The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas

>> Thursday, February 18, 2016

TITLE: The End of Mr. Y
AUTHOR: Scarlett Thomas

PAGES: 502
PUBLISHER: Canongate

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction / Fantasy

A cursed book. A missing professor. Some nefarious men in gray suits. And a dreamworld called the Troposphere?

Ariel Manto has a fascination with nineteenth-century scientists--especially Thomas Lumas and The End of Mr. Y, a book no one alive has read. When she mysteriously uncovers a copy at a used bookstore, Ariel is launched into an adventure of science and faith, consciousness and death, space and time, and everything in between.

Seeking answers, Ariel follows in Mr. Y’s footsteps: She swallows a tincture, stares into a black dot, and is transported into the Troposphere--a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others. There she begins to understand all the mysteries surrounding the book, herself, and the universe. Or is it all just a hallucination?
I read this one for my January book club. It was a book I confess I'd never heard about, so I had no idea what to expect. What I got was a very weird, if interesting, book.

Ariel Manto is a PhD student. One of her key topics is a 19th century scientist and writer called Thomas Lumas. She’s read his entire body of works, except for his one lost book, called The End of Mr. Y. There are just no copies of that book available other than the one that is known to be stored in a vault in Germany. Well, guess what Ariel comes across one day in a tiny, out-of-the-way used books shop?

The End of Mr. Y is reputed to be a cursed book, but Ariel doesn’t hesitate to read it. It turns out to be about the eponymous Mr. Y, a Victorian man who discovers a way to travel into a place called the Troposphere, a world where people can enter others’ minds and travel around (I won’t describe its exact nature, as that is much of the discussion in the book). Ariel manages to find the recipe Mr. Y follows, and she knows she just HAS to try it, even though she expects it to do nothing at all. She does, and what do you know, she’s suddenly in the Troposphere herself.

But others, some dangerous others, have an interest in the Troposphere as well, and Ariel has come to their attention.

The End of Mr. Y is a mix of the metaphysical and the thriller, all spiced up with some interesting characters.

Big stretches of the book take place inside Troposphere. This is often really interesting, sometimes weirdly detailed in the logistics of how different things are done. The only issue is that there's a lot of exposition in those sections about these philosophical and scientific ideas. Thomas does her best to integrate them by making them essential in the plot (Thomas would probably be quite offended, but this sort of put me in mind of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World), but sometimes there’s just no better way than to have Ariel talking to someone and explaining a particular issue (say, quantum theory). Those bits did feel quite infodumpey.

That said, most of the book was quite exciting. There was a real sense of peril and almost of detective work, which felt pretty satisfying, as Ariel tried to figure out what was going on, how things worked and how to save her life.

Ariel was a really interesting character, too. the main thing that stood out to me about her was her curiosity about everything. She’s interested in all sorts of things... she’s now doing a PhD in a particular area (thought experiments), but her job right before that is what characterised her to me: she’d write a column about a topic, and then took some detail that had stood out to her when researching it, and would go off on that tangent and write her next column about that. This is part characterisation, part essential for the plot, because it means that she has read a hell of a lot, particularly around philosophy and science. This is crucial for her understanding what is going on in the Troposphere.

In addition to her curiosity, Ariel is actually a character who feels real. She’s not just a reader stand-in to describe how the Troposphere works. She’s someone with her own issues, and some of them, such as her unorthodox sex life, were definitely not what I was expecting.

I wouldn't want a steady diet of books like this one, but I enjoyed it.



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