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Sunday, November 14, 2010

I've just finished reading Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y.

Here are my observations:
- First, aesthetics. I particularly enjoy looking at the warm hues of the cover accentuated by gold and black embossing, and, as always, the black-edged pages look rather nice on my  bookshelf. I have become awful at  judging impulse-purchases on the eye-catchiness of their covers. That's how Scarlett Thomas grabbed my attention initially.

- there are some very interesting sciencey bits which are actually moderately accurate. Actually, that's not fair: it's dealt with very well considering this is not a treatise on popular science but a novel about a PhD student who is interested in quantum physics, and who has a remarkable ability to condense complicated theories into clever anecdotes that make the theories very easy to understand and translate in real-world examples.

- there are some interesting literary theory references which are very accurate.

- the protagonist, Ariel, is remarkably similar to Meg, the protagonist from Our Tragic Universe. I can't help but wonder if this is auto-biographical? I shall have to read the rest of the novels to determine whether the protagonists are all just variations or mirror images of the same entity. I guess this ties in nicely with Thomas's analysis of the multiverse and the infinite doppelgänger.

Here are my opinions:
- it's terribly post-modern, and I'm very aware of it.

For example, it's a novel about a missing book that is supposedly cursed. As the protagonist finds the book and begins to read it, so the first chapters are reproduced in the book you're holding, and you begin to read it to. Are you involved in this double curse? The book is also titled exactly the same as the cursed book, so which book is cursed? The one the reader is holding, or the one the reader inside the book is holding? It's like looking into a mirror that is placed directly opposite to another mirror, and seeing your reflection look back at yourself an infinite number of times (the infinite doppelgänger, again).

And so, furthermore, the author of the missing book is a man who discovers how to transport himself into a state of pure consciousness through a medicinal liquid. He then writes a book about a man who discovers how to transport himself into a state of pure consciousness, and includes the recipe for the medicinal liquid. The main character is writing a thesis about this never-before-read book when she finally discovers it, reads it, and discovers the recipe. She makes the liquid, and learns how to transport herself into a state of pure consciousness. There are a number of other people who also read the recipe, make it, drink it, and transport their minds to the consciousness of the troposphere. As the character reads the book, so does the reader read the book containing chapters of the missing book. We learn the recipe. How many people, real people, are going to follow suit and make the medicinal liquid to attempt to transport to a realm of pure consciousness?

- I hate the ending. Don't read the last chapter. Same goes for Our Tragic Universe. Actually, this might just be my issues because I generally dislike the way most books end and I'm so often tempted to rewrite them that I think this might be a very good group-writing project to embark upon.

- I hate the lab-rat chapter; but I think that's largely because it's so powerful and so well-written that I actually had a physical response to the writings and I had to stop reading it for a moment.

- Thomas does some really nice things with two concepts I'm particularly interested in: (1) the multi-verse and (2) collective consciousness. Oh, and language, of course. The question you're particularly left with at the end of the novel is this: what is there before language? Is there existence? Consciousness? Do we think things into being through language? If anything else, she's inspired me to read more Heidegger, Einstein and Baudrillard. See more Scarlett Thomas here.

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  1. Actually, something has been on my mind ever since reading this book.

    The whole idea of the troposphere or the collective consciousness plays on the "six degrees of separation" (or, as Chase used to call it, the "six degrees from Kevin Bacon"). So, everyone in the world is intricately connected to everyone else and their minds are only a mind-hop away.

    So, if you can 'escape into' the troposphere, for a little mind-browsing, wouldn't you mind-hop into people like Einstein, or somebody fabulously intelligent? Then you can assimilate all of their ideas and global understandings in an instant and be equally capable of great ideas and thought (potentially, anyway).

    The other thing that really bothers me is that it is quite evident that all who visit the troposphere understand the enormous weighting and severe consequences of mind-hopping, so they choose to stay there instead of return to their bodies in the 'real' world. Only, Saul Burlem doesn't; he returns to the physical world and continues to hide from the ex-Project Starlight agents. Where did he go?

    Six degrees from Kevin Bacon.

  2. I read this last year too - was browsing through the large (and cheap) selection of books at Reader's Warehouse and the cover and black rimmed pages caught my eye. Plus... you know me and my love for all things postmodern... haha!

    It is a fascinating read, but quite disturbing on many levels. I also had to put the book down for a bit when I got to the mice/rat 'possession' section - the descriptions were incredibly visceral, I don't think I will ever look at those creatures in the same light!

    I agree with you about the ending though - I found it incredibly twee and not at all fitting with a book which delved into some heady philosophical material and makes you start to question the very nature of consciousness.

    But the connection between space-time and the conscious mind is very well thought out, and, you're right, the integration of the more sciencey subject matter is handled well too, as are the more complex elements of literary theory. Definitely gave me a lot of food for thought :)

  3. I'm so glad that you've read it! I actually haven't met anyone who has got past the first few chapters :)

    Have you also tried out 'Our Tragic Universe'? She does some lovely things with Holmes's Hound of the Baskervilles, plus there's a knitted 'fabric of the universe' which appeals to my yarny side. I'd really like to read 'PopCo' but I've been put off by the cover which is a kind of bubblegummy 'Cloud Atlas'. (Okay, but when you go into a shop to buy a book and you like two equally, but one of them has a BEAUTIFUL cover and the other one has an 'okay' cover, you really can't help but be swayed. Confessions of a book-cover-judger)


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