The End of Mr. Y - Scarlett Thomas

The End of Mr. Y - Scarlett Thomas

There are some books that just swallow you up, aren't there? You just want to inhale as much of them as possible as fast as you can, and they kind of take over your life for a few days, and it's sad but also sort of a relief that you can go back to normal sane reading for a while.


That was The End of Mr. Y for me.


Which is kind of appropriate, because it' can I put this? It's a very trippy book. It starts out as a novel about a cynical and rather lonely PhD student, Ariel (and I am a sucker for novels about cynical and lonely academics), who finds by chance an extremely rare Victorian novel by an author she happens to be studying in a second-hand bookshop. The book, however, turns out to contain a secret: a recipe that will allow the reader to enter a dimension made of pure thought. Travellers in this dimension can read others' memories and even travel into the past. Of course, there are those trying to get hold of the book, and Ariel, for nefarious and murderous ends; Ariel needs to escape them not only for her own sake but for the sake of the world.


Oh, and if you stay in the thought-dimension for too long, you die.


Summed up like that, it sounds like the misbegotten lovechild of The Da Vinci Code and The Matrix, and, yes, in some places it does read...a little over the top, especially during the more action-packed sequences within the thought-dimension. But there are a couple of things that, for me, raise it above pulpiness: its ideas and its characters.


It's an extremely philosophical book, playing with ideas about quantum physics and semiotics, namechecking Einstein and Darwin and, gods save us, Heidegger and Derrida. At some points, its exposition of things like special relativity, while informative, become a bit info-dumpy and dense; but as a whole I think it's doing something quite clever with all of this, something to do with the sucking void between the signifier and the signified (also a topic for which I am an absolute sucker).


And then there is Ariel: damaged by a string of bad experiences, so crushingly disappointed with her life that she won't admit it to herself. I haven't rooted so hard for a character for a long while: for her to stop making self-destructive decisions, to find some self-worth and let herself reach out to people. She's a fascinating character, and I would quite happily read another book about her.


Overall, The End of Mr. Y is a novel about losing yourself, and maybe finding the courage to find yourself again, which is what makes its hypnotic, hyperreal qualities so apposite. It's not for everyone: if you like your fiction terse and fast-paced, give this one a miss. But if this is your kind of thing: go for it.