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Serial Reading/Singular Reading

There was a time, long ago, when I only valued, personally (I mean, as opposed to appreciating books on reading lists, unavoidable classics, books on my parents' shelves) books I believed were entirely singular. I found my treasure, by chance, in second hand bookshops, on stalls, at Jumble Sales.You couldn't buy books like these from a shiny branch of Waterstones, you would never see them reviewed. Arthur Machen's stories came into this category (every singular one of them). I was thrilled when I found a collection of his works, some with uncut pages, lurking on the P stacks in Sussex University library.

Now the dusty backstreet bookshops where lost treasure could be found are rare, lost treasures themselves, and even The Golden Centipede has a web presence. (I love the fact that the cutting I've linked is from NZ. I once found A Campfire Girl's First Council Fire in a charity shop in Auckland, when all I knew of the Campfire Girls came from intriguing references in the Abbey Girls series), & I recognise a different kind of singularity. Genre is serial, genre readers know the plot, they read to find out exactly how things are going to turn out this time. Proper highbrow mainstream writers write singular books, each one a new start.

Still, occasionally I find a book, such as The End Of Mr Y. I'd never heard of Scarlett Thomas, I just saw this book in the library, picked it up every now and then, and put it down a few times. I assumed it was to do with sex chromosomes, and confused it with the comic book series Y: The Last Man. In the end, I took it home with me, & discovered, terrific, wonderful, it's not the Y chromosome at all. It's Mr Y as in Mystery, or maybe Mr Why?, if you want to preserve the motif of a Virgilian guide to the Underworld. A young woman living the life of an Arthur Machen character, starving scholar, obsessed with strange semi-occult C19 mysticism. She finds a weird book she has longed to find, in a dusty backstreet shop, and. . . and I was absolutely sold until about p.206, when the seedy, desolate half-world reverie (Arthur Machen is back, decor updated for the C21 and he's a girl!) suddenly gave way to a paranormal thriller plot with holy water homeopathy & renegade men-who-stare-at-goats and my attention wavered. I looked up the mysterious Ms Thomas, something I'd promised myself I would not do until the end, & found she's teaching creative writing at Kent, & has a "classy oddball" sheet a mile long.

What'll I do now? The trouble with singular writers is that each is a genre in his or herself, as unmistakable and specific as Westerns, SF, Thrillers etc. As you may know, Gravity's Rainbow is one of my major touchstones, but I don't value anything else by Pynchon. No, it's no use, it's like reading the same book over and over again & noticing everything that jars. What if the "girls' boarding school" bit is the true Thomas? I don't like fiction about the mean thoughts of mean girls, so I'll be repelled. . .

I'll give her the benefit of the doubt of course, no matter how the end of mystery turns out. Classy genre writing gets called oddball, and she seems to have a detective series going. Excellent.


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Plashing Vole on :

I saw Thomas reading from THe End of Mr Y at All Tomorrow's Parties last year, and was hooked, partly by the creepy repetitive keyboard squelching provided by her brother - it was all rather hallucinogenic and claustrophobic. I'm about to read the book, but my friend says it's great up to the last chapter, and my partner says it's good up to the last three pages.

Arthur Machen's being partially republished in the Library of Wales series.

How do you feel about racist 80s invasion film Red Dawn being remade with America being occupied by China instead of the USSR? Perhaps they'll take a leaf out of Rainbow Bridge and accept it… or perhaps not.

Gwyneth on :

The ending. Personally I found it to be a ridiculous cop-out. Who knows? There are signs that Thomas genuinely tends more to C19 mysticism than to Claude Shannon in her views on the state of all states, but I had a strong sense of a writer muttering to herself, this book is getting far too long, how the hell do I get out of here?

graywyvern on :

makes me think of when i discovered Festus at the college library. (it took some 17 years for me to find my own copy.)

Machen has a cult now, but it's tiny... i don't see a movie adaptation of The Three Impostors anytime soon.


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