Title: The End of Mr Y
Paperback: 502 pages
Publication Date: 12/06/2008
For someone like me with my slightly OCD need to categorise things, Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y with its mix of genres is, at times, like kryptonite to me. Victorian homeopathy and mysticism collides with postmodern theory in a novel that mixes in elements of science fiction, fantasy, computer games and thrillers [amongst many other things]. It is densely packed and wildly original and, putting aside my frustrations at its genre-bending nature, a hugely enjoyable read.
Ariel Manto, a polymath PHD student writing her doctorate on nineteenth-century thought experiments, discovers a rare edition of Victorian novelist Thomas Lumas’s The End of Mr Y whilst ferreting through a second-hand bookstore [it should be pointed out that Ariel is not literally a ferret at this moment – especially as this is a book in which becoming an animal does occur!]. Here, Thomas is teasingly playing with those perennial favourites of postmodern theory – the question of what is real [‘Ariel Manto’ is an anagram for ‘I am not real’!] and metafictionality. We, the reader, are holding in our hands a novel called The End of Mr Y. But simultaneously, we are reading about Ariel reading a fictional book of the same name. The boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred and at times quite confusing in this novel.
Furthermore, the fictional edition of The End of Mr Y [that is, the one that Ariel buys] contains instructions on how to enter a computer-game-like other reality that Lumas called the Troposphere and where Ariel is able to perform a type of telepathy and inhabit the minds of people [or animals!].
Strong, independent, intelligent and sassy, Ariel is very much a typical Scarlett Thomas heroine. And I found myself warming to her as soon as she revealed her bibliophilic tendencies [although her willingness to forgo food and electricity/warmth in favour of a book is surely going beyond the call of duty?!].
But she is also a character wracked with insecurities and with a predisposition for putting herself in harms way. This is typified by her affair with a much older, married professor, who seems to be merely using her as a means to fulfil his fantasies for increasingly sadistic and bondage-fuelled sex – as Ariel herself admits, she realises that Patrick wants her for dirty sex with no strings. And I took an instant dislike to him from the moment he first appeared and stated that he couldn’t believe that he was about to sleep with someone who owned an iPod – what a creep!
However, this is also part of what makes Ariel such a compelling heroine. She is both very intelligent [she argues knowledgably with academics about Derrida and différance!] but also completely lacking in self-worth [she sleeps with much older men because she believes that she has nothing to offer men her own age]. She is strong but flawed, which makes her completely sympathetic and gives a human core to a book in which the reader is bombarded with the intellectual [at times too much so].