- Urbino, Italy - I remember buying this book in 2008, as soon as a paperback version hit bookstores. I remember reading it in a rush, not being able to separate from it for too long, as intrigued as I was by the story. I read it again last week, and almost nothing changed in my opinion.
The End of Mr. Y tells the story of Ariel Manto, a college student working on a thesis on Thomas E. Lumas, a controversial, forgotten British author from the nineteenth century. Professor Saul Burlem was supposed to help her on this, but disappeared all of a sudden, leaving Ariel at a dead end on campus. Things change when she, by accident, finds the rarest Lumas book – that is, The End of Mr. Y – which is rumored to be cursed. Lumas died as soon as it was published, same thing happened to all the people involved with it.
What would you do if you found a cursed book? Ariel asks herself, and her only answer can be: read it. She’s a woman whose primary desire is knowledge, books are her very first love. She reads the book and gets to know the Troposphere, the world of thought and representation, a place where you can easily get lost. She cannot resist the impulse of experimenting it through a formula written in the book, and she takes off. Through the Troposphere, she finds out, you can enter people’s minds, you can experiment Pedesis, a jump-off, a time-travel through one’s ascendants. Soon enough, though, she also finds out how dangerous such a world can be, when she encounters people interested in acquiring the formula, killing all people who already know it – or, what’s worse, just driving them crazy – and getting free access to people’s thought and will. A secure way of ruling the world.
Ariel is chased by these evil men, as she slowly understands how the Troposphere works, how her own mind works, how she can protect it from intruders. She also casually meets Adam, a professor of Religious Studies, ex-priest, true love of her life, who will share a big part of her journey to the Troposphere.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot – I’m afraid I would end up revealing too much. What I would really like to analyze are other sides of this novel, which have been harshly criticized on most of the online reviews I was able to read.
The first one concerns the cultural background on which the story was constructed. Many people seem to hate the fact that The End of Mr. Y quotes scientists, philosophers, linguists and writers all the time. The book is full of Einstein’s theories on relativism, Derrida’s différance, quantum theories and so on – primarily because that’s what actually explains what the Troposphere is, what it is made of, how it works. That world is a world of fiction based on actual theories and, even though I can see why one would be bored by this presumptuous narration, I actually found it alluring. I am writing my graduation thesis on metaphors, which have a big part in this story, and there are a lot of interesting theories about them which, don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about right here, right now. It’s just interesting to see where a novel can take you, how it can do it, and how such theories can affect a work of fiction. It’s something fresh for me, since it’s unexpected: when you buy this book, you just don’t imagine it’s going to be so well documented. This is actually something that bothered me on my first read – Scarlett Thomas tended to sound a little uppish, absorbed in her own superior knowledge. Maybe it just went away because this time I knew what she was talking about.
The other aspect of The End of Mr. Y that people don’t seem to like is the quantity and quality of sexual references. There’s a lot of sex, there’s a lot of thinking about sex, and it’s rough. It’s described as it is – violence, no love, no enjoyment.
When an author includes sex in his novel, the first thought always goes to ‘that’s here to sell’. It’s like nudity scenes in movies, but as in movies, it does not grant any success for the product – sadly, Jason Momoa’s abs in Conan the Barbarian could not avoid the flop. This novel, though, doesn’t need to be saved, and sex is not superfluous here: it has a big part in defining Ariel’s personality, history and moral. This girl used to be a self-injurer, has never seen love involved with sex, and has a troubled family history. She has no respect for her body, since her only treasure is her mind and her knowledge. Describing her sexual life, the way her sex partner Patrick treats her, showing the difference when she finally makes love to Adam, it all contributes to making her a complete, accomplished character.
Total accomplishment, to the character and to the plot, is reached at the very end, when the circle finally closes and Thomas leaves no room for a sequel – thank you very much. I turned the final page and was totally happy with what I got. To me, it was one of those few novels where nothing felt out of place, I just wouldn’t have changed anything. This does not mean I would recommend it to everyone, nor would I list it as a must-read. It was just totally congruent to itself.
The End of Mr. Y is a brilliant novel, but, unlike other works of fiction I previously read and loved, this time I totally see why people didn’t enjoy it. I understand. There are too many compliments on its cover, and none of them tells you it’s going to be complex and, you know, probably not the kind of book you would pick up and bring home. See? I’m being honest here. Now, would you give it a try?
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes