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.

Yes, that’s what I assumed: On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt

On TruthOn Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On Truth exists largely as a footnote to Harry G. Frankfurt’s earlier work, On Bullshit. An excellent example of a concise, clear argument, On Bullshit was a brilliant essay on the subject of bullshitting – of communicating without any regard for truth. Bullshitters, Frankfurt argues, are distinct from liars, because liars at least know what the truth is, even though they choose to contradict it. Bullshitters on the other hand don’t know and don’t care about the truth. They communicate with a specific goal in mind (eg. persuasion, improving their popularity), and will say anything in order to achieve this goal.

The purpose of On Truth is to fill a gap identified in the argument against bullshit – an explanation of the importance of truth, a reason why we should care about it. Frankfurt is not concerned with defining truth and falsity – for his purposes the universal, commonsense definition of truth suffices. For example, we all know the truth concerning such things as our names and addresses, and what it means to lie about these. Frankfurt begins by critiquing the relativism of postmodernists who vehemently deny the existence of any objective truth. Regardless of their claims, our lives depend on truth. Engineers need facts about building materials and measurements in order to build a bridge that will not collapse. Surgeons need to know truths about the human body in order to operate on it.

Most of Frankfurt’s argument is similarly utilitarian – we need truth to plan our day-to-day lives, to set long and short term goals, to better understand ourselves, to maintain social cohesion (which is based on trust). This all makes perfect sense and gives you good reason to want to KNOW the truth and, therefore, to resent being bullshitted and avoid bullshitting others. However, it offers little reason for why you should TELL the truth, because a lie might better serve your purposes, and therefore has more value in utilitarian terms. Frankfurt’s essay might convince bullshitters to respect the truth by finding out what it is, but whether they then decide to use it to be honest or deceptive depends on which of these options provides a means to their ends. Consequently, I found that On Truth only achieves part of its goal – it demonstrates the importance of knowing and using the truth, but falls short of convincing one not to lie.

If, when reading On Bullshit, you assumed that it would be better to know the truth, or if this is simply your general conviction, On Truth will probably be incredibly boring – a case of preaching a dull sermon to commonsense converts. There are no insights about truth that I found noteworthy. Compared with On Bullshit, it’s terribly banal. Despite the fact that I could easily have read this in about two hours, I lost steam halfway and only picked it up again about two weeks later, mostly because failing to finish such a tiny book would be just shameful.