One afternoon a few months ago, I was sitting alone in a pub. (News of my incipient alcoholism has been greatly exaggerated.) I was reading a book. After I'd been sitting there for about half an hour, a woman the worse for wear arrived at my table and, as her opening gambit, demanded, "What's so clever?" She was pointing at the book. Did she not like books? "I don't mind the books," she replied, swaying into the seat opposite me. "I just think—don't—what's so clever? What's the point?"
I carried on talking to my new pal for a while. It turned out she was a frustrated legal secretary with an English lit degree. This is reason enough to think reading fiction is a colossal waste of time and energy, but though she would have denied it had I put it to her, she was of course reframing the question all literature professors ask rhetorically at English department open days across the land: why read fiction? What is it for? What is its benefit?
There are as many answers to these questions as there are readers. Indeed, in seeking to examine the role of literature through her new novel The End of Mr Y, Scarlett Thomas has deliberately set out to fashion a universe in which disparate realities exist simultaneously and adjacent to each other. Its central conceit is the Troposphere, a sort of fourth dimension of thought entered into via the imbibing of a particular elixir. Each visitor to the Troposphere sees it differently, interprets it in a way which makes sense to them. It is not hard to see this as a metaphor for fiction.
The End of Mr Y follows Ariel Manto, a PhD student at a British university who is researching the history of nineteenth-century thought experiments. She lives a lonely, isolated life, taking part in dysfunctional and destructive sexual relationships, making just enough money to survive, and possessing roughly two friends in the whole world. There is no question that her interest in books is motivated in part by a desire to escape this dreary, quotidian world: "Real life is regularly running out of money, and then food. Real life is having no proper heating. Real life is physical. Give me books instead: Give me the invisibility of the contents of books, the thoughts, the ideas, the images" (p. 117).
The principle attraction of fiction, of all books, is that they entertain on some level—the intellectual, the emotional, or the spiritual. Ariel has fallen in love with this particular element of their appeal. She thinks seriously about everything she reads, developing theories and theses about each book, but ultimately the joy of books lies for Ariel in their disconnection from the real world. As her emotional life, so her intellectual—it is separate, unconnected. Even Ariel's doctoral supervisor has disappeared, she suspects in connection with his quest for the fabled, supposedly cursed, book The End of Mr Y, by the Victorian writer Thomas Lumas. Her academic theories are entirely divorced from anything in the "real" world.
As Thomas's The End of Mr Y begins, Ariel is sent home early from campus after a building collapses. Forced to walk an unfamiliar route home, she happens on a second-hand bookstore. On a whim, she asks if they have a copy of Lumas's missing novel, knowing the answer will inevitably be no. She is shocked when the assistant reveals that the shop has in fact acquired a copy. Ariel snaps it up, now possessing the only copy of the novel outside of a German bank vault. Thus follows a lot of chapters in which Ariel reads someone else's book. Thomas has acknowledged Mary Shelley's influence on her, and there is an echo of the monster reading Paradise Lost in Ariel's fevered devouring of this dangerous book. Similarly, the influence of If On A Winter's Night A Traveller suffuses these pages. Thomas lacks the mastery of either writer, and the early chapters of her book drag.
Perhaps this is fitting. Ariel is unhappy with the humdrum and uninterested in her life; it makes sense that the reader is made almost as uncomfortable and bored by it all as the narrator, although it makes it harder to engage emotionally. But Thomas's clumsiness with—or perhaps lack of interest in—the day-to-day is the novel's only real bum note in terms of craft. Lumas is read and a quest begins for a missing page. The book, entering into the fantastic, takes off. Ultimately the page is found in the papers of Ariel's missing doctoral adviser, and curiously it contains the recipe for the elixir Mr Y uses in Lumas's novel to enter the Troposphere. In his preface to the novel, Lumas insists loudly that he wants the book to be read as "fiction"; something drives Ariel not to do so, and she begins to collect the ingredients the author listed.
