You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Saturday, 23 March 2013

on 'The End of Mr. Y' by Scarlett Thomas, and Related Thoughts

I read a fabulous book recently, as I often do, and I want to tell you about it, which is something that I also often want to do, but often don't. I had a little epiphany about why I don't get those thoughts out and onto a blog post. I've been using the term 'literary review' in the titles of posts about books. This is because I like literary reviews, and they're definitely a good thing to do. But now I realise I need to stop using this expression. I have too many constrictive ideas about what a literary review actually is, and many of the thoughts I have about books don't seem to be part of my definition of a literary review. So I'll just write about books. If you would like to read a more conventional kind of proper literary review of this book, there's this one here on Goodreads and this one on Novel Niche, both of which I quite liked.

To begin with, my story about a book begins quite a bit earlier than when I actually read it. First, there is the story of how I came to read the book, where I found it, the way in which I came into my life, who told me about it, and what I've heard other people say about the book before I read it. All those experiences are somehow, in a way I can't explain, so fundamentally bound up with my relationship to the book that I always feel that the story begins there, sometimes long before I ever open the cover.

So this story begins with a horror heatwave, where it's too hot to eat, sleep or even read a book. By the last couple of days I was so desperate I resorted to spending the afternoons hanging out in the big Westfield plaza, which is usually something like my idea of Hell on Earth - only I doubt that Hell has air conditioning.

This is how I came to be wandering around a Westfield plaza looking for a way to kill time until the sun started to go down, and this is how I came to spend some time in a bookshop that wasn't a secondhand shop. It was one of those big discount warehouse kind of bookshops, with aisles to lose yourself in, and a lady on the checkout who seemed to have absolutely no interest whatsoever in anything that wasn't happening directly in front of her face. This gave me a lovely feeling of freedom, not worrying about what she thinks of me spending a whole hour in here, or the fact that every now and then I would take out a notebook and pen and make a note of a title or author that sounded interesting. You'd be surprised how many people seem to find 'note-taking behaviour' something of a concern.

One of the books that attracted me was Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. And so I duly noted such in my notebook, which I must admit was actually a sudoku puzzle book, and I just used the spacious margins to make notes. Then I went home and looked up all the titles and authors I had noted on the online catalogue of my local library, which is always my first step when I hear of an interesting book. Only if the library doesn't have it, will I look at buying a (secondhand!) copy. It's really very rare now that I will actually buy a brand new book. My library did indeed have Our Tragic Universe, but it also had a couple of other books by the same author, which is how I discovered the existance of The End of Mr. Y, which sounded even more attractive than the first book I'd looked for, and so that was the one I put on hold, along with several other discoveries. A couple of days later I get a text from my library telling me my books are waiting for me. It's all a free service. How awesome is that? Sometimes I reckon public libraries must be the best thing about the modern world.

On the other hand, my Pile of Books to Read increases by about two feet. Sigh.

Of all the novels that I read, or consider reading, only a few will really grab me suddenly, fiercely and passionately. The End of Mr. Y is one of them. I read the first few chapters one day, and then was so sucked in that the next day I read the rest of the book straight through.

The main character, Ariel Manto, is a Ph.D student with some intriguing academic obsessions in the history of (actual, non-fictional) thought experiments in general, and the works of a (fictional) Thomas Lumas in particular. Thomas Lumas had written a book called The End of Mr. Y, which was considered to be cursed, as all the very few people who had ever been known to have read the book had disappeared, including Ariel's supervisor. Only one copy of the book is known to exist, and it's securely locked up in a German bank vault. So it seems impossible when she happens to find a copy in a second-hand bookshop, but it's real. And yes, it's going to completely change her life. I so know that feeling.

If I'm going to really get into a novel, I need to be able to identify with the protagonist in some way, to be able to understand their motives. If I don't, I can still appreciate the literary merits of a book, and what I can learn from it, but it just won't get into my heart. But I could slip into Ariel's world like slipping my door key into my own front door. I belonged in her space. And I liked her.

