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The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Ariel Manto, the protagonist of Scarlett Thomas' 2006 novel, The End of Mr. Y, writes a weekly column called "Free Association", in which she allows the subject of one column to take her to a new subject, upon which she writes the next column, et cetera. In many ways, this is what my own current reading trajectory has looked like; I bounced right from Janna Levin's How the Universe Got Its Spots to Mr. Y through the subject of thought experiments, which are how Einstein composed many of his earth-shattering theories about relativity (he later backed them up with mathematics, but that's where I always get lost).

I actually discovered and read Mr. Y in 2007, after finishing my master's program. I'd previously read (and loved) Thomas' novel PopCo, which is about cryptography, the evils of corporate marketing, and the toy business. Back then, I found Mr. Y brilliant, but perplexing. I didn't even recognize--or, at least, don't remember recognizing, which is basically the same thing--the imprint of the phenomenological philosophy that my professors in grad school had been trying (without success, evidently) to teach me throughout the previous year. Heidegger's Being and Time makes an appearance in Mr. Y's pages, as do Derrida and Samuel Butler, because Mr. Y is about consciousness, language, and the causal relationship between thought and matter. Sounds like a party, right? Well, it sort of is.

Ariel Manto (an anagram for "I am not real", a piece of clever wordplay that I can't help but admire) is a lonely, damaged braniac who is doing a Ph.D. on thought experiments in the mid-late nineteenth century, with a focus on an almost completely obscure writer named Thomas. E. Lumas, the author of the titular (and fictional) The End of Mr. Y. The End of Mr. Y (Lumas' novel, not Thomas') is rumored to be cursed, but that's totally not an issue because it appears to have no copies extant. So Ariel is pretty surprised to find one while browsing a secondhand bookstore one day, but she buys it anyway, despite the rumors of a curse, and quickly finds that a page is missing. When she finds the missing page, she discovers that it contains a formula for a potion that allows her to access the Troposphere, a realm of collective consciousness through which she is capable of accessing the minds of others.

The Troposphere has its own rules, of course, and navigating it is somewhat like playing a video game. But Ariel quickly finds that, despite not being able to die in the Troposphere, danger lurks in all its corners. For instance, from rogue, disgraced CIA agents whose controversial, secret paranormal project has been decommissioned, but who are still trying to use the Troposphere for personal gain. Or from the Troposphere itself, which bends time and space in such a way that Ariel can be in it for only a few hours, but days will have passed for her physical body--if she's inside for too long, she could starve to death, as Lumas appears to have done before her.

Add to this that Ariel's thesis advisor, Saul Burnem, disappeared a year ago, and is the last known person to have owned the copy of Mr. Y that Ariel now has, and it's quite a predicament.

That's the best way I can describe Mr. Y to you. It's an exciting book, but not really because of the plot--although that, too, is entertaining. What's most interesting about Mr. Y is its ideas, the tumultuous fog of philosophy, quantum physics, religion, and literature that make up the core of its ever-evolving argument.

Thomas is, as I discovered while reading PopCo, a brilliant writer. I love her prose; it manages to be thoughtful and interesting without showing off with loud displays of grandiose lyricism, which I find incredibly boring. She can take complex ideas and simulate, through her characters' minds, the way your mind will process them, thereby providing you access to the information she's taken great care to compile while also allowing a story to shine through. Speaking of her characters, they're always beautifully rendered, with all their flaws on display, but still very sympathetic and almost cozy in their humanity. There's nothing not to like about a Scarlett Thomas novel, at least in my experience; I recently put PopCo into my roommate's hands, and she knocked on my door this morning at 10:30 AM to tell me how much she's loving it. Of course, I knew the anti-capitalist sentiments of PopCo would warm the cockles of my Marxist roommate's heart, but still. There's something in Thomas' work for everyone. I'm pumped about her new book, Our Tragic Universe, which comes out in September, although I know next to nothing about it (yet!). Stay tuned for that review in the coming months, and in the meantime, pick up Mr. Y (Brigitte, I'm looking at you), or PopCo. You won't regret it, I promise.

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  1. Blogger Papa Thor | 10:13 PM |  

    I agree this sounds like a good book for Brigitte, so she can catch up to her little brothers in the arena of consciousness!
    I like the idea that tropo-time is slower than real time, as opposed to e.g. Inception where dream time is faster. I think it's a trick to keep people out of tropo-town for too long.

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