And so the walls between the "real" world and the world of books begin to break down. Through Mr Y, Lumas had described a world—the Troposphere—in which a person could live the thoughts of another, to slip not just into their shoes but their soul. Of course, this is precisely what the novel was designed to do, what it does best and better than any other art form. The novel does not tell expansive stories well, nor does it hold moments of time in amber or evoke strong feelings so much as it recreates a thought system. It is not designed to tell every story, but at most several—it transplants us into another way of perceiving. In Thomas's phrase, used late in The End of Mr Y to describe what it is that scientific and philosophical theories achieve, it encodes a reality.
As Ariel journeys into the Troposphere, it becomes explicit that Thomas is producing a novel Ariel's own PhD would be interested in. Her The End of Mr Y is a classic thought experiment—a logical extrapolation of a variety of theories, from Derrida's and Heidegger's to Einsten's and Hawking's—which cannot necessarily be proven in the physical world. Early on, Ariel explains that she quite likes "the way you can talk about science without using mathematics but using metaphors instead" (p. 23). The novel in which she appears proceeds to attempt to marry art and science, Foucault and Schrödinger, by supposing that, put simply, everyone is right. (And, by extension, everyone is also wrong.) The Troposphere, that plane on which all thoughts are open to all thinkers, is a gateway into a world in which every possible way of explaining the universe is accurate in so far as the person who perceives the world that way believes it to be.
This sounds like heavy going, but Thomas weaves a thriller plot into the mix involving secret CIA projects, romantic love, and a detective story, in order to impose some sense of narrative order on the philosophical discussion. This should be no surprise—Thomas was a part of the New Puritan movement, which sought to eschew literary high-mindedness by returning to strong narrative as the driving force of fiction—but it has to be said the plot at times pales into a sort of generic soup, seeming curiously lightweight and tongue-in-cheek in the face of the po-faced conversations its characters have about God and quantum physics.
There's a hugely satisfying scene in a fourth-season episode of The West Wing in which press secretary C. J. Cregg, home to see her increasingly senile father, finds herself hugely upset, angry and overwrought, but bellows the question, "What about reciprocity?" The message is that intelligent characters, contrary to television's usual rule of thumb, do not give up their cleverness or vocabulary when they cry. People really do talk like that. The End of Mr Y is similarly saved by Thomas's strong sense of how the sorts of people about whom she writes talk—it does not as a rule strike the reader as absurd, as it does in a work like D. H. Lawrence's wordy and overly worthy Women In Love, that the characters stand around and talk about phenomenology. Thomas captures well the tenor of intellectual debate. It helps that a lot of the time her characters are drunk.
If these scenes are far more arresting than ones ostensibly far more important to the novel's overall plot, it isn't a disastrous failing. It hobbles the book a little as narrative entertainment, but as a thought experiment Thomas's work impresses. One character is writing a book called Poststructuralist Physics, a deliberate fusion of a literary term with a scientific discipline. This reviewer wanted to beat Derrida when he was alive around the head with a big, splintery stick, but Thomas doesn't argue the pros and cons of his approach, rather simply assumes he was right and asks what that would mean. A novel which spends much of its time trying to show that the insane, counterintuitive principles of quantum physics exist because no one had really given thought to the subatomic level and therefore no one had yet simply imagined into existence its rules may fail as a satisfying narrative (and a tacked-on feel-good epilogue seems to suggest Thomas felt similarly), but it works as a novel. In a crazy, counterintuitive way.
"I wanted knowledge," says Ariel when she realises the implications of her own theories, "and I got it. […] How awful to be proved right; for someone to demonstrate to you that, yes, there's no Daddy up there who's going to approve of you because you got the puzzle right. […] Our thoughts spin quarks up and down and smear electrons into whatever we want them to be." And so The End of Mr Y closes with a passionate advocacy for the relevance of books, of theories, of fiction. In writing a novel about a PhD student being chased by rogue CIA agents and slipping into a fourth dimension inhabited by an eight-foot mouse god in which consciousness is explicitly subjective, Thomas shows us that fiction allows like nothing else for us to ask "what if?" and to follow through the consequences.
And that, my friends, is what's so clever.
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.