No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

#67: The End of Mr. Y -- Scarlett Thomas

Real life is physical. Give me books instead: give me the invisibility of the contents of books, the thoughts, the ideas, the images. Let me become part of a book: I'd give anything for that. Being cursed by The End of Mr Y must mean becoming part of the book; an intertextual being: a book-cyborg, or considering that books aren't cybernetic, perhaps a bibliorg. Things in books can't get dirty, and real life is, well, eventually it's dust. Even books become dust ... but thoughts are clean. (p.147)

The End of Mr Y seems at first to be another of those novels about ancient mysteries and modern conspiracies: luckily, it's much smarter, wittier and thought-provoking.

Ariel Manto is a damaged, self-destructive drifter who's ended up as a post-grad student studying the works of little-known nineteenth-century author and nutcase Thomas Lumas, author of the eponymous book The End of Mr Y. Lumas presented his work as fiction, though Ariel's sure it was based on fact: a method for transferring one's consciousness into that of others, and a way of entering the Troposphere (a 'world-of-minds' where he finds peace). Ariel, having acquired a copy of the book via an improbable set of coincidences, sets about recreating Lumas's experiments: she finds herself searching for her missing supervisor, Saul Burlem, and questioning history, causality and the nature of the world(s) around her.

It's hard to know where to start discussing this novel. It's intelligent and provocative -- plenty of big ideas, from Lamarck to quantum physics to Schrodinger and Heisenberg and their gang -- but Thomas doesn't try to blind the reader with science or philosophy: she has a knack for apt metaphor and parable, and each Big Idea is explained clearly without infodumping. (I admire her more mundane metaphors, too: for instance, a collapsing building like one of those toys with a wooden model of an animal, where you press the button and the animal -- elasticated -- collapses to its knees.)

There's a lot in this book about philosophy and the discipline of intellectual work: Ariel is fond of thought experiments, which are all stories (if they're not stories then they're hard science, and not actually thought experiments at all. (432)) and her work on Lumas gives her a plethora of opportunities for these experiments. (I can't help wondering if she's familiar with Thomas Nagel's What is it like to be a bat?: there's a marvellous passage about a cat, and a distressingly vivid chapter about mice.)

I find Ariel a compelling character, though I'm not sure she's always honest with or about herself. Self-destructive habits, pushing her own limits -- I wonder if the reason I tend to say yes to everything is because I deeply believe that I can survive anything, but that I'm still looking for the definitive proof. (111) -- an unpleasant childhood (but did she abandon her family, or did they abandon her?), a tendency to sleep with unsuitable men, a sense that she's only incidentally anchored in the real world.

There is a conspiracy theory (or two) and The End of Mr Y (Lumas's book, not the meta-book that Thomas has written) has its own fansites and internet discussion. (Actually, Thomas's book has a couple of really nice sites, too: here (unfinished?) and here.) Ariel is not afraid to use the internet, though she prefers books for research: the internet would tell me quickly, but it might not tell me accurately .. I also need to know what a nineteenth century writer would have meant by [a homeopathic term] (124).

I'm not wholly convinced by the ending, but it does make sense in terms of the metaphors Ariel's accustomed to, and some aspects of the Troposphere and its interaction with the world. If the last page is taken literally, I'm with Ian Stewart (whose objection is reported in the author's afterword): however, I don't think it's a literal objective truth, just Ariel's perception.

This is a novel about ideas, about story-telling, about how consciousness and matter mesh together. There's plenty of darkness, but there's also joy: Ariel's joy in the world of the mind, the author's joy in philosophy and the history of science. I liked it very much and will be reading more by Thomas.

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