September 2006

Blythe Boyer

fiction

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Most young authors’ early novels display an annoying tendency towards flabbiness. But even though Scarlett Thomas prolongs the end of Ariel “Named for the Poem, not the Play” Manto’s journey for 398 pages from the beginning, it didn’t need the same axing that others do. Thomas has cobbled together a mystery, a fantasy, and a deep critique of 19th-century philosophy into as tight a narrative as possible.

Welcome to the delirious world of Mr. Y. I read this book quickly, obsessively, pulling late-night, hours-long reading sessions the likes of which I haven't seen since I read all of Lloyd Alexander’s books in my youth. Or Philip Pullman’s wonderful trilogy, more recently. I used the excuse that I wanted to finish this review before my semester starts in September to keep my nose in the book. But honestly, I just loved reading this book more than doing just about anything else.

Thomas is definitely a grown-up version of fantasists like Alexander and Pullman. Her heroine is an endearingly screwed-up Ph.D. student, working on one of those dissertations that are so screamingly obscure you wonder what she’ll ever use it for. Ariel Manto’s life consists of smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and researching nineteenth-century thought experiments while hoping that her mentor miraculously returns to help her. Professor Burlem mysteriously disappeared a year before the narrative begins, from the English university town that sometimes sounds like Kent, where Scarlett Thomas teaches.

Due to a chance accident, Ariel happens upon an almost fabled book in a used book store; this is maybe one of two extant copies surviving since the late 1800s. Part of the reason that the other copies were destroyed is the rumor of a curse, wherein anyone who reads the book dies shortly thereafter. As she scurries home with her treasure, she wonders if she will read the book and risk the curse, or if it’s all a silly story, or if she should wait until she can talk to Burlem.

It doesn’t take Ariel long to decide to read the book, and for the curse to come after her.

Thomas sends Ariel on a quest worthy of the most wonderful traditions of sci-fi and fantasy. The work is not only thrillingly imaginative, but Thomas’ grasp of challenging philosophical concepts weaves a very satisfying thread of commentary through the story. If you’re interested in Derrida, Husserl, Phenomenology, or the interrelation of science, faith, and language, you’ll find Ariel’s musings fascinating and well-informed. As a student of the history of science, I was quite pleased to see a treatment that went deeper than the usual pop stylings of  today’s fiction writers.

Don't worry, it's not all dry and dusty commentary; the writing is often poetic -- for example, I think anyone can relate to the description of  Monday morning, "and the sky is the color of sad weddings." And Ariel is a thoroughly modern and funny woman. Her ideas are strong. At one point, Ariel self-deprecatingly laments, "Sometimes I think I see my own ideas floating around, but they usually don't last long. They’re more like mayflies: They're born, big and gleaming, and then they fly around, buzzing like crazy before they simply fall to the floor, dead, about twenty-four hours later." The description is perfectly opposite to how I feel about this book. It's lasting.

Thomas also tells her story with the style of an insightful storyteller, like my beloved Lloyd Alexander, captivating us with her characters and the believable challenges that lead them into the realm of fantasy. So when Ariel meets the mouse god Apollo Smintheus, we can accept him as her invention instead of being reminded of Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Thomas doesn't rely on the glitter of specifics to try to conquer our attention deficit disorder, by riffing from Ariel's brand of smokes to a book cover to a current hit on the radio. Instead, Thomas builds Ariel's world like a scientist may build a thought experiment, letting it unfold for us naturally, and it becomes as persuasive as our real world. She is also willing to face the darkness and complexity of human decisions and interactions with humor and ethics, but without judgment. Her narrator is flawed but understanding, a refreshing point of relation for the reader.

My one complaint is, I'm afraid, a serious one. And it's something that afflicts even the most experienced novelist: the allure of the pat ending, the ending that will tie everything together for the reader. Ms. Thomas has tacked on an unneeded epilogue that honestly made me cringe. I like when the author lets the reader have their own final interpretation of the book's events; this shows me that the author trusts me to contemplate and understand their work. So I'm going to pretend that the epilogue never even existed.

Thomas's novel, PopCo, was also reviewed on this site. The reviewer raved about Thomas's creativity and expressed her excitement at what the author had in store for the world. The End of Mr. Y is a fitting and inspiring extension of Thomas's young career.

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
Harcourt
ISBN: 0156031612
399 Pages