Concept Artists

The Raw Shark Texts had been on my radar (sonar?) for some time, so I couldn’t pass it up when I saw it at a library sale. It then lay dormant in my stacks for almost a year before the right time arrived: Shark Week!

The shark in this book is purely conceptual of course, but it is a fearsome predator just the same. It devours Eric Sanderson’s identity, tearing away his memories of his tragically lost love, Clio (named after the Muse of History, perhaps?). Each time he pieces himself back together using his encrypted clues the shark circles back and takes a bigger bite. His only hope for recovery – of his identity/from the tragic loss – is to take the shark head on.

The Dead Do Not Improve features surfing, but no shark attacks. Seemingly random attacks on neighbors and co-workers, yes, but not perpetrated by sharks. Unless the gang is known as the Sharks, like their counterparts in West Side Story. Racism and gentrification are some of the dark forces at play in the story, which seems to center around Dark Forces At Play. A concoction of surfers, stoners, smut peddlers and street gangs, it is a send up of San Francisco in all of the city’s quirkiness. It’s also a tale of identity crisis, as Philip Kim, an East Coast educated writer, finds himself on the West Coast working for a website that provides encouragement to the recently dumped. In the wake of the massacre at Virginia Tech, he is also discovering what it means to be Korean-American in an age of suspicion.

The Postmortal is about a man trying to find his identity after aging has been suspended. When he stops growing old, does he stop growing altogether? After a geneticist stumbles into a cure for aging, the world isn’t ready for the discovery. Life as we know it is irrevocably altered, and society isn’t able to adapt quickly enough. John Farrell gets “the cure” before it is legalized by the U.S. government, and documents all of the developments – political, economic, environmental, legal, social – as they take place. There is a natural opposition against the cure, and Farrell is caught up in the backlash. His personal crisis reminds me of the U2 song “Summer Rain.”

When you stop seeing beauty
You start growing old
The lines on your face
are a map to your soul

The three novels execute their concepts to varying degrees of success. According to Steven Hall’s online profile, “his work evolved from art with a textual element to fiction with a visual element.” The visual design elements in The Raw Shark Texts verge on gimmicks, but are redeemed by their inventiveness. The First Eric Sanderson must have been a concept artist too, as many of his clues to his latter self are encrypted with visual elements.

Jay Caspian Kang isn’t a visual artist, but his approach to fiction is atypical. He is an editor and writer for Grantland, one of the hybrid sports and culture websites I frequent. He and his protagonist both attended Bowdoin College, where I also matriculated a few years earlier. Ultimately I didn’t identify with The Dead Do Not Improve as much as I thought I identified with its author. I guess I don’t get some concept art; I did get a handsome advance copy from Hogarth Press.

I got a copy of The Postmortal handed to me by Eric Boss, our esteemed rep from Penguin. As much as I admire Eric and appreciate complimentary copies, I didn’t see the appeal in it like I did with The Dead Do Not Improve. If not for Kang’s book, I may not have read Drew Magary’s book at all. After I did I liked it better than it’s predecessor! Magary does an excellent job of projecting society’s retreat in the face of scientific advancement. His view of the future was credible and his story entertaining. The Postmortal exceeded life expectancy and my expectations!

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