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Reality Squared

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Dan Coxon interviews Scarlett Thomas about her new novel and “our experience of being trapped together in the hell of the signifier”.

3:AM: The End of Mr. Y marks something of a departure from your previous novels, particularly in its tone. Was this intentional, or did the story just develop along different lines?

ST: That’s interesting, because each time I write a new novel I usually try to make some kind of stylistic change, and usually no one notices. I’m not sure the tone of this is so different from PopCo, although I wanted it to be darker and somehow less friendly, I guess. I’ve tried a few new things in this novel. In this one, some characters actually have complicated sex rather than just talking about it.

3:AM: In terms of other contemporary authors, The End of Mr. Y feels closest to Neil Gaiman, or maybe Philip Pullman, while your earlier novels seemed to owe more to the likes of Doug Coupland. What current writers do you most admire? Are you aware of anyone else trying to deal with the same themes as you in their fiction?

ST: I admire what David Mitchell achieved in number9dream. It’s hard to think of other current writers I really admire and who are doing something similar to me. I very much admire Lucy Ellmann, Nicola Barker, Magnus Mills and George Saunders, but each has a project very different from mine.

I read on the internet recently that I owe a great deal to Thomas Pynchon, which is odd, since I have never met him, borrowed any money from him nor indeed read any of his books. I will, though (read his books). I was at a weird dinner in Aberystwyth recently and some guys were trying to explain to me the importance of Pynchon in the counter-cultural era. Eventually I said, ‘Oh, so he’s the literary Bob Dylan then?’ and they knew I understood and were able to move on. I also apparently owe something to Neal Stephenson, but I couldn’t get into Cryptonomicon. I love William Gibson, though – except for Pattern Recognition. Vintage Coupland is pretty good, too.

3:AM: We’ve already talked about the ways that The End Of Mr. Y differs from your previous novels, but there are certainly some recurring themes – particularly an interest in mathematical and scientific principles that we’re not used to seeing in contemporary fiction. Does this reflect your own reading and interests? What attracts you to popular science?

ST: I’m attracted to anything that promises to make sense, and then I fall in love with it if it breaks its promise and turns out to be nonsense after all. In that way I guess my relationship with science is like some bad love affair from a Tom Waits song. I’ve got a friend whose son is doing maths and physics at university, and he was depressed the other day. I asked him why, and he said it was because of subatomic particles, which I agreed can be kind of depressing. I told him, half joking, that the answer to that was to read Nietzsche, and his mother looked at me very seriously and said, ‘So which one should he start with?’.

On a serious note, though, I guess like everyone else I am looking for the answers – or at the very least for more interesting questions. I look in philosophy for all that stuff, but popular science in particular is not as carefully constructed as philosophy, and therefore has more gaps and crevices in which to look.

3:AM: There’s certainly a noticeable mixing of philosophy and science in the book. Was there any other particular research or reading that went into it? Or was it a three-way split between science, philosophy and literature?

ST: I particularly enjoyed it when my research took me to places where you find these sorts of connections. I love Edgar Allan Poe’s book Eureka, which he says is a prose poem, but is actually somewhere between popular science and speculative science fiction. And Samuel Butler, of course, who is always trying to get to science through fiction. I also enjoy reading homoeopathy textbooks, which always seem like a blend of art and hard science.

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3:AM: Ariel is a curious character, simultaneously a strong-willed survivor and a flawed, emotionally-bruised victim. The same could be said of some of your previous characters: what do you think appeals to you about this kind of fragile toughness?

ST: I think it’s real, for one thing. But on a more mundane level, you can’t write fiction about someone perfect, because no one would be interested, and they would be expected to die ASAP. But you can’t write about a complete fuck-up either, unless you are brilliant enough to do it like Camus. Aristotle is very good on this in the Poetics. You feel like if he’d had Microsoft Word he could have made a table out of his formula for what characters work and what characters don’t work. It’s all a bit Goldilocks: not too good, but not too bad either. However, formula is always only half the solution, and what I wanted to do with Ariel was, for the first time, to push one of my characters to the limits of what is acceptable, particularly in a female protagonist. I’m playing with this even more in the novel I am writing now, where the protagonist literally rewrites herself in order to make herself acceptable. I think we all do that all the time.

