Monday, 30 November 2009

'The End of Mr Y' - Scarlett Thomas

The question on everyone's lips in Brown's broken Britain is "is Scarlett Thomas's 'The End of Mr Y' worth reading? Well, is it?" It’s a good ‘un. Pertinent. You can't walk into a bookshop without a 3 for 2 offer featuring 'Mr Y' waving its arms around at you. Making it my personal mission to answer it, I read all 506 pages of ‘Mr Y’ ages ago and then absconded from my self-imposed citizenly duties by going and hiding in a basement in the former German Democratic Republic for a month. I can only apologise.

Anyway, now I'm back and the novel has turned to dust in my 'undermind' (whatever that is), it's time to give it what for. And then gratuitously mention Saul Bellow.

Evidence in favour of the novel being good: Scarlett Thomas is the only British female novelist currently writing thrillers that mix Derrida with sadomasochism, time-travel, the nature of reality, alternate universes, subatomic theory, being chased by CIA agents and a 'gimmick symbol' (Birkbeck elderly word-nerd slang) of a cursed book that promises all who read it will die.

Evidence of so-what-ness: Um...I kinda think the DABC is under a curse of its own, cos since Junot Diaz' 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' everything else we’ve read has seemed rather mundane in comparison. 'Mr Y's' no exception.

Evidence of equivocating diplomacy, a return to warm fuzzy book reviewery: There's much to love in ‘Mr Y’, very much indeed. For one thing, Scarlett Thomas is cool. She can write all the elements of thriller (she used to write murder mysteries) and yet she is a proper brain. Lots of the novel is just her main character, Ariel Manto, a sexy Scarlett surrogate (i'm fairly sure) who is doing a PhD in thought experiments, thinking about or having conversations about things like phenomenology, the substance of thought & matter, the debate over the wave function collapse in quantum theory, the last universal common ancestor and all sorts of other awesome shit. And she does it deftly. You don't feel you're reading some textbook or being lectured to. The words 'penetration' and 'oblivion' are mentioned too often for that. So, props for that. Big props, in all possible quantum worlds.

Also, as briefly mentioned, the fact it's a page-turning thriller is also to the book's credit, though i've read a far better one in that respect recently which made this look messy and poorly paced in comparison (the better one being John Burdett's 'Bangkok 8' - now that man can write a cracking thriller). I can't be bothered to go into detail about 'Mr Y's' plot, it’s too complicated, but it involves an alternate dimension called the Troposphere (whose streets are described like really bad CGI) and some alchemical steampunk freakery called Pedesis, which is a means of inhabiting other people's minds discovered by a fictional Victorian dude who may or may not be a surrogate of, and whose ideas are implied to be fictionalised versions of Thomas Lumas', the Victorian dude Ariel Manto is doing her PhD on. And, breathe…

About halfway through all this turns from steampunk to being basically set inside a computer game. This was never gonna be a winner for me - steampunk bores me (inevitable consequence of being weaned on the-future-is-awesome-ness of The Jetsons & Girl from Tomorrow) - and the computer game thing; well, it's alright. It's clever & different. It’s pretty out there. I admire Thomas for trying to pull it off. But 'Y' is a lengthy bastard, and it dragged, only getting going on p180 when they discuss metaphysics over apricots. The plot, cool as it should have been, didn't hold much magic, though the real reviewers loved it ('daring', 'elegantly constructed', etc) so i guess that's a failure of imagination on my part. I just think trying to incorporate time-travel and mind-travel into a cursed Victorian book being read for a PhD thesis by a girl whose personality is most clearly defined by eating lots of lentils and being freezing (which hit close to home, but still), a love story with a post-nervous breakdown, priesthood escapee Jonny Greenwood lookalike theologian, being chased in more than one universe by two random CIA dudes, an AWOL PhD supervisor, a mouse god who likes coffee, and homeopathy as the key to entering other peoples''s a lot to cram in.

And also, it wasn't quite funny enough. Obviously, this matters most. 500 pages of mind-stretching thriller goes down a lot smoother with a few jokes. Me and jokes are Danny & Sandy in the summertime. Give me jokes. It was casually written, which obvs was great yeah, and by the end of it I felt like Ariel Manto was a friend – but a Shirley Manson from Garbage type, one who was all attitude and mythologies about her own fucked-upness and grey days and cigarettes. Fine, but have a few jokes. And finally...since I'm bitching, it was well-written but not amazingly so. For a heavily promoted bit of hot new literary fiction, it was no 'Oscar Wao'. *licks cover of OW*. I think Junot Diaz has raised the bar a little too much right now; I may need to revert to Saul Bellow to feel comforted again (see end...).

So, while I applaud Scarlett Thomas's awesome boldness in writing about big, weird, ideas, and going Matrix on us, and am mighty glad she's doing it (cos there arent many other women being published as mainstream literary fiction who break down Heidegger in the middle of an on-the-run-from-the-CIA-with-the-love-of-my-life plot point), I was not nearly enchanted enough. It was ambitious but baggy and inelegant. Out of curiosity, I'll read PopCo and her forthcoming new book, but something's missing for me. I admire it, but I'm far from enamoured.

Straight after' Y', I started reading Saul Bellow's 'Humboldt's Gift'... I'm loving this shit. Dude's the Bellow, he's on another level, but he's overlooked by way too many people these days and that's a dumb move. Every page is funny, sharp as hell, self-deprecating, wicked. As William said when I got off the plane in Berlin and slapped him around the face with my gorgeous reading material, it's like 'Herzog' but funnier. And 'Herzog' is, of course, a great book. All 'Humboldt's Gift' is about is sex, hot women, divorce, Chicago mobsters, money, vanity and belligerent men. And what Bellow can get away with in that loose and steamy frame is incredible. I'm not going to draw any comparisons or do down 'The End of Mr Y' any more - the latter's existence is a good thing. If i happen to find it lacking in narrative drive and enchantment...well, you should still try it out. you can borrow my copy. it's definitely a beautiful-looking book and you'll feel like the coolest kid on the Tube. (i tried to put images here but they came out way too big). Whereas the cover of Humboldt's Gift looks like some Pigeon Street brawl/Beryl Cook painting and will make you feel like you're reading a cheap romance. And if you end up loving ‘Mr Y’, we’re doing ‘PopCo’ together. You can tell me what I’m missing.

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