Chasing ideas down rabbit holes: The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

The End of Mr. Y My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an adventure in thought experiments. This is idea porn. It’s the most cerebral fun I’ve ever had. The End of Mr Y is a cocktail of postmodern philosophy, quantum physics, metafiction, science fiction and adventure. If any of that sounds intimidating, rest assured that this isn’t like reading Derrida, Heidegger, Baudrillard or any of the convoluted philosophies that Ariel Manto likes to immerse herself in. Early on she says that she “quite like[s] the way you can talk about science without necessarily using mathematics, but using metaphors instead” (29) and that really goes for all the key theories so beautifully woven into the story. The End of Mr Y is in itself a thought experiment for all the science and philosophy it explores, a mind-warping vision of a postmodern existence where language creates reality rather than just describing it. I wish I’d read this when I was doing my honours in English lit – I would have understood what Derrida was on about, instead of stumbling, completely perplexed, through differánce and then nervously avoiding Derrida for the rest of my degree.

The story begins, aptly, with the collapse of the Newton Building, signifying the collapse of common-sense, cause-and-effect Newtonian physics. In its place we have much more interesting, counter-intuitive, and altogether weird quantum physics. Forced to leave the university campus after the building collapses, Ariel ends up at the bookshop where she finds a copy of The End of Mr Y by the Victorian writer and philosopher Thomas Lumas, a supposedly cursed book that shows her how to enter Mindspace or the Troposphere – another dimension, constructed entirely of thought, where all consciousness is ‘stored’, where you can enter other minds and travel through time.

Although she’s hardly my favourite character, Ariel has the kind of mind that makes this story possible. She’s smart enough to understand the likes of Heidegger and Derrida and intertwine them quantum physics. She’s endlessly curious and so relentless in her pursuit of knowledge that she spends all the money she has to buy a cursed book that she doesn’t hesitate to read. Ariel’s also got a taste for sexual deviance that leads to some brief but alluring sex scenes. Tangled up with this is psychological and physical scarring that prevented me from finding Ariel truly likeable, but the novel more than compensates for any uncomfortable distance between reader and character.

I was hooked on the mysteries and ideas from the start, turning back to re-read interesting bits or look for clues, pausing to scribble notes and quotes, figure out the puzzles, or just muse. I got excited when I figured something out, or discovered something clever, such as the word games in the names: the name Samuel Butler (whose theories about consciousness are mentioned) contains all the letters for Saul Burlem, leaving out only the ‘t’ and an ‘e’, which lead to T.E. Lumas – Thomas Lumas (and Lumas can also be taken from ‘Samuel’) which brings us back to Scarlett Thomas. And of course there’s the oft-mentioned anagram in the narrator’s name: Ariel Manto – I am not real. What does it all mean? I’m not sure, but it’s kind of fun.

When it was over I was obsessed, unhappy that it had ended, hungry for more. Cursed? I like to think so. The curse of Lumas’s novel is not so much a curse of death as a curse of knowledge, of curiosity, the seduction of that need to know more, with all its unknown consequences. The End of Mr Y is about ‘the end of mystery’, the surreal journey towards that end, chasing ideas down rabbit holes, and the scary uncertainty of whether or not that’s somewhere you want to go.

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5 thoughts on “Chasing ideas down rabbit holes: The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

  1. Hey Lauren
    You make this book sound so amazing!
    I saw the next book by this author in my local bookstore the other day and when I saw that she wrote “The end of Mr Y” I thought about you and hoped you were enjoying the book. Glad to see you did, I might have to pick it up and read it some time 🙂

  2. You guys should check it out, it’s such a good read. I ordered another one of her books this morning: a href=”http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4285468-popco” title=”PopCo”>. Can’t wait to check it out!

  3. Apparently, you’re the only person on the internet who has wondered (and written) about the idea that “Saul Burlem” may also be -at least a partial- anagram. Thanks for your input, this has been driving me mad all day. 😉 And now back to reading, I still have another 100+ pages to go… 😉

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