The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
Oh dear, I really don’t review enough female authors do I? Apart from Donna Tartt a few months ago, it’s been a real sausage-fest up in this blog. Perhaps it’s my taste for fantasy and sci-fi, a currently very male dominated genre (although that wasn’t always the case), but I haven’t read nearly enough female authors. Thankfully, there should be a lot more soon, because The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas is one of those books that makes you want to rush out and buy everything the authors ever written.
The End of Mr Y follows Ariel Manto, a PHD student studying the fictional author Thomas Lumas, who stumbles upon the incredibly rare Lumas book, the eponymous ‘The End of Mr Y.’ This book is said to be cursed, and as Ariel finishes the book her life changes in ways that she could not possibly have predicted.
The main conceit of this novel is the existence of the ‘Troposphere’, a trippy manifestation of human consciousness which is unique to every person who experiences it. The Troposphere allows people to hover inside the minds of other humans, or even animals, and even jump between these mind back in time. The Troposphere is a complex notion, but Thomas does an admirable job of making sure that this realm of the abstract follows rules and has its limits. Thomas frequently makes comparisons to a videogame, with the Troposphere working almost a debug menu in a game of SimCity in which we’re the sims. It’s hard to wrap your head around, but very convincingly handled.
Although the story does begin to come of the rails a bit towards the end, The End of Mr Y is nonetheless an exciting and fascinating journey most off the way. Thomas isn’t afraid of asking the big questions; in fact, this is a book about the big questions. Thomas doesn’t merely engage in mythic mumbo jumbo, but exhibits an impressive knowledge of quantum mechanics, which underpin the entire narrative. Expect to hear lots about quarks, the space-time continuum and Schrödinger’s cat; if that puts you off, as it naturally will many people, you’ll find large portions of this book incredibly dull, but if you share my fascination in quantum science, you’ll eat all this stuff up. Things are let down somewhat through a rather tacky epilogue, but it’s only one page so it’s easy to forget.
The End of Mr Y is all told in the first person, from Ariel’s perspective, but Ariel’s frequent jumps into the minds of others forces Thomas to write in a dynamic and flexible way, a challenge which she comfortably rises to. POVs from a group of callous and insecure school girls, to a frightened mouse, and a sadistic cat are handled well, and often very funnily. Although this book isn’t a comedy, it certainly has its moments of levity, and you’ll find more than a little to chuckle over as the book goes on.
Ariel is a really strong protagonist, thoroughly flawed and with an aircraft carrier filled with emotional baggage, let always sympathetic and hard not to like. It’s really refreshing to read a character like this actually; a lot of well meaning male authors are nervous about writing a character like this for fear of appearing sexist, so we’re instead left with blandly likeable women, but Thomas has no such qualms, and gives us the kind of female protagonist that I’ve been craving for a while. The supporting cast has a few entertaining characters and figures, but Ariel is the real star, a character I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.
The End of Mr Y is a great book for many reasons; as a character study, as a piece of fascinating science fiction, a collection of philosophical musings and a beginners guide to quantum physics. I loved this book, and cannot wait to read more of Scarlett Thomas’ stuff.