31 August 2008

Another Erroneous Book Cover Judgement

I would probably never have picked up The End of Mr Y - let alone bought it - had Pseudonym Resistant not recommended it to me and that is mainly because of its cover, which is all red and gold, with a font reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (not my thing) and the appearance of some kiddie, adventure/fantasy book. Plus, it has black-edged pages, although this is quite cool. In fact, as soon as I got the recommendation, I looked the book up online and determined that I might quite like it (on the basis of a one line description that it was a "thrilling adventure of love, sex, death and time-travel" - the tag line didn't mention it was also about physics and philosophy), and set about finding it in a bookshop and its cover was very familiar - perhaps because I have been seeing it on the three-for-two tables in Borders for months now.

Finding new fiction has been an ongoing pain in the arse for me for the past year or so. While I could make myself read the old greats or assorted cult fiction I feel I ought to have read, I don't tend to enjoy these and usually race through them far too quickly to get much out of them, making up my knowledge on Wikipedia afterwards. I am swept up neither by the plot nor the characters, which means I might as well have stuck with non-fiction, which is at least interesting and/or educational and which has made up the vast majority of the past year's reading list.

Nor do I find aimlessly browsing the fiction section in Borders very profitable. Occasionally, I will come across something of interest but this is very much the exception; second-hand bookshops and market stalls usually have a more eclectic selection but even so, I haven't had too many serendipitous moments. Recommendations have been incredibly useful, then, and Pseudonym Resistant did pretty damn well with The End of Mr Y, even if certain aspects of the book hit home a little hard (presumably, intentionally so in terms of his recommendation).

The plot is hard to describe without giving too much away. Suffice to say that the plot is almost incidental as the reader comes to realise later on in the novel. For what it's worth, the book begins with Ariel, an impoverished and over-analytical English lit. PhD student, coming across a very rare book by the obscure Victorian author whom she is researching, which kicks off the aforementioned adventure of love, sex, death and time travel, as she tries to unravel the "curse" of the book as well as working out where the hell her supervisor has disappeared to, finding time to ponder on the nature of love, Schroedinger's cat and theology, among other things.

And I really liked it, so much so that I read it all today (this is the other reason I never have any fiction to read: when I find something I enjoy, I want to read it and to get to the end as quickly as possible). There are lots of chunks of magical realism - in fact, as I was reading it, it occurred to me that this was what I was hoping Gravity's Rainbow would be like. One of the reviews on the back of the latest copy of GR that I owned (and subsequently "freed" to make room for J Crew clothes) said something along the lines of, "Jump on this magical, surreal ghost train and you'll never look back from the rollercoaster ride, which crosses time and space, by turns hilarious and haunting."

Now, some might argue that I'm just too much of a philistine to truly appreciate such a great work as GR, whereas Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y is much more accessible and hence less rewarding to those of us not researching a PhD in magical realism. The Independent on Sunday review sez, "Mindboggling, brainy and playful. Stretches from theoretical physics to immensely dirty sex scenes, and packed with ideas." Although I didn't find the sex scenes all that dirty (my diet of Jilly Cooper has raised my smut threshold considerably), I would be inclined to agree. It certainly was a total mindfuck, although it's the kind of book that you only realise is going to be messing with your head for weeks to come when you're already halfway through and committed to reading to the end. Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park did that - it starts perfectly normally, lulling you into a false sense of security and then 50 pages later, you're sitting there thinking, what the hell is going on? Mr Y is a lot trippier than Lunar Park, although like the latter, the first few chapters of Mr Y do seem to set it up as your average mystery/literary thriller.

There's lots of clever, self-aware meta too: the role of the author and how - or if - the author can be separated from the book, various descriptions of the use of analogies in thought experiments, and a whole lot of philosophical spiel that it will probably take me some time to untangle. But then, like GR, Mr Y is populated by a wonderful, crazy, ethereal cast of characters, who often provide as much levity as they do hardcore theory. Naturally, the quirky juxtaposition of Ariel's constant referencing of her iPod, alongside her deep love for musty, ancient books, also appealed to me.

There are plenty of Livin' in the Future time travellin' paradoxes to worry about too but these are voiced by the characters rather than being plot holes (or, at least, rather than being plot holes that matter). I was somewhat irritated by the ending too (endings usually do frustrate me), but Thomas even puts a disclaimer about the ending in the acknowledgements, which makes it a little better. Besides, it was beautifully written, if not entirely satisfying (I don't think I would really have expected a different ending). In fact, the whole novel seemed to flow melodiously, sweeping me along with it, rather than washing over me (apart from some of the relativity - special or otherwise). In all, though, an interesting, thought-provoking, yet still entertaining read.

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