Saturday, December 01, 2007

The End of Mr Y, a novel by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

I saw this book in Unity Books last weekend: in its real life incarnation, the cover made the book look so great, I had to pick it up and run away with it. At my first glance, I had no idea what book it was, it just looked good. But then I realised I had already read it so, reluctantly, put the book back down and left the shop. It is the fourth novel by Scarlett Thomas - I have previously had a few words to say about her Bright Young Things.

Although her subject matters seems to change considerably from one novel to the next, one thing stays consistent: she creates female lead characters I would like to have in my life.
Ariel Manto is a brand new academic, just starting a PhD, with an interest in an obscure 19th century writer, Thomas E Lumas. She likes people with big ideas (such as Samuel Butler and Edwin Abbott (author of Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions which, coincidentally, I am planning to read very shortly) and has plenty of mental energy herself. Until recently, she's been writing a magazine column, one for which she researches intensively, then make a random connection to the next one. So, starting with the big bang, she moved to "properties of hydrogen, speed of light, relativity, quantum mechanics, probability theory, Schrodinger's cat, the wave function, light, the luminiferous ether ... to artificial intelligence" and on to Lumas. These things had a particular interest to me when I was reading this book, as I had made a similar whirlwind tour through many of her topics.

Now, she is supposedly studying with another academic, Saul Burlem, but she has not seen him since she started.
The novel starts with her having to go home as her building seems to be falling down. On the way, she pops into a second-hand bookshop to see if they have anything by her pet author: curiously, they have everything the fellow had ever written, including the supposedly cursed book, The End of Mr Y:
How could a book be cursed, anyway? The words themselves - which I don't take in properly at first - simply seem like miracles. Just the fact that they are there, that they still exist, printed in black type on rough-cut pages that are brown with age; this is the thing that amazes me. I can't imagine how many other hands have touched this page, or how many pairs of eyes have seen it. It was published in 1893, and then what happened? Did anyone actually read it? By the time he wrote The End of Mr Y, Lumas was already an obscure writer. He'd been notorious for a while in the 1860's, and people had nown his name, but then everyone had lost interest in him, and decided he was made, or a crank. On one occasion he turned up at the place in Yorkshire where Charles Darwin was receiving what he called his 'water cure': He said something rude about barnacles, and then punched Darwin in the face. This was in 1859. After that, he seemed to retreat into ever more esoteric activities, visiting mediums, exploring paranormal events, and becoming a patron of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. After about 1880, he seemed to stop publishing. The he wrote The End of Mr Y and died the day after it was published, after everyone else who'd had something major to do with the book (the publisher, the editor, the typesetter) had also died. Thus the rumoured 'curse'.
Of course, she reads it (quite a bit is "quoted" for us to read as well). Lumas's particular pre-occupations were with thought experiments and a fourth dimension: His Mr Y recounts a visit to a fairground on which he took a strange mixture and goes on a mental journey:
Then I experienced the most peculiar sensation of all. Language almost fails me when I try to formulate this sensation in words. The closest approximation is this: imagine stepping not into another man's shoes but, rather, into his soul... All at once I intuited what had occurred. Inconceivable and impossible though it may appear, I had entered the mind of another.
Mr Y gets obsessed with this journey, wants to recreate it; the rest of his novel is taken up with his tracking down the recipe for the strange mixture, so that he can return to the troposphere. Ariel, upon reading this, despite all the injunctions to treat it as fiction, is convinced, not only that it all happened, but that it can happen to her. One thing I particularly like about this book is the way that the reader is kept pretty close to Ariel as she does her research into how she might accomplish this (and, indeed, earlier, as she is reading The End of Mr Y, we are with her as she reads, and as she takes her breaks). As she learns, we learn. It builds up a nice intimacy with a charming and highly intelligent character.

