Sunday, 10 November 2013

Week Forty-Two - Jeanette

The End Of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)
Recommended by Ian

My friend George was at something called a ‘Meaning Conference’ this week. She tweeted and blogged about it. I was rather taken with her thoughts and briefly entered the debate:

Yes, it’s been a very introspective month. I’ve pulled apart my innards in search of meaning within our flawed web of knowledge and, more specifically, my meaning within its strands. This isn’t a bad thing to do, per se, but usually one only does it when not feeling exactly euphoric. Thus, it’s hardly a surprise that such painstaking pondering is tinged with sadness or futility.

The heartbreakingly ironic thing is that this quest for meaning comes because we’re looking to be happy; this (for me at least) is usually an instinctive and unpredictable process, so the pursuit of it in itself brings me the absolute fucking opposite. It would have been Albert Camus’s one hundrenth birthday this week; read (from the fabulous Brainpickings site) what he has to say about happiness, sorrow, and principles. He speaks a lot of sense.

I told somebody this year that I thought the easiest path in life was the hardest in the end. Like Evelyn Waugh’s miserable depiction of relationships last week, what I saw as happening with the easy way in life was a simulacrum of happiness. How far we convince ourselves that this illusion is reality depends on our own capacity for self-deception.

Yet, during this latest bout of reflection, I’ve doubted my belief in those words. Look the part, be the part: perhaps the illusion needs to be there first, to enable the reality to quietly slink in behind it. At the same time, I’ve found that what I believe I am really feeling can be itself chimerical, no more than a forgotten scrap of paper, and perhaps especially so when that said ‘real’ feeling is concealed. When the front presented to the world doesn’t exist, the reality therefore has no reason for being at all.

If I can’t tell the difference between my own fake and real feelings, how can I expect to divine truth and lie in anyone else?

Does that even matter if I get the end result that I desire?

And is it always a physical result, with tangiable proof, that I desire?

Like I said, an introspective month. And it was with this head on that I read The End Of Mr. Y, a novel that’s Alice In Wonderland meets The Matrix meets Poststructuralism For Beginners.

It is only in the logos of metaphora that we are to find the protasis of the past, that glorious illusion which we call memory, that curtain of destiny, drawn tightly over the conscious mind but present in every fibre of being, from sea creature to man, from pebble to ocean, as Lamarck and E. Darwin have maintained. Can this place be real? Perhaps not. For this reason, it is only as fiction that I wish this work to be considered.

The End Of Mr. Y is not only a book by Scarlett Thomas. The passage above is from The End Of Mr. Y by Thomas E. Lumas, a extremely rare and supposedly cursed Victorian novel. In it, the narrator relates his discovery of the ‘Troposhere’: a semi-psychic state where minds can be read, others’ experiences understood, and the impossibilities of time and space compressed.

I confess that I almost became lost in this new world, for, given access to another man’s thoughts, who would not roam endlessly within them?

Quite. The Lumas passages in this book are very good; it was an interesting and convincingly Victorian story that began with a sideshow entertainment and ended in Mr Y’s complete capitulation to the Troposphere. Thomas, when she wrote as Dumas, also showed great attention to detail – down to hyphening ‘fair-ground’ and ‘make-shift’ – and I really liked it.

Ariel Manto, PhD student specializing in the works of Dumas and historic thought experiments, mysteriously finds a copy of The End Of Mr. Y and reads it, all the while metaphorically looking over her shoulder for the curse that supposedly dogs this book. Eventually she finds out why the book is considered so dangerous, because it contains the recipe to enter the Troposphere.

                        Make the tincture in the following way:-
Combine one part Carbo Vegetabilis, that is, vegetable charcoal, in the 1,000th centesima; homeopathic potency, with 99 parts holy water in a glass retort or flask and succuss the mixture ten times.

Carbo Vegetabilis actually exists and so Ariel makes up the drink. Who wouldn’t? I did vaguely consider doing it myself for this post, and if it had been my favourite author or even simply that the required potency had been easily available from Holland & Barratt, I would have done it in a shot. I have, after all, said Candyman five times in the mirror and would so watch the Ring video.

