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Stodgy, plodding but satisfyingly horrific

Nilanjana S Roy | March 06, 2006

I knew that Jaws couldn't possibly be successful," Peter Benchley said in a 1999 chat with Time. "It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a first novel about a fish, so who cares?" 

Benchley, who died tamely enough in February, of an illness that had nothing whatsoever to do with shark attacks, grossly underestimated his audience.

His grandfather, Robert Benchley, skewered the comic possibilities of a novel about a small American town beset by sharks when he suggested Who's That Noshin' On My Laig as a possible title.

Benchley struggled with the idea, which came to him after a stray report of a shark attacking a human, for nearly nine years before he finally settled down to writing it. He struggled with the prose; his editor removed all traces of humour from the first, pun-heavy draft.

What's left is a clunky, solemn pulp fiction classic where the 'dumb garbage bucket' turned monster of the deep has more animation than any of the cardboard humans. Over four decades after Jaws came out in 1974, it still remains a stodgy, plodding but satisfyingly horrific read.

The remainder of Benchley's career was divided between producing more of the same and trying to undo the damage he had inflicted on the reputation of the shark.

In The Deep, the star was a wrecked ship, with a cameo performance from a giant eel; in The Beast, the villain was a wronged giant squid out for vengeance; in White Shark, later made into the film, Creature, the villain is a marauding white shark. 

There were very few takers for the book he may have enjoyed writing the most, a highly romantic fable of a young girl growing up with Nature called The Girl Of The Sea Of Cortez. The plot takes Paloma into battle with environmentally unsound fishermen. Her assistant is a giant (but presumably vegetarian) manta ray, who saves her life and shows her an underwater paradise so deep that it will remain unscathed from the degradations of mankind.

Jaws benefited from predator hysteria. Everything from killer bees to gorillas to monster lizards to piranha has featured on the list of things that give humans such intense nightmares that we will queue up happily for the film version.

If it was Benchley's munching monster shark who caught the public imagination, the two books that indicated where animal stories were headed came out in the same decade, within a year or two of Jaws.

In 1972, Robert O'Brien wrote Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH, which featured an unlikely but charming alliance between a field mouse and a coalition of super-intelligent rats who had escaped from a human laboratory. O'Brien didn't take an explicit moral stand on animal testing, and his characters didn't test the stereotypes of animal characters in children's fiction.

In 1977, Richard Adams published The Plague Dogs, a book considered so grim, coming from the author of Watership Down, that it has always found an uneasy readership. The heroes of The Plague Dogs, Rowf and Snitter, have escaped from an animal lab where they witnessed the worst kind of human experimentation, including vivisection.

Adams was unsparing in his descriptions of the lab; he allowed one of his two canine protagonists to remain sympathetic to humans, while the other hated our species for the pain and suffering visited on him.

The shark in Jaws is very much a dumb animal, programmed by its instincts; Adams' dogs are thinking creatures whose intelligence is distinctly non-human. It's much easier to read the novel now, after decades of debate on animal rights, than it would have been back in the 1970s when animal testing was just emerging as an area of moral concern.

How would Benchley's Jaws have done today?

Literary fiction has moved towards seeing animal rights as a subject suitable for serious fiction: J M Coetzee has wrestled with the moral arguments in his last three books, Barbara Kingsolver foregrounded the predator-rancher conflict in Prodigal Summer, and it is now possible for a writer like Hannah Tinti to write short stories -- Animal Crackers -- from the animal, not human, perspective.

Far more than changing morals, though, Jaws would probably suffer from a shift in predator preference. In today's world, Godzilla is a misunderstood mom, King Kong a beleaguered ape: the real predators are either all too alien, or, like serial killers and poachers, all too human. That shark wouldn't make much of a splash.

What are you reading? Jeffrey Archer's latest thriller, False Impressions? Have you read Mary Higgins' latest Two Little Girls in Blue? Did you simply love Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code?

Discuss your favourite books on Book Lovers Discussion Group. Or at Lovers of Books. Join now!



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