) and an extra-textual reification of the events of the text. They exist—and it does not matter whether we have read all or none of them—as a set of negatives from which the positive prints of the book are fashioned. The simplicity of the idea slips past the primary / secondary problem outlined above and fuels the engine of discovery they demand.

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