IFC.com publishes a list of titles of recent books that, according to list compiler Maud Newton, would make great movies. Amongst the interesting choices* is The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas – a book which I feel inclined to agree would make a good film, but not, perhaps, for the same reasons.
Newton correctly laments what she calls the ‘reverse alchemy’ process that sees Hollywood take on heavyweight literary pieces (like Love in the Time of Cholera, The Scarlet Letter etc) to turn them to trash.
With the much hyped The End of Mr Y the process could be considered finishing a job reasonably well started, rather than alchemy -reversed or otherwise.
Newton’s description of the book is as good a place as any to get an idea of the ‘concept’ as film executives would probably say:
“Ariel Manto, an aimless and dodgy-looking but very smart grad student with a penchant for callous men and willingness to submit to light bondage, is finally settling on a thesis topic when her adviser disappears. She discovers among his belongings the only remaining copy of a Victorian novelist’s last book, “The End of Mr. Y,” from which she learns to make a mysterious concoction involving charcoal and holy water. Drinking it transports her into another dimension where mice talk, CIA agents hunt her and the whole world depends on what she does next. Recovering English majors: think Derrida, the video game”
Doesn’t it already sound like a perfect movie (right down to the point where the quirky but brilliant phd student is into kinky sex – she must be flawed to be that clever)?
The problem is with the book. Let me explain. There’s a strange moment, almost 200 pages into The End of Mr Y, where our sassy heroine tells the reader “this would be a good story to tell, except that I don’t tell stories, and no one would believe it, anyway”. Strange, because it cuts to the heart of the problem with this flawed but inventive and interesting novel. The story is told by a narrator who can’t tell a story. On reaching that line I gazed in amazement, wondering if I was the target of some post-modern prank just beyond my grasp. Having suffered pages and pages of creaky dialogue, where all sense of natural speech flies out the window in favour of moving the reader from concept a through to concept z, here was a tacit admission of the problem from the author.
“But phenomenology, it seemed to me, wasn’t interested in whether or not the ghost was there. Phenomenology seemed to be asking, ‘What the fuck is a ghost, anyway?’
I try to summarise this for Adam.
‘Basically, phenomenology says that you exist, and the world exists but the relationship between the two is problematic. How do we define entities? Where does one entitty stop and another begin? Structuralism seemed to say that objects are objects and you can name them anything you like. But I’m more interested in questions about what makes an object. And how an object can have meaning outside of the language we use to define it.’
‘So everything’s just language in the end. There’s nothing beyond words. Is that the main point?’
[Pg 257 – while Ariel and Adam are hiding from would be assasins]
The End of Mr Y is not an airport novel. It’s intelligent, and that’s what makes the clunky dialogue dissapointing. And this is where Hollywood, in the right hands, could make a difference. Talented screenwriters with a real sense of rythm for dialogue may well be able to finish what Scarlett Thomas has started.
*Newton’s other choices include Rupert Thomas’s Divided Kingdom, a splendid novel set in an imagined UK where the country’s population has been divided and distributed according to their defining humor.
Tags: narrative voices