Sunday, May 08, 2011

Scarlett Thomas: The End of Mr Y

So this is the one the conductor (ticket inspector?) in my previous post liked so much she had to lean over and tell me. That sounded snarky, but I'm not taking the piss, honestly. I like the community of readers. I posted the picture on Facebook too and my editor friend said it'd be interesting to hear what I thought, because they'd turned it down themselves. So the pressure is on, people.
I've seen The End of Mr Y for months in book shops (well, actually I've only been looking in the one book shop, namely Pocket Shop at the train stations, where I sometimes browse when my fecking train is delayed/cancelled) and been intrigued by the cover (for reference, see previous post). Apparently it's won some sort of award - had to google a bit now to make sense of what a "Nibbie" award is, but found it. It was also LONGlisted for the Orange Prize - but didn't make the short list, clearly. I can't remember a publisher ever boasting of a longlisting before. The blurbs on the book are all very superlative. I notice however that LeGuin's review in The Guardian is not one of them. Oops, got side-tracked now: what I meant to say is that the cover art reminded me myself of The Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters, so I kept looking at it thinking "is that ...?" and "no, but maybe I should ..." and then a friend said she'd enjoyed it so when I found it second-hand I happily bought it. Second-hand is better in case I didn't like, dontchaknow.

Ursula K. Leguin says a lot of clever things about this book that I have to agree with but they weren't the points I'd thought of myself at first. First, the storyline: Ariel Manto is a very intelligent PhD student doing an English Lit thesis on thought experiments, which means stuff like Schrödinger's Cat. Thought experiments are the story parts, the literature, of science, and interest her tremendously. Among the authors she studies is one Lumas, an all but forgotten Victorian whose writings probe the boundaries of where the mind can go (or something. I have to say that Thomas does not really manage to convey the greatness of Lumas at all). The End of Mr Y is Lumas lost novel - as far as anyone knows only one copy survives and that's in a vault in Germany. Incredibly, Ariel finds a copy, and reads about mr Y's journey into the Troposphere - by drinking a half homeopatical, half Roman Catholic potion you can enter a different world, made up out of the consciousnesses (that's surely not a word) of all living things and in which you can enter other minds and experience life as they see it. Of course she tries it, and discovers that she is being pursued by renegade CIA agents, intent on getting the formula. And so on. I don't think I'll bother explaining all the bits in the story that I made notes on. Instead I'll just jump right to my opinions, to please my Editor Friend.

It wasn't only the cover art that reminded me of other books, the déja vus kept coming. The book is full of long discussions on matters of philosophy and science, which reminded me of Umberto Eco (oooh, LeGuin noticed that too) - in particular Foucalt's Pendulum which indeed the book has been compared to (check out the blurbs, link above).  The idea that our praying and our belief and faith created the gods, instead of them creating us, feels very Gaiman (or else Douglas Adams for the humorous touch). The created gods inhabit the Troposphere, you see, and their strength depends on how many faithful they have. And a religious place is so charged with the energy of the faith that you can't ... can't ... what was it now, remain in someone else's mind I think. LeGuin makes the point that  the Troposphere is like a computer game - admittedly, this is Ariel's mind interpreting the Troposphere with computer game attributes, like a "console" that appears to instruct her and permit her to control what she wants to do. But still, it is like a computer game scenario. "You have reached the next level." Which of course reminds me of Tad Williams' Otherland series. I don't remember any reference to Ariel ever being an avid gamer though, so the computer game likeness seems a little off, come to think of it. Sometimes I go back to being reminded of The Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters, when I start to feel like she's writing as for a film, picturing certain scenarios so vividly it's just about making it easier to write a screenplay - but it's not at all as obvious as it was with Gordon Dahlquist's work. He really was thinking graphic novel and just translating it, images were everything. Thomas is not at all as bad as that.

