The Meg, Steve Alten

A part of me is inescapably, incorrigibly fond of aquatic monster stories. It’s the same part of me that’s drawn to cinematic creature features. Coupled with childhood affection for gigantic dinosaurs and childhood exposure to endless photos from my parents’ scuba diving trips, this fondness is why I enjoy literary junk food like Peter Benchley’s The Beast, a follow-up to Jaws starring a gigantic man-eating squid, and Deep Rising, an extremely 1990s action-horror flick starring a bunch of scenery-chewing stereotypes and a panoply of gigantic man-eating tentacle monsters. 

This melange of bad taste lead me to a copy of Steve Alten’s The Meg, the 1997 novel behind, uhhh, Last Summer’s Soonest To Be Forgotten Cheap Blockbuster. And holy crap, it’s bad. 

That’s obvious, right? It’s a book about a giant prehistoric shark that somehow survives into the present day, and is set loose – by the hubris of man! – on an unsuspecting humanity. I don’t particularly want to tell you how bad it is. This is writing that aims for Crichton and Benchley but fumbles its grip, drops the harpoon gun and falls in the sea. The prose isn’t enjoyably crap; it’s just turgid, clumsy, pedestrian, and from the first moments with its cast of unlikable middle-class Americans and Naval archetypes you know what you’re in for. It’s fine. Most of them are going to get eaten. 

What really stuck in my mind and craw, like a minisub slipping down the gullet of a megalodon, are Alten’s efforts to capture the slippery personalities of those creatures far stranger to him than prehistoric fish. That’s right: women! Rarely have I read a book that so perfectly articulates a certain worldview: one directed toward the emotionally violent, needy, unpredictable, manipulative personality voids that are biology’s love interests.

The Meg has two female characters. One of them is the jilted protagonist’s wife, of course, who’s literally trying to ruin his credibility in the press, and of course has a character arc that inexorably terminates in near-simultaneous reconciliation and sharkbait. The other is the feisty young daughter of the protagonist’s rich Japanese pal, whose personality oscillates hilariously between pretty much every emotional extreme, but consistently directed towards the Barry Sue non-entity we’re supposed to be rooting for. (I can’t recall his name, but it can’t possibly be as funny as the protagonist of Benchley’s The Beast, who is named Whip Darling. Whip Darling!)

Obviously, the Barry Sue and the emotional oscilloscope get together at the end, because what’s creepy about a middle-aged American Naval divorcee getting together with a much younger Asian woman? Their moment of romantic union is every bit as sudden, forced and unconvincing as the obligatory passionate kiss in the Any Summer’s Soonest To Be Forgotten Cheap Blockbuster this book clearly always wanted to be. 

Apparently there are about half a dozen entries in The Meg book series, all about Megalodons coming back to eat everything. One of these was bundled with my ebook, titled The Meg: Origins, and it recounts the protagonist’s backstory. The one from the novel you’ve just read. As a metaphor for pointlessness it is rich. I did not read Origins, given that everything of possible substance in both plot and character development is revealed by the 50th page in the preceding novel, and indeed was quite obvious from the outset anyway (of course he saw a Megalodon down there, in that terrible incident seven years ago!). 

I rate The Meg 0 out of 5 nitrous-fuelled minisubs bursting out of giant sharks, and recommend this 1997 review in the LA Times instead, in which a shark expert appalled to be credited by The Meg’s author as a research source dissects the novel’s appalling science. You might also enjoy the novelist’s petulant response, and the hilariously scathing response to that from the only true hero here: an annoyed marine biologist. 

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