Shark Week

Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion BY Melissa McCarthy. Sternberg Press. 152 pages. $25.
The cover of Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion

If the most basic aspect of modern human life is species supremacy, to be eaten is perhaps the true inverse of being alive. In the words of Valerie Taylor, one half of the couple who pioneered the underwater filming of sharks, becoming the first to film great white sharks outside of a cage: “We all realize that the chances of being taken by a shark are exceedingly remote, but it is the horror of having chunks bitten from one’s body while still alive which evokes fear out of all proportion to the actual danger.”

I’d never heard of the Taylors until reading Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion by Melissa McCarthy. Sharks, Death, Surfers is a beautiful art object, petite and strange, replete with artist renderings of sharks that span the ages, from 750 BCE to the cover of Jaws. It is more a brief philosophical exploration of the intersection described in the title than anything else, unique in its take on the topics at hand but at times scattered and abstract. McCarthy is the chief obituary reviewer of the International Necronautical Society, a twenty-year-old organization whose goal is to “bring death out into the world.” It was in this role that she began to study obituaries of surfers, and thus the lives of sharks.

McCarthy was captivated by a 1982 Rolling Stone feature on the death of Lew Boren, a veteran surfer who was killed off the California coast in 1981 by a great white. Boren’s death is the stuff of horror movies: He went out to surf alone and didn’t come back. First, his board was found with bites taken out of it, indicating a creature in possession of an eighteen-inch jaw, and then his body was discovered, missing a portion of his chest cavity roughly the same size. “The excess population [of sharks] is made up of loners, often deformed in some way,” McCarthy quotes from the Rolling Stone article on his death. “They abandon their home waters. They live in areas normally not visited by their own species. They never return to the usual shark breeding grounds. And sometimes what they do, at least in coastal waters, is kill people.” Boren himself was a loner, she points out, someone who was single-mindedly interested in abandoning his native land for sea, and preferred to do so without the company of other humans. “The surfer,” she concludes, “is the shark.”

The book is filled with metaphors like these, some of which feel sharp and elucidating, others heavy-handed—calling the preeminent shark scholar an “apex predator,” for example. McCarthy’s most interesting metaphorical detour comes at the halfway mark: She jumps from Moby-Dick to Crash to a calendar of L.A. Artists In Their Cars, and finally to Ted Kennedy driving off the Dyke Bridge in 1969, leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in the submerged vehicle. She writes, “In the photographs, a beautiful, sleek, rounded machine (it’s an eighteen-foot-long, four-door Oldsmobile 88) lurks just beneath the surface of the water, next to the reeds and sedge and the pathetic plank bridge. The car looks just like a shark.” It is in passages like this one that McCarthy’s purposeful confusion is strongest: She is speaking in symbols, and if the shark attack is the symbol of the most frightening, helpless, isolated but conscious death, what could be more that than drowning in the passenger seat of a politician’s car, a death that could have been avoided “if competent effort had been made at the time of the accident”? The car is the shark, but so is Kennedy, who swam away unscathed and spent the night in his hotel, failing to alert anyone of the incident until morning.

McCarthy brings a variety of seemingly unrelated characters to her narrative: Captain James Cook, an eighteenth-century British explorer whom she develops an interest in after learning (incorrectly) that he died surfing; schizophrenic surf photographer Ron Stoner, who sold his boat and went to Maui, never to be heard from again and first presumed missing, then dead; Dr. Samuel Gruber, “the world’s foremost authority on sharks from the perspective of marine zoology.” The pages flit from character to character, under subheadings like, “Dissection & Pleasure,” “A Fence, a Boundary, a Distinction,” and, “Dude, Where’s My Counterpart?” She connects the disparate narratives through concepts that are central to surfing and inherent to sharks: balance, slippage, steering, lurking, vision, light, shadows, misdirection. The method is effectively disorienting, pulling the reader into sudden, unexpected points of connection.

