Would that my enemy had written a book, as some sage says. Unfortunately, she has and it is good and I have reviewed it ethically and positively.
THE END OF MR Y by Scarlett Thomas
Canongate 455pp. £10.99
Reviewed by Roz Kaveney
One way of talking about things is that we live and breathe in a world of flesh and stone, as well as a world of mind, words and numbers. Another is that looking at things in a certain light changes them, that talking about things is a way of doing magic, that when philosophers seek to understand the world, they end up changing it whether they meant to or not. Language as well as magic is a technology of will.
Scarlett Thomas's remorselessly intelligent third novel is as much meditation as tale, but manages to be as exhilarating and suspenseful when its characters explain things to each other as when they are in mortal danger or sexual heat. In some ways, it is an example of one of the oldest modes of story-telling - its heroine Ariel finds out things that she was not meant to know, from a book whose readers all die, and loses everything in the pursuit of a few moments of clarity about the nature of the world. She reads a book, and it changes her life.
The use of pastiche here is finely judged - the Victorian mystic and controversy monger Lumas is as real as the modern academics who potter around in his intellectual footsteps. Lumas found a secret that kiilled him; scholars Lura and Burlem work out what it was; Ariel follows in their footsteps. The secret seems to be merely that you can take a simple formula and wander a world made up of minds, chasing your enemies and friends from casual sighting to deep-seated memory until everything is open to you, but it turns out to be so much more than that, to be a revelation of what the world is made of.
Ariel has to wander around accumulating plot tokens for all that she is a smartass post-modern intellectual who knows precisely what is going on.. Thomas is demonstrating - quite specifically and overtly - that all stories are thought experiments and all thought experiments are stories; this is not just the story of Ariel and her dreadful fate, but a narrative about the possible consequences of fashionable ideas. If the world were like this, Thomas is pointing out, then this could happen in it.
Thomas gives us the standard consolations of the dark fantasy thriller - Ariel has to deal with adversaries as well as her quest and finds allies along the way. The unpleasant American spooks and the demon children they unleash on her, and the Mouse God who becomes her friend, are stock genre material and yet entirely as real as the world of shared flats, starvation meals, sexual encounters in the bathrooms of Little Chef restaaurants and disagreements with university administrators which Ariel so grittily inhabits.
If this were just a meditation, it would lose us at an early stage, just as if were it just another story of someone who wanders into a book of magic and never gets out of it again, it would be a tale too often told for prolonged attention. As things are, it is an elegant construction which reminds us that a magician's book is a grimoire and that the organizin principle of the world of thought is grammar, and that glamour, even the seedy glamour of Ariel's world, is utter enchantment.
Oh well, maybe her next book will be a stinker.
Talking of which, I got to write a piece of commissioned fanfic this afternoon - Scotland on Sunday wanted my Potter ending along with other people's and next weekend I get my copy late Friday afternoon so I can review it for the TLS.
Bwa, as they say, haha.