3:AM: Can you give us some idea of how you set about imagining the Troposphere in the novel? It seems to be an unusual blend of hard-edged science and fictional whimsy that’s unlike almost anything else in fiction.

ST: That’s very kind of you, although I’m sure I came across a lot of hard-edged science and fictional whimsy in a lot of my Nineteenth-century research! At the time I constructed the Troposphere, I thought I was creating something entirely original, but actually now I look at it the whole thing reeks of my videogame past, and the last ten years I’ve spent on the Internet. Someone (could have been Ursula le Guin) complained recently that it is a flat space with no ethical choices. But I didn’t want it to be a nice place at all, and in the end I am pleased if it appears oddly familiar and derivative, because it is supposed to represent our experience of being trapped together in the hell of the signifier.

3:AM: What about Apollo Smintheus, the God Of Mice? When did you first come across the idea of him, and what made you include him in the novel? There’s something of a mouse-related theme that runs through it, isn’t there?

ST: Yes, there is, and there’s a mouse theme in Going Out as well, which just goes to show… I’m having a parrot in the new book, just for a change. I’ve often wondered why I’m so obsessed with mice. I had one stuck up the leg of my jeans once, but I’m not sure that’s the reason. I guess it’s because mice are experimented on such a lot, and the absurd idea that they approximate humans because our genomes are similar. If they are that similar, where’s my tail?

When I was researching the novel I read a great book called Almost Like A Whale by Steve Jones. I picked up references in that not just to Apollo Smintheus but to Boris Vian as well. Only very brief references, but I went and looked both things up as a result. Apollo Smintheus, who has a much bigger role in my novel than he does in the real world, still makes me happy when I think of him. And Boris Vian has become one of my all-time favourite writers.

3:AM: I read somewhere that the working title of the novel was Life, which has obviously changed as part of the writing process. What was the thinking behind the original title, and why the change?

ST: This was sort of a leftover from PopCo. I had become interested in the complexity-theory simulation game LIFE, developed by John Horton Conway, in which simple rules can lead to almost impossibly complex outcomes, or even outcomes that seem deliberate and designed even when they are not. When I first started The End of Mr. Y it was going to be about artificial intelligence and evolution and so the title and the ideas seemed to fit. But then the project itself evolved and mutated and needed a title that was more about language, and the tricks it can play on you.

3:AM: I guess the whole narrative starts with Ariel finding the copy of The End Of Mr. Y – were you attracted by this kind of postmodern self-referencing, or did you find yourself pulling away from it?

ST: Don’t get me started on postmodernism! When I teach it, I spend most time on Fredric Jameson’s essay ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ in which he argues, among other things, that postmodern texts are depthless, irrelevant, meaningless and lack any emotional resonance. So I always feel a little uncomfortable being called postmodern, although it can be a useful piece of jargon sometimes. I guess Mr. Y has some metafictional elements, but nowhere near as many as there will be in my new novel. I am attracted to experimental and innovative devices but, I hope, never for their own sake or to prove I’m clever.

We live in a very strange time in which almost everything comes to us as narrative, and news is repackaged for us as fiction, and so when you sit down to write fiction you have to be aware of that and work out just why you are adding to the jumble of bullshit that’s already out there. Self-referencing is one part of that, but I’m not sure it’s the whole answer.

439872407_e0ec6ba70a_s.jpgABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
Dan Coxon is a freelance journalist and writer based in Edinburgh. He contributes regularly to Is This Music? and Disorder magazines, although his work has appeared in a variety of publications, from Endeavour to the Scottish Cricketer. He is also the author of the Wee Book Of Scotland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 30th, 2007.