Thomas does a great job of rendering this troposphere: it is constructed out of thought, so that for everyone, it will have a different appearance, in much the same way we can create skins for computer applications. Indeed, for Ariel, it does seem like a computer application: there is a console, which indicates the various choices she has available to her, and provides information and a kind of mailbox system. What it does is enables her to travel through time and space by jumping from mind to mind: her first mind is that of a mouse, so that Ariel actually becomes a mouse, but still herself at the same time. She switches to another mouse, only to find it is being pursued by a cat (the mouse's "fur twitches with abstract nouns"): only one choice is logical at this point:
And now I'm blurring again, into something bigger. My tail now feels lighter, and I flick it around as I crouch here, crazy with anticipation, my thin tongue licking my sharp teeth. This is going to be fucking fun, and I'm not even sure I can wait before I pounce. I move my bottom around in a repeating arc, balancing myself. Now? No. Wait. Need the right moment, totally the right moment. I've done this thousands of times before, and I could never, ever get bored with it. I don't plan my attacks in any detail but when I remember them they are like bloddy ballets, with me as the director, poking the dancer with my paw, making the food dance, making it pirouette on broken legs, because I like food that moves. I do eat that brown shit in the plastic bowl but I don't enjoy it: it tastes like death. I only eat it to survive because half the time I have to wear a fucking bell that scares the food away. I anticipate the way the warm blood-gravy liquid will taste in my mouth once I've torn the furry coating off this thing shaking in front of me, trying to appear still. I remember the taste... Oh God. Oh yuck. Its like hot Bovril mixed with iron tablets and rust. And now I'm thinking it must be disgusting really, but the synapses in my mind and the cat's mind are now jumping up and down like kids in a junior debating society. After a couple of seconds I'm almost convinced that blood is delicious after all, but whatever is left of me that is human and vegetarian thinks, No! I can feel this thought blending with the cat's thoughts and so, when the mouse decides this is the moment to leg it under the bin, I hesitate. And my cat-mind does a diving backflip, just for a second, but its enough to fuck everything up. There's a voice in my head telling me not to do it. I don't understand this. I don' have concepts like Why? in my language.
Of course, this makes for a preturnaturally contemplative cat, but I found it amusing. Most amusing of all was the rather dramatic pun she introduces to the troposhpere. Ariel learns she can get around the troposphere by way of a kind of underground railway, which connects various states of mind ("fear", "misery", "joy" etc are the various lines) or, to put it another way, trains of thought.

Her rescue of the mouse gains her a friend in the troposphere, a kind of god of the mice, but really a modern equivalent of Apollo. He has little power, because only six pray for him (which reminded me strongly of American Gods).

The book is not just about this excursion into the troposphere: the book strikes me as an adventure in three (connected) dimensions. And it does get adventurous, because having this knowledge of the ability to get into and navigate the troposphere is highly valuable and desirable. There had been some CIA branch working on what it called Mindspace; that team is no longer working for the CIA and is desirous of acquiring the secrets of the troposphere for itself, for sale to the highest bidder. So, they're after Ariel, both in the real world and in the troposphere. She needs to find her erstwhile supervisor, who is probably the only man who can help her. Plus, Apollo has a task for her: she has to go back and stop the person who invented the lab mouse from doing so (which raises a dilemma: what else does one stop?) The third level of the adventure is the intellectual one, as Ariel works out the science of the troposphere, talks with Burlem and a scientist friend of his who is engaged in the same task and thinking about the nature of existence and the existence of nature, gets worried about the paradoxes arising from changing past events
. They postulate the possibility that through thinking, some people (such as Einstein) can not merely theorise about the nature of the world, but create it. This dimension of the book is pretty serious; quite a few names of philosophers and scientists get thrown around: I found it a bit hard, but enjoyed it, the sense of an intellectual conversation going on just over my head (but also knowing that its fiction).

We're also with Ariel in her daily life; she's an interestingly flawed character, a bit of a bum, no surviving family, self-destructive but extremely bright, pretty much totally alone, having increasingly degraded sex with a man, until the troposphere and a priestly man named Adam (what else!) comes along. At this point, when she finally knows love, she thinks "my whole body feels like a smile".

So, yes, the book is itself a sort of troposphere. In many ways, this is a very modern novel. Ariel is frequently name-dropping contemporary thinkers, using the internet to google people, finding weird things on blogs, but at its heart it honours some quite extreme thinkers from the late 19th century, like Butler and Abbott.



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