I love being part of a book club. Apart from the extremely rewarding social aspect, you get to read or re-read some extremely good books (and then have a nice chat about them). Unfortunately, you sometimes have to read some extremely poor books too. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas was one of the latter. I would never have read this book if it hadn’t been for book club, and if, by some chance, I were to have started I would have stopped a lot sooner. As it is, I felt compelled to finish, all the while moaning and cursing my lot.
Ariel, a PhD student in her mid/late 30s, is studying the works of Thomas Lumas, a 19th century novelist. After her supervisor mysteriously disappears, she comes across a copy of The End of Mr. Y, a novel by Lumas which is amazingly rare. On reading it, she discovers the means to access the Troposphere (or Mind Space). The Troposphere, far from being a layer of the atmosphere as you might expect it to be (what with it having the same name as said atmospheric layer), is a realm of pure thought (or language) that seems to underlie our physical reality. Ariel meets some people, flees from some heavies who want the formula that allows ingress to the Troposphere, and figures out the rules of this new place. Basically, she is able to jump from mind to mind, shifting about in time a bit as she goes.
It’s all a bit Matrix (by way of Shadow of the Wind), a similarity that is only strengthened when Ariel finds out that she’s basically Neo. Unlike others, she is able to enter the Troposphere at will. Further, she can use her position there to manipulate the mind in which she resides.
I had various problems with the book, but two in particular stand out. First, I absolutely could not stand the astoundingly heavy-handed undergraduate-philosophy name dropping.
Here, for example, is some sample “dialogue”: “Basically, phenomenology says that you exist and the world exists, but the relationship between the two is problematic. How do we define entities? Where does one entity stop and another begin? Structuralism seemed to say that objects are objects, and you can name them anything you like. But I’m more interested in questions about what makes an object and object. And how an object can have meaning outside of the language we use to define it.” This is followed by more earnest questions from Ariel’s rapt interlocutor that allow her to continue to wax lyrical on the relative merits of Baudrillard and Saussure, Derrida and Heidegger. Self indulgent wankery.
The only excuse for this sort of nonsense is that the metaphysics of the Troposphere are given a patina of post-structuralism. However, I’ve read the works of some great world builders, and I found this world building to be very weak. But even sketchy world building can be saved by some good writing. There’s a point where Ariel has to escape from the Troposphere on a train made of fear. I think that could be pretty cool in the hands of Neil Gaiman, but here it was just dumb.
Near the end, her love interest tells her, “You’ve got the potential to be the kind of thinker who can change the world. You could be the next Derrida”. Nothing so clearly positions this book as a work of wish fulfillment. And the saddest thing is just how paltry that wish is. Who the fuck wants to be Derrida?
Philosophical thought is a wonderful resource for literature, perhaps especially sci-fi and fantasy (e.g., Neil Stephenson, Ursula LeGuin, Ted Chiang), but rarely have I seen it so abused as it is here.
My second problem is just how desperately the author wants to inject some emotional gravitas into a book that is basically an ephemeral adventure story. Ariel’s character is entirely chipper and optimistic. There’s absolutely no sense of depression or anxiety in the way she thinks about things or the way she approaches problems. However, we are frequently bludgeoned by passages like the following “[I want] to go through the kitchen drawers until I find the sharpest knife, and then I want to spend a few hours alone convincing myself that I’m real and I’m human and I mean something”. There’s an enormous disconnect between the character and these supposed compulsions, which means they have literally no emotional weight whatsoever.
Apart from the self-harm angle, there’s also this amazingly depressing conjunction of sex and morality. I think it’s fairly well established now that sex and morality have little to do with one another, and yet here sex is rarely considered anything but dirty and perverse. And sex is discussed an awful lot. For example: “Real life is letting men fuck you over their desks (and enjoying it, which is somehow the worst thing).” Then, later: “I want to suck your cock and lie back and let you fuck me but not in a priory because it makes me feel dirty and evil.” (Cocks are frequently mentioned in the novel, generally in relation to mouths.)
I don’t know what foibles of personality the author was trying to evoke with Ariel’s character, but I feel that delusional paranoiac was not one of them. Nevertheless, that seems to be the one that she has best succeeded at: “[The women in the cafe] are the kind who would never wear flattering clothes because looking attractive equals sex. [A guy] looks at me and I see a familiar desire in his eyes: for sex, raw sex, and it’s because I look like I’d be up for it. Compared to everyone else in here , I look like a whore.”
At some points, the sex becomes so miserable that it transcends misery and enters the realm of the hilarious: “I didn’t even desire her — she looked like a slab of melting butter”.
It’s a common complaint in the world of comics at the moment that rape is the lazy, go-to device to ensure readers know just how serious shit just got. What’s true for comics is also true for books, so, of course… “I was in this reporter’s head, supposedly getting information on the gang who’d kidnapped her. I ended up getting raped by three of the men.” Then, later, (on the fear train) Ariel encounters a “misty representation of someone being fisted by their own father.” Exsqueeze me?!?
Later still, I was thinking, you know what we haven’t had yet? Some sexual abuse by priests. Wait, what’s that? “When the priest from the village rapes my sister, I feel as though I did it”? Phew!
And then Thomas invents entirely new dimensions of pain and misery – a multi-page epic journey flitting from the life of one agonised lab mouse to another: “I don’t know what death is [but if I did, I would want to die]. [I know] I should be able to move, and that there shouldn’t be metal spikes in my eyes.” Well.
I could start attacking the plot, but I feel like I’ve gotten my catharsis at this stage and I’m well over 1000 words, so I’ll leave it at that.