Review: “The End of Mr. Y” by Scarlett Thomas.

Warning: what could be considered spoilers follow.

Here’s something from Mark Sarvas to get us started:

That hoary workhorse, "the novel of ideas," gets an invigorating kick in the pants in Scarlett Thomas’ imaginative new novel The End of Mr. Y.
Among the ideas on offer for our reading pleasure, one can choose from
the works of Samuel Butler, Schrödinger’s Cat, Erasmus Darwin’s
Zoonomia, relativity vs. quantum mechanics, the power of prayer,
Jacques Derrida, homeopathy, the search for LUCA (the Last Universal
Common Ancestor), Victorian science (luminiferous ether, anyone?),
Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the genetics of laboratory mice. And that’s a partial listing.

But The End of Mr. Y is considerably more than a precocious
recitation of seemingly disparate ideas. It is, above all, an
exhilarating, breakneck narrative that leaves the reader dizzily
impressed with Thomas’ brio and talent as she takes each new
preposterous plot development (an 8-foot-tall mouse god? a secret
government plan for mind control?) and makes it utterly convincing.

Well, I can’t say as I’m on board with that.  In the end, it felt like Thomas had pulled together a collection of fascinating puzzle pieces from different puzzles and laid them together to create something new – but the edges of the pieces overlapped in ways that, to me, were dissatisfying. I did enjoy reading it, for the most part, and the chapter with her riding the train of fear was great.  When the book was good, it was really good – and I intend to track down a copy of Thomas’ PopCo at some point.  I’d rather read a book that shoots for such lofty targets and misses than a book that plays it safe.

I think this book had a failing in meshing the philosophical/scientific pieces of the book with the plot/action of the book – it was trying to be both, but they felt like two pieces of writing, instead of one larger piece.  (An example of a success in this area would be Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World – a book that covers some of the same ground.)

So, I’m on the fence, and then the deal breaker –

And then I realize: We’re together, alone, in the Troposphere.  Adam is actually here.  Or at least, it certainly seems that way.

"Adam," I say softly.

He walks closer to me.  So much for not feeling anything in the Troposphere.  The syrupy feeling intensifies to a point where it’s almost uncomfortable, but only in the sense that an orgasm is uncomfortable.  And everything in me seems to slow down.  This doesn’t feel like it would in the physical world: There’s no racing pulse; no sweaty hands.  My body feels like a misty landscape, melting into its sky.

"Ariel," he says.

Ugh, I say.  Sorry, not to be a jerk about this, but here we’ve got two characters who are completely in love for no discernible reason – the development just wasn’t there.  We get this syrupy reunion, and then they (after setting free the 8 foot tall mouse) (…) have universe-shattering sex straight from the imagination of every comic book store enthusiast across the land. 

And while I don’t mean "universe-shattering" literally – well, that’s not far from the mark. 

I felt cheated – cheated out of an ending, or maybe a non-ending, a more-loose-ends-than-in-the-beginning sort of ending that befits a book that takes such much philosophy and theory under its wing.  There should be unanswered questions, questions raised by answers.  Instead, a trillion orgasms and life eternal.  This is a book where attention to ideas should have trumped cheap love drama, but in the end, it went the other way. 

Others loved it.
Website, with excerpts.


3 Replies to “Review: “The End of Mr. Y” by Scarlett Thomas.”

  1. Agreed about the syrupy love stuff. I always just tune that out because so few writers ever get it right and it always seems like the happy ending tossed in by movie studios to appear to a greater audience after the initial screening.

    You are right that I shouldn’t excuse it. But I chose to just overlook it, not deal with it. This must be why I’m not a proper literary critic, I ignore the bits I disklike rather than trying to figure out why they were there in the first place.

    I stand…on notice.

    (but did you like it aside from all the syrup?)

  2. I did, I did. I think the syrup got under my skin the way it did because I enjoyed the other parts so much. Language = reality: good stuff, to be sure. Just too much syrup on top.

  3. I felt the same way about PopCo. The parts I loved I really loved, and the bad parts were frustratingly awful, including the end of the book and the romantic angle.

    I still haven’t read Mr. Y, but your take is basically what I expected. I think it will be a library item.

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