Ariel enters the Troposphere and hilarity doesn’t ensue. For me, and rather unfortunately since it is ninety per cent of the book, Thomas is not half as good a writer of her own story as when she’s pretending to be Dumas. It’s overlong, Ariel is an irritating protagonist, and the dialogue is, at points, very stilted. There are pages and pages of Ariel and her colleagues debating Creationism and the Theory of Relativity. Thomas often introduces fairly complicated philosophical ideas and then, lacking the courage of her convictions, tries to dumb down or clunkily explain them to the reader. There’s also a dated virtual reality feel to the story that I didn’t like.

This is a big shame because when Thomas uses ideas in a subtler and more exploratory way, the book really worked. For instance, there’s a religious undercurrent to The End Of Mr. Y, specifically dealing with prayer.

‘If they pray, I survive. If not, I go to sleep. It’s not death, exactly, but I can’t do anything impressive.’

Thomas explored this within Christian and Pagan contexts, and it really connected with my own thoughts about meaning and purpose (in a secular context). Sola Fide – ‘faith alone’ – is the Lutheran doctrine whereby a human doesn’t have to prove he or she is ‘saved’ through good works. Belief in, and acceptance of, Jesus Christ is the key thing, not external proof. Luther got a lot of stick for this – critics assumed that sola fide offered carte blanche to do whatever the fuck you wanted and still enter the Kingdom of Heaven – but Luther didn’t mean that. He meant that, if you have faith, it doesn’t need evidence for the benefit of others. Jesus Christ knows, and he is the only one that needs to. Thus, I think Luther was saying, it is the ostensible proof itself - the good deeds we may do - that are the illusions. The reality of faith can never be proved, yet it is is entirely knowable by the only force that matters in a Christian sphere.

I love Martin Luther. He was a very logical debater, a fiery-tempered tortured soul, and he nailed tracts to doors. Go to this Luther insult generator and marvel at his caustic tongue.

The other interesting idea in The End Of Mr. Y was drug use and dependence. Ariel’s tincture is not chemically addictive but she’s hooked on the experience it offers, and begins to hate being in the real world; this is, surely, a drug narrative. The real hardcore Class As like heroin and crack are killers of reality; as Renton put it so succinctly in Trainspotting, when you’re not on smack you have to worry about some football team that always fucking loses. Ariel’s trips to the Troposphere become increasingly despondent and dangerous: heroin, after all, screws you up.

This was a frustrating read, overall. So much good stuff, but it needed far more ruthlessness at the editing stage. On the other hand, perhaps it was its very laxity that allowed my mind to wander so. The book certainly gave me more fodder for rumination rather than providing an escape from it: I never would have made the sola fide analogy without it.

Blimey, this is a long post. I guess it’s been brewing for a while. But before I let you go, you have to hear about Ian. Or Crackers (to give him his full title). We met on a record nerd forum before real life, but he soon became one of my most treasured Sheffield friends. He has a very sympathetic ear and an even more sympathetic tone of voice. I love shooting the breeze with him over dark ale and lazy Sunday afternoons. Plus, like James Brown, he’s the hardest-working man in (Sheffield) showbusiness. He’s always got a night on – at the moment it’s the fabulous Jive Juice – and he is a bloody good DJ with an absolutely blinding record collection. I’ve ‘spun’ alongside him and it’s a joy (it’s also faintly embarrassing, as his skills show mine up as pure amateur hour). He has bought and passed on to me numerous awesome records. Including a disco version of Romeo and Juliet.

I’m not sure he and I have talked much about books, because it tends to be records and life. He was the final person to submit his recommendation. Classic Crackers. (In fact, he was so late that I’d devised a Plan B: to ask this really cute guy I’d seen around for a recommendation, as an in to talk to him. It was probably a good idea that Crackers came through. It might have all gone a bit Love Actually.)

Ian, I’m sorry I didn’t like this book very much. But I liked writing about it very, very much. And I liked writing about you very, very, very much.