“Destined to become a cult book.”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Ariel Manto, an impoverished and directionless PhD student, discovers by chance a copy of a rare and notorious novel “The End of Mr Y”. Rumoured to be cursed, the only other known copy of the book resides unseen in the vaults of German bank. Ariel discovers within its pages the recipe for a concoction that the book’s author claims will transport her to an alternate reality from which she can access the minds of those around her.

Now, I am pathologically incapable of spotting allegory, seeing sub-text, reading between the lines. However, Scarlett Thomas’ best known work to date is clearly a statement or investigation into the nature of reality so I am possibly the worst person to really appreciate what she is trying to say. Just bear that in mind as you read on.

My failings aside, this certainly is an absorbing and intriguing read. Clearly written and easy enough to follow, as a story it makes no excessive demands on the reader’s intellect and I enjoyed it.

It is not without its shortcomings. The characters are not particularly likeable (of course, no-one said that they should be). Ariel is a fairly unappealing protagonist – she is not especially egregious but neither is she the sort of person that many readers will connect to, with her rather flat personality, her tendency towards self-harm and an apparently passionless and self-destructive sex-life.

Written from Ariel’s point of view, Thomas liberally salts the story with scientific and philosophical exposition, ranging over a wide hunting-ground from quantum mechanics and relativity to ontology, intercessionary prayer and homeopathy. The level at which she treats the scientific subjects is neither too deep nor too shallow for general consumption. By contrast the frequent references to Baudrillard and Derrida fail to achieve anything more than a bit of self-consciously pretentious name-dropping. I have never been able to understand what “post-modernism” actually IS (or perhaps, which seems more likely, I am simply too dense) but it seems to me that Thomas would like Mr Y to be seen as some sort of post-modernist tale of the metaphysical. However, in the end, the “philosophy” of the story is (generally) simple and conventional (to anyone who has read any sci-fi and/or cyberpunk) and its language is uncomplicated and accessible – in other words, hugely at odds with my perception of post-modernism*.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, I can only reiterate my opening qualification that “The End of Mr Y” is, taken at face value, a great read. It does have one novel quirk in that there is a “twist” which, in defiance of all convention comes at the beginning rather than the end.

* Although there is one sequence in which Ariel exposits on the subject of existence and reality at such depth that I was forced to skim the scene and then skip it entirely. I am pleased to report that I didn’t feel any the worse for this.

 

Reviewed by:

Campbell McAulay

Added 22nd April 2015

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Campbell McAulay

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