Sunday, 23 December 2012

Review: The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

Book cover of The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
Bex from An Armchair by the Sea has been telling me to read Scarlett Thomas for at least a year and a half now, but despite owning The End of Mr Y for slightly less than that time, I never bothered to pick it up. It was only when I was stranded (slightly over-dramatic, but you get the point) at my boyfriend's with only Our Tragic Universe to read that I eventually gave it a go. I really, really liked it and it inspired me to finally pick up this one, which I absolutely fell in love with.

Plot summary: A cursed book. A missing professor. Some nefarious men in gray suits. And a dreamworld called the Troposphere? 

Ariel Manto has a fascination with nineteenth-century scientists; especially Thomas Lumas and The End of Mr. Y, a book no one alive has read. When she mysteriously uncovers a copy at a used bookstore, Ariel is launched into an adventure of science and faith, consciousness and death, space and time, and everything in between.

Seeking answers, Ariel follows in Mr. Y's footsteps. She swallows a tincture, stares into a black dot, and is transported into the Troposphere; a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others. There she begins to understand all the mysteries surrounding the book, herself, and the universe. Or is it all just a hallucination?


I've recommended The End of Mr Y to quite a few friends since I finished it (only a few years behind everybody else, mind) and I've been describing it as part sci-fi, part philosophy and part mind-fuck. It's not for everybody, to be fair, but if you're willing to be patient it's absolutely amazing.

The over-riding theme of Our Tragic Universe was books, literature and the different components therein. The End of Mr Y has more of a physics theme to it which can be a little hard to follow if you're not much of a science person (like me). There are physics points that are fundamental to the story and then some that aren't - the former is explained reasonably well, enough that you can follow the story if you concentrate, while you're kind of left to fumble around with the latter yourself. 

I’d read Lahiri’s best-selling popular science book about the end of time, and knew he wouldn’t approve of Lumas even if he had heard of him. Popular science can say some pretty wild things these days, but the supernatural is still out, as is Lamarck. You can have as many dimensions as you want, as long as none of them contain ghosts, telepathy, anything that fucks with Charles Darwin, or anything that Hitler liked (apart from Charles Darwin).

Mixed in with the narrative of Ariel, the main character, are excerpts from a rare book she comes across in a second-hand book store - The End of Mr Y, of course. This book tells the tale of a man driven crazy by his self-imposed quest to track down a man he knows has the secret to visiting another world. However, a page is missing from Ariel's copy - conveniently, the one containing the mixture necessary to travel to the Troposphere, the afore-mentioned other world.

Because of this, it emerges as a story within another story and it works very well. The excerpts from the book Ariel is reading have a completely different tone and style, and the change is quite refreshing. Furthermore, the plot occasionally requires the POV of a passer-by and the switch-over is perfect. They all have different voices, but they 'talk' exactly as if Scarlett Thomas had climbed inside their heads and diligently recorded all their thoughts. It's... well, perfect.

Sometimes I like to think that I live with ghosts. Not from my own past—I don’t believe in those sorts of ghosts—but wispy bits of ideas and books that hang in the air like silk puppets. Sometimes I think I see my own ideas floating around, too, but they usually don't last long.… Some of the most friendly ghosts I live with are those of my favourite nineteenth-century science writers. Most of them were wrong, of course, but who cares? It’s not like this is the end of history. We’re all wrong.

I do have a few criticisms, but they're small ones. See, this is clearly literary fiction and it's fairly well-known among readers, but it falls down at some of the most obvious Young Adult hurdles:
  •  InstaLove
  • A complete lack of surprise/disbelief at the existence of a world they never knew existed
  • STUPID decisions, especially not telling people things they really do need to know 
What is it with these points? Surely these things annoy authors when they read other books, so why don't they edit them out of their own? It just surprised me that these common problems with YA novels would feature in a literary novel like The End of Mr Y, especially when the author has written more than one book about books.

The ending feels like a bit of a cop-out and it doesn't really make sense. I can't explain it without giving too much away, but their intended plan wouldn't work in the way they decided it would? Yeah, that's sufficiently vague. I know the whole premise isn't exactly realistic anyway, but Scarlett Thomas put so much effort into explaining everything else that this part felt a little flat.

I really did love this book though. It's so different to Our Tragic Universe and yet I still want to run out and read everything Scarlett Thomas ever wrote. I think they're so great because she mixes in a lot of 'real people' stuff - like being inside people's heads in The End of Mr Y and the chatty, tangent-y style of the other book. It's just kind of perfect really.

Read my review of Our Tragic Universe or visit Scarlett Thomas' website here. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm afraid I started reading this one and gave up - it seemed to turn into some sort of existential hallucination and I got lost in all the physics. I also had issues with the instant acceptance of all the weird. Still, I'm glad you enjoyed it. "Our Tragic Universe" sounds much more like my cup of tea, so perhaps I'll give Ms Thomas another try with that one. It was good to read your thoughts on these books.

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