The Pursuit of Knowledge – Favourite re-reads: The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

Listened to, not read
Listened to, not read

Imagine someone writes a novel and it’s just for you. They tap into your interests and beliefs. They build a character that feels like parts of you. I suspect this is the success of most great novels, that the authors find that unnamed thing within you and put it on a page. This is how I felt the first time I read The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, when it came out in 2006.

I wouldn’t have normally picked it up. I doesn’t sit comfortably within any genre I would normally read, but then it doesn’t sit within any genre really. I picked it up because a. it was set in Canterbury, where I was working in the public library at the time and b. it heavily features theoretical and quantum physics, which I’ve a strong interest in.

I like to learn. I love to ponder the nature of things. I would be a polymath if I had the time or the talent. Ariel Manto, in Thomas’ book, would also be a polymath, I think. She seems to have an interest in everything and a question in one area of specialism will lead to another area of thought. And this is natural. For me, anyway. Throughout the plot, Ariel is constantly asking questions. She keeps admitting that she doesn’t understand (such as how homeopathy is supposed to work) and then trying to find out the answers, and in doing so, explaining the topic to the reader. She also admits her ignorance. Freely. I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance is attributed to Socrates! And thus philosophy features heavily too – the works of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida in particular. I also read about philosophy, although I often find most of it just beyond my reach.

And so I thought I’d return to The End of Mr Y around ten years later. I wanted to see if it was one of those books that are of a moment in time, or would give something new to me today. I listened to the audiobook this time, narrated by the wonderful Clare Corbett. Within the opening few chapters, Ariel had referenced Abbott, Butler, Darwin, Einstein, and the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. I remember that during my original reading that it felt like Thomas has gone along my bookshelf and wrote a story around it. That remained a true feeling this time. And of course, I felt comfortable listening to the descriptions of the city where I still work, although it is a little weird walking up St Dunstan’s while coincidently listening to it being described within a work of fiction.

The plot? Hard to describe, but Ariel is doing a PhD on thought experiments after discovering the titular text in a second-hand bookshop. Actually, I’m not going to describe the plot…just read the book! On her adventures, Thomas via Ariel deals with the aforementioned physics, God and religion, animal rights, homeopathy, telepathy, philosophy, sexuality (I’d forgotten just how crude Thomas is), abuse, the end of time, cults, academia, homosexuality, mental health and the very nature of thought and existence. I think that’s everything. What makes it a great book – awesome characters and terrific prose aside – is that it never feels like any of these subjects are forced. By the way – the prose is very brave: not only does Thomas have the characters having a lot of conversations where they explain the finer details of their understanding of all these tricky subjects, but some concepts are also spelled out within the descriptive prose – the long sequence of numbers repeated when Ariel first enters the tunnel into the troposphere for example. They all fit neatly in the puzzle, often driving the plot, rather than reacting to it. What I found interesting, however, is that I hadn’t thought of many of the specifics of the book at all for almost 10 years – the mouse god Apollo Smintheus; the trip back in time to meet Abbie Lathrop as examples – but as soon as Corbett spoke the names their details came flooding back to me, even though I’d thought of the book and especially Ariel Manto several times in the interim. Memory is the most fun – fuck theoretical physics, as Thomas writes.

In the end, of which is of course another reoccurring theme in of itself, I think The End of Mr Y is a love-letter to books and the pursuit of knowledge. The first time I read it, I warmed to it like a long-lost friend. I thought it might be science fiction or certainly magic-realism. This time around, it had less of an emotional impact, and genre-labelling be damned! but like Ariel’s thought experiments, it made me consider memory and desires, goals and interests. So it made me think differently. Rather than just acknowledging and reacting to the content, it has inspired me; reinvigorated me. I might even put Heidegger’s Being and Time on my to-read list…

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