Having just returned from a short break in La France Profonde I am compelled as if by the urugations of my fundament to tell you about the two books I read while sleeping off yet another repast cooked in goose fat. The selection of these books was almost random – they were two titles I’d had on my shelves for a while, waiting their turn to be picked for the travel bag.
The first was Phases of Gravity by Dan Simmons. Simmons is best known for his SF and his horror, all of which is handled with a great deal of literacy and humour. There’s a scene, for example, in one of his SF novels where two robots are trying to escape being devoured by some terrifying alien, all the while discussing the relative merits of Proust and Shakespeare’s sonnets.
But I digress.
Phases of Gravity is neither SF nor horror, but a straight novel. Richard Baedecker once walked on the Moon. But when your moon-walking days are over and your fame has waned, what then? Baedecker, now in his fifties, is working profitably but boringly in an aerospace job. His wife has left him. His son has gone to join an ashram in India. He decides that life has to be better than this. So he tracks down his two former crew mates. One has Got Religion, the other has Got Cancer, and dies in a mysterious plane crash. Baedecker’s explorations of the various circumstances pertaining to the lives of his friends and family lead to a kind of mid-life crisis which has – I’m sorry to say – a happy ending. It’s not a great book. The structure is scrappy. But the tale is enjoyable enough in the telling. The writing is careful, if not startling, and full of pictorial details of twentieth-century Americana that reminds one of films (rather than books) of similar middle-aged introspection and catharsis – Lost in Translation, About Schmidt and possibly even A Serious Man. I’d give it three out of five.
I turn to the altogether startling The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas. Her heroine is one Ariel Manto, a young redheaded academic interested in literature, postmodernist philosophy and quantum mechanics, attached to a provincial English University on a hill above a cathedral city that’s a lot like Canterbury. It might be no coincidence that Ms Thomas is a young redheaded academic interested in literature, postmodernist philosophy and quantum mechanics, attached to a provincial English University on a hill above a cathedral city that is, in fact, Canterbury.
But I digress.
In the course of her studies, Manto comes across a book called ‘The End Of Mr Y’, the last novel by a scarcely known Victorian eccentric called Thomas E. Lumas, whose main claim to fame is that he once socked Darwin on the hooter. The book is the most obscure of an obscure oeuvre, so obscure in fact that the only known copy is locked in a bank vault in Germany. Everyone who has actually read the book disappears or dies soon afterwards, leading to the idea that it is somehow cursed. Well, Heavens to Betsy, but Manto comes across a copy in a secondhand bookshop, and her adventures begin. I can’t even start to relate what happens next. The plot is so cleverly, so fiendishly wound that there is a surprise on almost every page.
Now, I love cod-literary pieces like this – there’s a lot of Borges in here (think of tales such as Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, The Library of Babel and The Circular Ruins.) There’s also a lot of Alice in Wonderland (both in the weird things that happen to the heroine, and in its mathematical and philosophical substructure.) There are also some nods to the virtual realities of SF (William Gibson’s Neuromancer; Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash; Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels) though The End Of Mr Y is to these novels as Turgenev is to Tintin.
There’s also a lot of truly filthy sex (you won’t get that in Tintin.)
The only flaw is the very end, which one of Ms Thomas’ readers (the mathematician and writer Ian Stewart) suggested threatens to make the whole thing a ‘Shaggy God Story’ – but only in a kind of postmodernistic, metaphorical sort of way. In sum, The End Of Mr Y is one of the most interesting, readable, mind-stretching, intellectually satisfying, terrifying, ribald and outright funny books I’ve read in simply ages. I give it 4.9 out of five.
I loved it – I’m sure you will too.