Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: The End of Mr. Y

I came to read this book in a rather unusual way. I was on the bus one day, and saw a woman reading The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas. The cover looked interesting, so I took note of the title and looked it up when I got home, and sure enough it sounded like just the kind of thing I'd like to read.

Booklist calls this "chick lit for nerds," which in a way is really pretty accurate. Reading it doesn't feel much like reading chick lit, but it does have similar qualities--a heroine whose love life is rather unsatisfactory, mostly. But there is definitely more to it than that. Ariel Manto is a PhD student studying "thought experiments", the stories used to explain or test scientific theories without referring to math or science. One of the authors she studies is Thomas E. Lumas, whose last book, The End of Mr. Y, written at the end of the 19th century, is purportedly cursed. Everyone connected with its publishing died soon after--writer, editor, publisher, printer. And now, Ariel's supervisor has disappeared. Only one copy is known to still exist, but when Ariel finds the book in a second-hand bookstore, she begins to realize why it is cursed. The book, framed as a novel, contains instructions for getting into the Troposphere, an alternate dimension in which it is possible to look into other people's minds.

The book is fascinatingly contrasting. Nobody quite corresponds to my vision of what they should be within their setting. Ariel is an academic, but she has absolutely no money (even less than most students), she is a self-described sexual deviant, and she's not studying the kind of thing most people in English departments study. The book plays with theoretical physics, Samuel Butler, Derrida, creation theories, religion, sex, and it mixes all these together in fascinating ways. This book is in some ways the perfect presentation of these things--it stretches your brain in wonderful ways, makes you think about perception and consciousness and what things are and how we know what they are, but it does this without hitting you over the head with anything. It's an easy to read book, and it breaks up the brain-stretching stuff with normal life stuff. It's an adventure both of the mind and of road trips and men with guns.

I did think the end was a bit of a cop-out. It was too clean in a shallow way, leaving ends untied while appearing to be inevitable. It would have been much more interesting if the revelations that Ariel undergoes throughout the book were actually dealt with in the real world. So this book has definite issues in its storytelling, both in the ending and in its tendency to get sidetracked (the laboratory mice bit was kind of sidetracky, though for the most part it worked). Like Lumas's End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas's End of Mr. Y was a thought experiment in the form of a novel. In some ways the whole book was arguing with itself over being a story or being a thought experiment, which distracted from its being either one. If it had given itself up to being a thought experiment, I think it would have been a better novel, and vice versa.

That said, this book was really fascinating, and, often a marker of a good book, it made me want to read the writers it talks about. If not consistent, it was at least consistently so. Despite its problems it was thoroughly intriguing.

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