Playing games with Derrida

_44011543_mry300Well, not just Derrida, but I like that as a phrase. The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas is a book about games, really, and one that is certainly my kind of thing. It begins with a rather screwed-up Ph.D. student, Ariel Manto, whose thesis is on “thought experiments” and is working on a (fictional) Victorian writer, Thomas Lumas.  She comes across one of his books, The End of Mr Y, in a secondhand bookshop, and can’t believe her eyes – it’s incredibly rare, and thought to be cursed. Rumours abound that it is so dangerous that the CIA are after a copy. So far, so good – the excitement of finding the book you want, let alone one that obscure, in a bookshop plays to my idea of a thrill very well. I also like the idea that a book can be that dangerous – that words can build up something that has an effect well beyond the page. (I have also read A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower this week, which has something of the same idea).

And Lumas’s The End of Mr Y is the most dangerous book, ever, because of the secret world it holds – literally. I don’t want to give too much away, but it contains a formula which permits the most extreme kind of thought experiment – one which can send you into the “Troposphere”, a kind of virtual-reality place which permits you to access other people’s minds. Ariel explores this world, which one can’t help but feel is in part a welcome relief from her real world, which is mostly unpleasant. And as she explores it, she finds out things about herself, and about this world. Derrida, Lacan and other theorists become vital clues to unravelling the pseudo-scientific and philosophical secrets of the Troposphere – for example, looking at Heidegger’s and Lacan’s notions that consciousness is constructed by language itself. This is both a game, and a deadly fight, which contrasts with what’s going on in her life – the academic work and the rather sordid relationships which are also a kind of game, but ones that nobody seems to be able to win.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in The Guardian that much of The End of Mr Y seems to turn into a computer game. This is true, and I found it difficult to reconcile this with the nineteenth-century element of Lumas’s The End of Mr Y. I found the giant mouse-god Apollo Smintheus difficult to assimilate; it just seemed a step too far into the ludicrous. But overall, I’d recommend it. It’s a clever book, and one which makes you think; it’s also the best kind of literary metafiction, in that it considers the book as more than fiction whilst knowing that it is itself pure fiction. If that sounds off-puttingly complicated, don’t worry – Thomas makes her arguments clearly and interestingly, and has moments of poetic description which are oddly satisfying. The epilogue, though, doesn’t work and seems to take a retrograde step – if you can manage it, don’t read the last two pages!

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