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The End of Mr Y May 23, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Reviews, Scarlett Thomas.
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Scarlett Thomas has been one of my favourite authors from pretty much the moment I first picked up her 2006 novel The End of Mr Y. Since then I’ve read PopCo and her latest, Our Tragic Universe and I’m trying to track down some more of her back catalogue, including the trio of detective novels she wrote featuring a crime fighting English lecturer.

Her books, at least those I’ve read, defy categorisation. They’ve been referred to as slipstream, the term coined by Bruce Sterling to refer to a crossover between speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction;The End of Mr Y fits broadly into this category, while PopCo at least is more or less devoid of sf elements. (Our Tragic Universe is up for debate!) Scarlett Thomas described her writing method in terms of coming up with a list of everything she’s currently interested in and then finding a way to link them together. The result is a bewildering mash-up of different ideas from science, philosophy, literary criticism, history, pop culture and homoeopathy to name a few.

I’ll start with The End of Mr Y and then move on to Our Tragic Universe tomorrow.

Ahem.

The book is a fantasy novel, featuring a cursed book, a magic potion, and anthropomorphic gods.

OR

The book is a thriller, telling the story of a woman who discovers the secret of a mysterious government project, whose menacing agents will do anything to get it back.

OR

The book is a melding of quantum mechanics and post-structuralism, positing a new kind of physics based on consciousness, in which reality is shaped by thought in a non cause and effect universe.

OR

The book is a Scarlett Thomas novel. As such it features a complex, independent, female protagonist who’d rather spend money on books than food, enmeshed in dysfunctional relationships with equally complex characters who engage in long conversations about philosophy.

That last one isn’t a criticism by the way; while each of the protagonists in the three novels is distinct, in their motivations, character, behaviour, there is a certain commonality, just one of the aspects of the writing that makes her writing so distinctive and delicious.

Ariel Manto is a PhD student writing her thesis on thought experiments. In a series of initially apparently unconnected events her supervisor disappears, part of the university falls down a hole and she discovers an incredibly rare book she’s only read about before at her local charity shop. Oh and it’s cursed apparently. This leads on to the discover of the troposphere, an inter-subjective realm of thought, the consciousness of all beings past present and future at once. Through it you can access other people’s minds, across space and time, but there are terrible dangers too; in that sense the curse is very real.

This is interpreted through post-structuralist philosophy, mapping the idea of language as a closed system, in which meaning is perpetually deferred, onto reality, tying in the role of observation in quantum physics, to imply that materiality is a consequence of consciousness not the other way around. Except not really because cause and effect isn’t real because everything in the troposphere happens at once. Possibly.

It’s a novel of big ideas, as might be expected with a lead character who reads Heidegger in her lunch break. It’s also a very human one, with characters who can be vulnerable, selfish, who make mistakes and are never anything less than three dimensional (excusing the pun.) There’s a believable romance too, made more complex by the possibility of sharing consciousness. I also really liked the way in which Ariel’s character shaped the way in which she saw the Troposphere. She interfaces with it through a video-game style console that tells her what options she has available, which reminded me oddly of those choose your own adventure books. She sees people’s minds as shops because of the way she sees an economy in personal relationships, demonstrated in the way in which she views sex with Patrick, a married man with whom she has a physical relationship.

All of this fails to give you an idea of how much of a page turner The End of Mr Y really is. It’s a gripping read, with a real sense of menace from genuinely unsettling dangers. There are some really stomach turning sequences in the minds of laboratory mice too. The book is structured like a thriller but with lengthy chunks of debate and exposition that don’t ever feel like they take away from the plot.

The End of Mr Y is one of those books that, in my experience at least, gets passed around with the emphatic instruction to READ THIS! My partner and I both read it within the space of three days while on holiday and I’ve already given it out to someone else as a birthday present. As an object the book is a joy, with black edged pages and a gorgeous gold and red cover. (Canongate have now issued PopCo and Our Tragic Universe in the same style.) If you haven’t read anything by Scarlett Thomas before this is, in my opinion, her best and probably a good place to start. PopCo is more upbeat though drawing on equally broad sources, and Our Tragic Universe is perhaps more of a challenge, more expressly literary being an attempt to write a plotless novel. But more on that tomorrow.

Here’s a link to Scarlett Thomas’ own website. There’s a short story called Interlude, under Archive, that I quite enjoyed, as well as exerpts from her novels.

http://www.scarlettthomas.co.uk/

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