I was drawn to McCarthy’s book because I’m terrified of sharks. They are my biggest irrational fear, by which I mean that they are the thing I am most afraid of that has nothing to do with the reality or possible reality of my life. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember, and I have no idea when or why it began. I am perversely fascinated by them, as happens with the things we dread, but usually too scared to look. When I research shark statistics, I cover my phone screen lest an image come up first. When I was a kid, I sat with my legs folded up onto my seat during dinner, scared that sharks were swimming in the open space under the table. I hated showering, panicked at being shut in with water, thinking the faucet would turn into a mouth. On planes, I was scared not that the plane would crash and I’d die, but that it would crash into the ocean and I’d survive, only to be eaten by a shark. Somehow, all of this did not extend to being scared of the ocean itself; I loved to swim then, and still do.

McCarthy’s approach is literary and scientific—she doesn’t seem scared of sharks, or death, only curious. I’m not sure how one becomes a chief obituary reviewer for an avant-garde group studying death, and she doesn’t explain, but does tell us early on, “In the summer of 2007, my organization undertook a research visit in Durban, South Africa, to what’s commonly known as the Sharks Board,” which, “carries out academic zoological research and, on the pragmatic side, encourages beach-based tourism to the region.” The center performs ticketed, weekly dissections of sharks for the public, and it’s in this tradition that her book follows, presented like a conceptual dissection, neutral and studious.

The most frightening page of the book is a reference to another book. Under an underwater photo of a great white, albeit mouth closed, the caption appears: “In their 1978 book Great Shark Stories, the Taylors, who worked on Jaws the film, report that the most frightening thing about being chased by a shark is seeing the horror in your friend’s eyes as he or she watches you about to be eaten.” I promptly bought that book, and though I pored over it, was unable to find this reference. It’s composed of excerpted stories of attacks, adventures, and benign behaviors, both fiction and nonfiction, each introduced by the Taylors. A few provided the gore missing from Sharks, Death, Surfers—a gruesome account of a diver watching his friend torn in two—but many were reverential and measured, particularly Valerie’s descriptions of recording great white sharks for documentaries and narrative films. It was perfectly clear to her that sharks don’t attack without extenuating circumstances, and that when they do attack, you don’t see them coming. I found this comforting. The anticipation of being eaten is probably worse than the act itself.

McCarthy believes that surfers have “the special quality of being in a privileged relationship with the boundary.” I think this is a metaphor for madness. Surfing is a mad sport, exceedingly dangerous not because of sharks but because of drowning, and rocks. Because of the depth and strength of the ocean. (And terror is a mad thing too: all-consuming, divorced from reality, triggering paralysis or sudden, rash movements.) Death by shark is rare but horrible, though death by surfing isn’t uncommon for surfers. Yet the focus, always, is on the shark. Every movie is about the shark; every spotting of a shark makes the news; every July we are promised the wildest Shark Week yet. But maybe it’s all symbolic—surfing is the best symbol of the thrill of risk, and sharks the best symbol of risk’s randomness.

I am less afraid of sharks now than I was before I read these books. I’ve been searching them on the internet every day, never wanting for fresh news because every shark sighting is newsworthy in the summer, no matter how insignificant: the great white that may or may not have entered the Long Island Sound; the influx of sharks off Cape Cod, threatening the tourist industry; the sixteen-foot behemoth that circled a New Jersey boat named Big Nutz Required II before snatching the dangling bait and swimming away; the guy who was bitten in Florida and headed straight to a bar rather to a doctor's office. I’ve been closing my eyes less, but when a trailer for 47 Meters Down: Uncaged started playing on my Twitter feed before I could scroll away, I screamed. I knew I could lure myself back into being as scared as I was; indulging fear is formulaic and easy. And it is both useful and exciting to cling to a fear as pointless as man-eating sharks—to have a site to which to attach free-floating anxiety, and to so easily jump.

When you surf, the board has to slip just enough, but not too much: it’s “controlled and focused slipping.” I never thought I’d stop fearing sharks, and I haven’t, but I’m slipping. Their demonization is fatal for them, having significantly diminished their population through hunting. I know it’s our fault they are moving closer to shore, as water temperatures change, and our fault their ecological status is “vulnerable,” if not yet endangered. Great whites don’t want to be near humans; it’s we who make the world smaller, with respect to what is habitable, and force our proximity. We’d do better to look to them as a model for freedom than for terror, but those concepts are hard to separate for our species, when they appear at surface level. I’ve not given up my fear but I’m playing at its boundary—I imagine McCarthy would be satisfied.

Sophia Giovannitti is a writer who lives in New York.