The heroine of The End of Mr. Y is a reclusive, cynical and slightly precocious female PhD student whose idea of a good time is curling up for the day with a good book.
In other words, the chances of my not enjoying this novel were very small indeed.
Ariel Manto, the aforesaid recluse, stops in at a second-hand bookshop one wintry afternoon, and finds an extremely rare copy (as in, only-one-copy-exists-in-a-sealed-German-bank-vault rare) of an obscure novel by an almost-forgotten Victorian author: The End of Mr. Y, by Thomas E. Lumas. She buys it for a fraction of its worth, and on reading it discovers that it contains a homeopathic formula which allows the drinker to access a psychic realm called the Troposphere: a realm of metaphors representing humanity’s collective unconscious, from where, Ariel finds, you can slip into people’s minds and read their memories. The Troposphere is addictive: once you’ve visited, you have to keep going back. But it’s also dangerous: because distance equals time there; travel too far, and your body might have starved to death by the time you return. And there are those who would weaponise the Troposphere, making all of humanity potentially vulnerable. Can Ariel stop them before it’s too late?
If you’re wondering: yes, it does occasionally read like an unholy mashup of The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code.
But it’s also doing some pretty hefty theoretical thinking of its own. Key to Ariel’s, and the novel’s, worldview is that old gaping void between signifier and signified: the theory, invoked by the dread names of Heidegger and Derrida, that in our haunted postmodern times the layer of symbol and story and language that makes up our cultural experience has become only self-referential; that there is no “real” referent at all, only an endless cycle of metaphor, of simulacra.
I mean, all vomited out like that it sounds pretty indigestible, but Thomas provides us with a number of variations on the theme throughout the novel. Such as:
Ariel’s PhD is in the language and form of thought experiments – which are, of course, stories to illustrate untestable hypotheses. Unlike scientific experiments, thought experiments never manage to reach any kind of objective “truth” – they are there to render mathematical calculations (which are themselves only symbols – but of what?) comprehensible.
Ariel herself is a profoundly unreliable narrator. She tells us – and herself – stories about her life that narrate away what is obviously a profound loneliness – but we never have real, direct access to her true experience, partly because it doesn’t exist. Ariel is no more than a collection of words on tree pulp. Trying to work out her “true” experience is a pointless task.
Sex is important to the fabric of this novel: Ariel engages in a series of destructive sexual relationships with older men; and finds, as I read it, that contra Lacan, no matter how much violence is visited upon her, she cannot break through the Symbolic to the Real, because for her there is no Real.
(A note, briefly, on Thomas’ use of kink: though I think it’s reasonably clear here that the self-destructive nature of Ariel’s relationships stems not from the fact of transgressive sex itself but from the lack of connection she finds in them, the novel does steer dangerously close to using kink as a shorthand for “unhealthy”.)
In other words, The End of Mr. Y is a Postmodern Novel.
It’s funny: though I love a good Postmodern Novel, when I write about them I often find myself reduced to writing lists of features like the one above, spottings of things that are mildly interesting in themselves but don’t really amount to a properly solid reading of the novel. Partly, I’m sure, this is a failure of my own critical method: I’m a year out of university now and it’s fairly hard to keep those skills fresh outside of an academic environment. But, partly, I wonder if postmodernism hasn’t run out of things to say.
I can’t help but think of Richard Cooper’s recent review in Strange Horizons of the Netflix show Stranger Things. In it, Cooper argues that cultural production in the twenty-first century has been entirely dominated by reboots and reworkings, with very little in the way of creating new icons for our age; reading between the lines (and also alongside an Adam Roberts review of Aurororama in his review collection Sibilant Fricative), he seems to be suggesting that we’ve reached a kind of post-historic era, in which we’re no longer capable of creating heroes or heroines who can adequately represent our experience. The general thrust of Cooper’s argument feels too pessimistic to me, and I certainly think he gives J.K. Rowling short shrift (as well as ignoring the works of Terry Pratchett – most of which are, admittedly, not really of the twenty-first century), but it’s hard, in the face of BBC schedules which are entirely made up of Agatha Christie remakes and new series of Poldark, of the onslaught of Marvel movies and fairy-tale retellings from the film studios, not to concede that he has a point. The postmodern tools of irony and metatext (what does a remake do but return us, endlessly, to a receding series of “originals”, simulacrum upon simulacrum?) have become, not only mainstream, but the mainstream techniques for telling stories; we seem as a (Western) culture to have lost our faith in story’s ability to describe lived experience in ways that are new and fresh, and have fallen back on deconstruction, on pointing out hipsterishly that, like, stories are not like life.
But we are Homo narrativus, the storytelling ape: and though deconstructing familiar narratives, revealing the biases that lie behind them, can be valuable and necessary work, it needs to be accompanied by reconstruction: the creation of new stories, the making of new meanings.
Back, then, to The End of Mr. Y. To me, the saving grace of this novel is this: it allows us to read the absence of an ultimate referent in two ways. First, the nihilistic reading, the ironic reading: everything is, finally, meaningless, and there is no way adequately to represent anything, and no reason to try. The end of art. Secondly, however, a reading that the novel suggests without quite confirming: if all that we can access is story and symbol, does that not give us, as the storytelling ape, enormous power? We only need to tell a new story, and the world is changed. We tell a story, and suddenly a cat can be alive and dead at one and the same time. We tell a story, and suddenly connection is possible, where once it seemed as far away as the end of the universe. We tell a story, and we find our Eden.