Saturday, September 22, 2007

science in art

I'm just finished reading The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas. It's a fun read, concerning the investigations of PhD student Ariel into a mysterious novel, reputed to be cursed, also called The End of Mr. Y by an odd Victorian scientist called Thomas Lumas. The first few chapters felt like Thomas had stolen my ideas of what I wanted to do with my life and given them to her character. Ariel goes to a lecture by Prof. Burlem on Lumas, and after it, he offers her a PhD project based in a Literature department looking at the history of thought experiments. (If only...) As the novel begins, Burlem has disappeared, a building at the university has collapsed (apparently to no-one's great suprise) and on her way home, Ariel finds a copy of Lumas' cursed novel in a box of books in a second hand shop, which she quickly buys, before the shop assistant can realise its value. Chapters from Lumas' novel alternate with Ariel's first person narrative of her, rather dark and gloomy, life. (I was amused to notice that Ariel, like the heroine of Thomas' previous novel PopCo and Thomas herself, eats a vegan diet. This is mostly irrelevent to the plot apart from the fact that as an impoverished PhD student, Ariel can afford to buy very little food, although I'm sure a dietician would have something to say about the perils of surviving on potatoes, dark chocolate, black coffee and slivovitz.)

The collapsed building is a means for introducing to Ariel's department office a evolutionary biologist and a theologian. Here things start to clunk a little. An impromptu dinner party is the scene for a discussion of origins and truth. The themes are relevant, but I don't think they're handled very well. If you want to write a novel which explores theoretical physics, philosophy and multiple dimensions, then you're going to need to explain them somehow, but how exactly is tricky. Giving differing philosophical positions to different characters is usually how it works (David Lodge does it rather well) but somehow it didn't quite work for me. The theologian character, Adam, becomes more important by the end of the novel, but the biologist seems to be there only to be to impart some information about science and then fades into the background.

It's a highly fantastical novel and by the end we've left reality far behind. I did like the unravelling of Ariel as a character. At the beginning, I wasn't sure I liked her. By the end, she had become rounded out and understandable, as facts and snippets of her past life were revealed. It's an odd mixture of quantum theory, Baudrillard, time travel, Heidegger and a whole string of literary theorists and philosophers, predictable in some aspects (start with quantum indeterminacy and a world constructed from langauge and see where you end up) but ends up in some unexpected places. The effect is a little confused, as if too many ideas got thrown into the the mix. It reminded me of PopCo by the same author and of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.

I'm vaguely thinking about dissertation ideas at the moment and thinking about doing something about how scientific ideas get used in literature. I'm not sure if this novel is typical of the sort of thing I want to investigate. More data needed, I think.

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