Jaws (1974) by Peter Benchley

Jaws BY Peter Benchley. Random House. Hardcover, 320 pages. $20.

The cover of Jaws

There’s a scene in Peter Benchley’s Jaws that never made it into Spielberg’s movie. About halfway through the novel, Ellen Brody, the Amity police chief’s frustrated wife, and Matt Hooper, the marine biologist, go out to lunch together. During the meal, they embark on a shared sexual fantasy in which they imagine masturbating each other as they drive down a freeway until, driven to distraction by excitement, they crash the car and die, sprawled across the tarmac with their genitals exposed to bystanders.

Jaws was published in 1974. J. G. Ballard’s Crash had been published one year earlier. Had Benchley read it when he wrote his novel? Given submission-to-publication times for manuscripts, it seems unlikely. Ballard had released a short blueprint for Crash in The Atrocity Exhibition three years earlier, but Benchley doesn’t come across as the type who would read such vanguard stuff. Yet the stomachs of Jaws’ smaller sharks, when opened, disgorge car parts—license plates and the like. The shark’s not nature: It’s technology. It’s as though Benchley had anticipated Paul Virilio’s famous 1983 claim (made in Pure War, a book-length dialogue with Sylvère Lotringer) that every technological invention creates its own disaster—and taken it, in advance, one step further, collapsing the dichotomy: In his great white, Titanic and iceberg are one object; the airplane is the bomb.

Perhaps Jaws, Crash, and Pure War (and, while we’re about it, why not add Star Wars and Detroit techno?) are points in an aesthetic trajectory whose origin can be traced back to a single moment. On February 20, 1909, Marinetti published, on the front page of Le Figaro, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” It’s a famous text: You might remember wonderful lines like “Time and Space died yesterday” or the bit about a racing car “whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath,” being “more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace.” But reread it after Jaws and you’ll notice a recurrent metaphor. Marinetti keeps calling his own car, the one in which he crashes, a “shark”: “a big beached shark . . . my beautiful shark . . . running on its powerful fins.”

Cars and sharks aside, there’s one other technology moving through Jaws—gliding beneath the surface, as it were: photography. Look at the first scene again: It’s all redacted in terms of light and darkness. Onto land that “seemed almost as dark as the water” a single house’s “lights cast yellow glimmers on the sand”; “phosphorescent” creatures glow in the pitch-black ocean; as the shark looms slowly into view through this, its victim looks back from the water to the house and sees a figure lit up in a room—a camera, in both senses of the word. Later, after the shark eats little Alex Kintner, the New York Times reports a witness seeing “a large silver-colored object” flashing for an instant on the sea. The witness’s name? Daguerre. There’s more to this book than meets the eye.

Tom McCarthy is the author of the novels Remainder (Vintage, 2007) and C (Knopf, 2010) and the nonfiction work Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Counterpoint, 2008). He is also founder and general secretary of the International Necronautical Society.