This is in many ways a classic fantasy novel, no different than say Harry Potter. There is an alternative universe, there is an enemy, and towards the end Ariel even receives a quest from the mouse-god, to jump from person to person back through time to the lady who bred lab mice and make her not do it, thus setting all lab mice free. As quests go it's fairly lame and feels contrived - tacked on at the end, as an afterthought almost. Another quest is of course to defeat the enemy. This means the renegade CIA agents and their scary helpers, the KIDS, autistic children (ab)used to explore the Troposphere and who have died while inside. Since the enemy turns up fairly early one could say that that quest is made clear from the start (obviously evil has to be defeated), but the solution is poorly done. Ariel's new-found love, a disillusioned former priest (Catholic, natch - no people do fall from faith quite so well as the Catholics apparently. I do sometimes feel that this fascination with Catholic apostasy in popular culture comes close to admitting to believing that Catholicism is Right) suddenly turns up inside the Troposphere (sorry for the spoiler, but hey) and fixes everything. It's all very very deus ex machina. I was entertained by the book up to the last quarter or sixth or so - i.e. the end. The end is disappointing. The essence of this book is the thought experiment - what if our thoughts, ideas and prayers create a place like the Troposphere, where we are all joined etc. - but how do you craft a story around it, and how do you end it? The excursions into relativity theory and what have you are interesting, granted. I can't help wondering if it's as interesting to someone who understands the subject though. But as a whole the book is not complete, it's disjointed, with different parts that don't really come together. Unfinished.

I've understood (but don't ask me to point you towards a source) that some critics are suspicious of writers who have taken creative writing classes. Well, in that case surely they are even more suspicious of writers who teach the subject, like Scarlett Thomas. She's not really doing anything wrong. She has all the elements to make a fantastically imaginative book, a meta-book spanning realism (Ariel is a self-destructive former self-harmer from a very troubled background), fantasy and science-fiction, as stated earlier a more modern, female Umberto Eco, something that sees no boundaries between philosophy, science and the study of languages. It's all there, but still only germs of it. However, there's just too much. Nobody really becomes a full character, I'm not rooting for anyone. And hence the sad conclusion: it reads like a book pieced together to make a hit, not quite from the heart. Unfortunately, because I don't think that was the intent.

Also, there are a few too many references to vegetarian meals - we get it, you can eat well and not eat meat. Fair enough.

If Editor Friend hadn't said that they'd turned it down I probably wouldn't have thought so much about the book, I'd've read it, been entertained but disappointed by the ending, and that'd be it. I pondered a little bit more now, I read it as something that someone else had been found lacking, and looking for the flaws I saw them, if you see what I mean. My Editor Friend really does deserve all the praise she gets professionally, because it's an easy book to be seduced by, but clearly she saw through that. I suspect that the flaws in it might be more apparent in translation, too. Translation sometimes works as a way of cutting to the bones of things. I wonder if the ticket inspector wasn't used to reading books of this type - science fiction, fantasy, Eco - and was gripped by the genre. Those of us who have read more of the sort have read better, I think.

I might though, just might, be stopping by Väsby Centrum again soon (tomorrow), to look for a pair of trousers. And I might, maybe, stop by Stadsmissionen again. And if they still have that other book of hers there I might might get it. Or at least hold it for a while and think about it.


E said...

Ahh, finally I can comment!

I feel guilty now for ruining your reading, but it's interesting to hear what you thought. I couldn't agree with you more - thought it was years since I read it, I remember that feeling of a great story just unravelling. I really wanted to like this, and I also read PopCo with the same feeling; i.e. she has a great idea, can write really well, builds an exiting plot - and then it just doesn't come together at the end.

That, and the homeopathy really got on my nerves after a while (esp. in PopCo)

bani said...

Well that clinched it, I'm not reading about homeopathy. Although is she for or against? Fair enough in the potion, I read that to mean that faith-charged liquids help you travel into the Troposphere, no more.

Again - you have really good instincts! I shall henceforth bow to your opinion. I'd like to hear you slay an Honor Harrington novel or something.

E said...

Well, I don't know about that - it's on the bestseller list at Pocket shop, so in that respect it was a stupid decision...

bani said...

Integrity is everything. Surely. ;)

Ing said...

Well I just had to read this after reading your review. I have just five words to say about it that sums up this book for me: I did not like it.

If I elaborate a little bit I can say that I was bored by it. I kept skipping pages because the descriptions of the troposphere and their "scientific" discussions bored me to death. But hey, that's just me!

bani said...

Sis, you should keep a blog. You'd get the posts written anyway (Like! Don't!). ;) Unlike myself, lagging behind by about fifteen books...

I like the scientific bits in theory because I feel that if I bothered to read them I'd be or become smart. But on the whole yes, you're very succinct. It's a bit boring.