18. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Published in 2006 by Mariner Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008.

“So if we’re all quarks and electrons …” he begins.


We could make love and it would be nothing more than quarks and electrons rubbing together.”

Better than that,” I say. “Nothing really ‘rubs together’ in the microscopic world. Matter never really touches other matter, so we could make love without any of our atoms touching at all. Remember that electrons sit on the outside of atoms, repelling other electrons. So we could make love and actually repel each other at the same time.”

Many a bibliophile has been quoted as saying, ‘Give me books before bread!’, but Ariel Manto’s acquisition of an ultra-rare 19th century tome literally lands her near to poverty. Yet, for a copy of The End of Mr. Y, a literary work with which Ariel is obsessed, the decision is effortless. The fact that everyone who has read the book seems to have disappeared (including Ariel’s Ph.D. advisor, who once gave an academic talk on this ‘curse’) does not dissuade her. Once she reads The End of Mr. Y, she is left with more questions than answers, and a burning desire to follow the journey of Mr. Y himself. Her own journey, replicated on the steps that he—and Ariel believes, her absent advisor—took, sends her spiralling into an alternative realm of reality, called the Troposphere, in which she is able to spatially manoeuvre by piggybacking on the thoughts of others. However, Ariel soon realizes that (a) not all in the Troposphere is as it seems, and (b) she is not alone in her mindsurfing odyssey.

It is hard to figure out whether or not Ariel Manto deserves the reader’s respect. At several points in The End of Mr. Y, attempting to love Ariel can feel like an effort in loving the most (under)doggedly dismal parts of ourselves, the ones we feed with cheap alcohol, too many cigarettes and a lifetime’s dingy disappointments. This doesn’t mean that the novel’s protagonist is poorly-drawn; quite the contrary—she shines by her very lack of lustre. Insofar as a character’s convincingly-rendered moments of unlikeability make her eminently more likeable, Ariel Manto’s a gem.

Emblazoned across the cover of the book is Jonathan Coe‘s assertion that you’ll finish The End of Mr. Y “a cleverer person than when you started.” Unless you are well-versed in quantum physics (and are, in fact, formidably read across the sciences), then this is likely to be true. The novel strikes a deft balance between those things that scientific research has already established to be beyond contention, and those things over which it still debates and troubleshoots.

This is no obvious science textbook distilled into fiction, however, for which we may be glad. Thomas is just as concerned about portraying the ways in which faith coalesces or collides with rational data and quantifiable proof. For example, the concept of multiverses, and the validity of time travel in and among these, is crucial to the novel’s structure. Attention is also paid to communication, to language and speech, to literature and expression, the conduits that determine how we interface with the world, and the reasons why what we perceive to be real may or may not be so.

We wrestle with the grey space between absolute conviction and staggering disbelief, as Ariel does. We watch her mind absorb new ideas, new frameworks for comprehension, and while observing those expand, alter, shift dramatically or incrementally as the novel progresses, we realize we’re hooked. At her lowest ebb, Ariel asks herself whether or not she would do it all again: to have forsaken so much, including a tangible future with a mysteriously familiar man, in search of knowledge, and she knows that she would. Fellow learning junkies will admire the eminently accessible, academic chops of The End of Mr. Y. It’s like summer reading for the unabashedly nerdy logophile and bookish scientist, both.

Reading The End of Mr. Y led me to contemplate the successful sell of gimmick-harnessed literature, which I mean in the most innocuous way possible. The ‘go-thou-no-further’ approach has worked admirably in this novel, as both strategy and context. Thomas prompts us to peer beyond each tarnished veil, which we do, each time, without hesitation. (I’d like to challenge at least one person who tells me that they weren’t tempted to conduct the exact experiment that Ariel does, since I’m reasonably certain they’d be lying.) Telling people not to do something, in the hope that they will proceed to do it, may seem like the easiest sell in literature, as in life. On the contrary, this technique has been so often and so ill-employed, that when it functions in the hands of a talented writer, we tend to take notice. Some of the success of books like these, and this, surely hinge on the adroit manipulation of that very concept.

The author engineers Ariel’s dalliances in the Troposphere (i.e. the parallel realm of thought in which she must mindsurf to progress) in fine and credible style. These passages of the novel often feel to be the most poised and crisply detailed. Whether Ariel is trespassing on the mind of a fundamentally insecure teenager, or that of her unlucky, morose neighbour, or the shadowy agents who’re tracking her down, each windowed interlude is a miniature showcasing of the author’s talent for capturing unique voices.

The end of The End of Mr. Y is unambiguous and indefinite, all at once. Odds are you’ll loathe it, or beam in satisfaction as you close the back cover. Either way, few contemporary novels astutely define “conversation piece” so well as this one. Be they silly talks, long-reaching rambles or heated dialogues, if you don’t have much to discuss, then consider that you just might have left your critical mind in another plane of existence.

This is the second book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.