The major literary breakthrough of Steve Alten’s 1997 novel — Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, the basis for the new Jason Statham film out this weekend — was right on the cover: a large shark eating a Tyrannosaurus Rex. As a book, Meg was basically a Michael Crichton/Jurassic Park diss track written by a man with a doctorate in sports management. “Who cares that you can write a startling coherent high-concept sci-fi novel ideal for Hollywood adaptation?” Alten seemed to say. “My shark can eat your dinosaur.” For a kid interested in all things toothsome and extinct, this was a head-turning claim.
Let’s be clear at the top. Even when I first encountered Meg as an 11-year-old, I knew it was dumb. We picked it up at the local library as a book on tape and I listened to it while laying on the couch, watching the rain come in over the ocean. At no point did I expect a giant fin to break the surface of the flattened bay. The Meg failed to inspire that sort of anxiety or fantasy — I was honestly more concerned about velociraptors — because it was so poorly written. But it was also really, really fun. So, in the days before binging, I binged.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Meg was a genre book. Was it sci-fi? No. Was it an adventure? No. It was “Diet Thriller” a book for people who find the moral themes of Crichton, Grisham, Cussler, and Patterson too hard to handle. In point of fact, it was the peak of this genre and maybe the last real example of it. Why? Because Meg was a book written for kids and lazy adults — the ideal piece of summer reading for a shiftless 11-year-old — and it debuted alongside Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Before Harry Potter, fantasy for kids was popular, but when you think about it, inaccessible to kids born after the sixties. There was the weirdly evangelical C.S. Lewis stuff, the weirdly anti-evangelical Philip Pullman stuff, and, of course, the superior Madeleine L’Engle stuff. These books were propulsive and good, but they were also utterly divorced from the cultural moment in the nineties. The Meg was the opposite because it was specifically connected to pop-culture of the nineties, mostly because it evoked those the dangers of the CGI natural world we all saw in Titanic, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, and The Lost World. Meg was literature as late nineties blockbuster. It was big and fun and the entire concept was in the title, just like Face/Off.
To give a sense of what that meant from a prose perspective, allow me to quote a passage from Meg:
The female heard every sound, registered every movement, tasted every trail, and saw every sight, for Carcharodon megalodon does not just move through the sea, the sea moves through the Megalodon.
Cut to a wailing guitar solo.
In a sense, Harry Potter killed this kind of breathless, thoughtless writing — at least for kids. J.K. Rowling was deeply talented and her world detailed and beautiful. She elevated books for teen (and slightly younger) readers, teaching her audience to demand more. Prior to that moment, young book-hungry boys were content to mash through books with sharks eating dinosaurs on the cover. And, yes, that was beautiful too. I miss those books. Extinct by Charles Wilson. Dark Rising by Greig Beck. Congo by Michael Crichton, who really phoned that one in, let’s be honest.
I have incredibly fond memories of listening to The Meg on the couch, following the adventures of the book’s idiot hero Jonas Taylor, who keeps getting people killed and making obvious mistakes. I remember rooting for the shark and feeling pretty good about it. This was long before I started self-consciously reading “literature” on the subway, hunched in such a way as to show attractive female co-commuters my sophistication. I didn’t like Meg because it sent social signals or because it was something I shared with a broader community. I just thought the shark was cool. Years later, I found a fossilized shark’s tooth in a seaside cliff. I excavated and framed it. My wife thinks I put it on the wall to remind me of a vacation we took. She is wrong. I like to think about sharks that can eat dinosaurs.
The Meg, the film based on the book, has gotten better reviews than most people expected. I’m not surprised. Though the movie takes some liberties with the source material, it remains about a very large shark that eats surfers sometimes. And that premise remains extremely cool. As it turns out, you can more or less add the concepts of any two Spielberg movies and find something worth filming (Amistad and Schindler’s List being the exceptions to that arithmetic). Movies don’t need to be complicated to be fun. The truth is, books don’t either. The entire plot of Meg is basically this: Shark living in trench surfaces and kills people as people try to kill it. There’s a grace in that simplicity that you never find in Henry James novels. As a kid, I understood the appeal of something so uncomplicated on a visceral level. I’d like to get back to that place, but I rather doubt I ever will. Sitting down to read Meg now, it’s impossible to close the ironic distance.
Still, I can remember what it was like to just marinate in a bloody, pulpy bit of storytelling. I can remember laying on the couch thinking about the shark. I didn’t think about its motivations or the difficulty it faced in being brought up by step-parents who didn’t love it and having to live under a staircase without magic.
I just thought about how big it was. Really, really fucking big.
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