I asked myself why I liked her, what I thought of her. The first thing that came to mind is "She's more depressed than she thinks she is." She's so busy focussing on survival day by day that she doesn't stop to think about how she feels about things. She never feels sorry for herself, though the lifestyle she's describing in the beginning of the story is pretty bleak. She never indulges herself, she just gets on with it, making the best choice she can in any given situation. Still, there is a melancholy air behind her voice that made me feel that she was someone who knew The Black Dog intimately, that perhaps her denial was her defense. Later in the book she reveals that she used to cut herself to deal with her emotions, but now she smokes cigarettes instead, which is of course much more socially acceptable. Details like this confirm my image of her, and make me feel closer to her. I feel like she and I would be able to understand each other without talking about things much, like you can with some people. That is, if she weren't a fictional character.

Then I had to ask myself why that was the first thing that I picked up on about her, the primary way I related to her. Am I more depressed than I think I am? Is my denial my defense? Umm, yes, probably, and yeah, I reckon, respectively. Depression is a constant force in my life; sometimes it's stronger than other times, but it's always there somewhere. Sometimes I do need to just get on with things, keep going day to day, not in spite of it, but because it has to be irrelevant. The only other alternative is to watch everything fall apart.

Okay, so I admit, I'm having some depression lately. Having admitted that, I'll just get on with things, and back to all the other reasons why The End of Mr. Y is a fabulous book. And fabulous books are in themselves, of course, a wonderful way to combat or deal with depression.

It often seems to me that novels tend to fall into one of two categories - either it's 'light' and entertaining and enjoyable and assumes that the reader is probably not very bright, and doesn't place any undue demands on such, or it's 'heavy' and dense or just so bloody high-falutin' in showing us how very clever this book is, and so must we be if we're reading it. Hmmph. Well this book is a rarity - it's a down-to-earth, grounded narrative without a hint of that rarified dialect I refer to as 'academic wank,' but it also assumes that the reader is an intelligent person and able to deal with some abstract thought.

I must admit I took Jonathan Coe's quote on the front cover - "Not only will you have a great time reading this book, but you will finish it a cleverer person than when you started" - as something of a challenge, given that I consider myself a pretty clever person on a good day. I had a sneaking suspicion that perhaps Mr. Coe just wasn't as clever as me to begin with. And yes, I did have a fabulous time reading this book, and I appreciating being treated as an intelligent reader, but no, I didn't actually learn anything new as such, or end up any cleverer. I don't know if I would be someone who could be described as being 'well-versed in quantum physics' as the Novel Niche review suggests, but it has been something of a hobby of mine ever since I had my first experience of spiritual enlightenment in a chemistry classroom in high school, and as for being 'formidably read across the sciences' - well, yes, I am a bit formidable when it comes to reading. I'll cop to that one.

But even though I wasn't learning anything new as such, damn I enjoyed reading about these subjects being discussed by regular human beings who are interested in life, rather than professional scientists. If you are interested in brushing up on your quantum physics or your existentialist philosophies, I would much sooner recommend an excellent story like this one over a non-fiction, academic text.

I do love books that are about books, stories about stories. In this case, The End of Mr.Y is a book, written by a real person and presented as fictional, about a book called The End of Mr. Y, by the fictional author Thomas Lumas, which asks to be considered as fictional, though of course we know it's not. I love the double reality this creates - when we're thinking about The End of Mr. Y, do we mean Thomas' book, or Lumas'? Are they actually the same thing? Is Thomas Lumas really a part of Scarlett Thomas, anyway? Is the name a clue? Where does one story cause another to happen, or is it all one story? You can go round in circles thinking like this. What delicious fun. As the main character Ariel reads Lumas' book, she shares it with us, sometimes in direct quotes, and sometimes in a synopsis in Ariel's own voice, filling in the bits in between. I really enjoyed this split experience of Mr. Y's story. It didn't feel so split, though, maybe because Ariel relates to Mr. Y, and I relate to Ariel, and all our perceptions of the one story sift out into a beautiful cohesion.

So now I really have to find everything else that Scarlett Thomas has published, and keep an eye out for anything new she might publish in the future, because I've got a feeling that this woman is gold and I'm going to love at least most of what she writes. And my To-Read Pile increases by ... oh big sigh.

No comments:

Post a Comment