“If you knew this book was cursed, would you still read it?”
That may be the best tagline in publishing history. And honestly, is your answer anything but “of course”? A cursed book is a challenge to the ego. Is the curse even real, and if it is, are you the one who can break the curse? Are you so special you can rise above it? Or are you strong enough or humble enough to leave it on the shelf?
In The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas, Ariel Manto is working on a doctoral dissertation on thought experiments, with a focus on the mostly forgotten (and fictional) author Thomas Lumas, whose most famous book, "The End of Mr. Y," has been read by almost no one because everyone who has ever read it is dead. Only one known copy exists, and it’s in a bank vault. Ariel’s life is already pretty strange (her advisor disappeared right after she started working with him) when a random event leads her to a copy of the book, which leads to her pursuit by American intelligence agents, because, of course.
The book’s curse is real, by the way, but it’s the curse of irresistible knowledge. It contains a recipe for entering the Troposphere, the sum of all human consciousness, and it’s real, and once you enter, it’s difficult to leave. Once you know about it, you can’t put it back on the shelf. And if you stay inside too long, you die.
Most writers of popular fiction don’t really engage with ideas. Scarlett Thomas always writes about ideas. And The End of Mr. Y tackles some big ones. What is the nature of language? Does language make anything real, or does it make everything false? Is there any sense in which thought is solid? How powerful is thought, and does it depend on who is thinking? Do we live in a cause and effect universe? Is there a creator or are gods created by thought? And if they are, does that make them real? The book is full of references to Baudrillard and Derrida and Butler and Heidegger and rudimentary quantum mechanics. Ariel is an academic whose stated desire is to know everything, so the book is full of facts and knowledge and ideas.
That might sound really heavy and dense and no fun, but it’s not, which is what makes the book so great. All of that is wrapped up in a fun, engaging plot in which Ariel tries to protect herself and the people around her while simultaneously exploring the Troposphere, where she is frequently aided by a god named Apollo Smintheus who appears to her as a giant mouse. And because the Troposphere allows you to enter the mind of anyone in proximity, we read the interior monologue of a raft of interesting characters. The CIA agents remain the villains, but their involvement with the Troposphere has an original and tragic history.
For that matter, so does Ariel. We spend most of the book inside her mind, and it is a lively one. Her past is a rough one, and her present choices often reflect that. She isn’t completely knowable, and she is definitely not predictable, but she is warm and instinctively protective of others, and that will endear her to you, in spite of her self-destructive tendencies. The book within a book begins with the line, “By the end I would be nobody, but in the beginning I was known as Mr. Y.” Ariel’s stated desire is to know everything, but all of her actions speak to her desire to become nobody. I’m not going to give away any more of the plot, but I will say that the book ends happily for her.
The Dusty Shelf Book Review is a weekly column in which we take a look back at a sci-fi and fantasy books that aren't new releases. Put your requests in the comments.