Where are all the female cult writers?
In the grey area between literary fiction and the marketing zeitgeist that is chick lit lies a vast and sparsely populated terrain where few women fear to tread. Or, more likely, it's their publicists who won't go there. Admittedly the tags "chick lit" and "literary" invite uneasy categorizations, and I have no interest in adding to the Chick Lit v. This Is Not Chick Lit roar; such binaries only exacerbate the problem. What I am interested in is exploring the ground between the two and, specifically, asking this question: Where are all the female cult writers?
Here I'm defining cult fiction as concept-driven, vaguely experimental, a bit pulpy, typically written by hip, usually white young authors. Not realist. Not highbrow. Not humorless. A mix of pop and avant-garde not unlike the aesthetics of Sonic Youth or PJ Harvey. On these (admittedly arguable) terms, I'd include, on the dudes' side, Mark Danielewski, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Bruce Wagner, David S. Mitchell, David Foster Wallace, and Irvine Welsh. On the ladies' side, there's, well, hmm. I guess I'd put Aimee Bender on the fence; then there's Judy Budnitz, Kelly Link, Sandra Newman, maybe Lynne Tillman and Shelley Jackson. The comparison should be self-evident: These writers have nowhere near the audience or cultural cache of the male writers listed above.
To make any kind of argument about this fact would require more space than this book review allows. However, indulge me in one expression of frustration: It stinks to be an avid female reader in your teens, having an interest in wild, mind-blowing ideas and forms and finding no female-penned fiction you can devour with the same excitement as say, House of Leaves or Infinite Jest. I have no reason to invalidate the worth of those two novels -- they influenced me greatly as a young woman. But the fact remains that there were few if any books by women featured in SPIN back then (whose review of House of Leaves sparked a firestorm of booksales); and while I listened to a lot of grrrl rock and was otherwise pretty girl-power, I came across virtually no nonrealist contemporary fiction written by women.
The effect, at least on me, was that for a long time I altogether dismissed fiction by women: just a lot of domestic shit; nothing very "cool" there. I say this not to acknowledge what could be construed as my own internalized misogyny, but to point out that, judging from my hip younger brother's male-dominated bookshelves, and from the male-dominated bookshelves of my hip friends, I was not alone in that assessment.
Wherever the blame lies in this dilemma, and it's surely spread around, there is no doubt, as any well-read person knows, that exciting nonrealist women writers exist. I've since found Kathy Acker, Marguerite Duras, Joanna Russ, Tricia Sullivan, Jeanette Winterson, Octavia Butler, and all the writers mentioned above, to name just a few of many. And hey, I found another one. I found another exciting female writer who has the potential to be "cult"-ified, whose delicious novels of ideas should, to use marketing speak, appeal to all genders and ages, but especially those of the 15 to 25 set.
And the winner is ... Scarlett Thomas, a British writer whose most recent two novels -- last year's PopCo and this year's new release The End of Mr. Y -- are as unapologetically singular as Danielewski's work; as pulpy and idea-driven as Palahniuk's best work; and also doing many things entirely their own way.
Thomas is insane about making huge leaps between ostensibly unrelated ideas, and it is in these associations that her books are most interesting. Part mathematical-detective story, part anticorporate screed, PopCo combined cryptography and toy development with a bit of romance and homoeopathy mixed in. Similarly broad in scope, The End of Mr. Y combines literary scholarship (yawn) with discussions of general relativity and time travel (hmm…) as well as a missing professor (oh no!), a cursed book (danger!), and a potion that not only allows one to enter an addictive mindspace eerily similar to a video game (yes!) but also lets one read people's very minds (OMFG!). Plus bondage (treated with emotional complexity!). Where do I sign up?
So, plot synopsis. Ariel Manto, 30-something doctoral candidate, is writing a dissertation on thought experiments that incorporates the work of a little-known novelist named Thomas Lumas. As the novel opens, her adviser has been missing for some time. Ariel has just enough money to make it to the next paycheck when suddenly she comes upon The Book. You know, the book that's been out of print so long its existence is mythic, the book she has scoured all used bookstores for, the book that will fill in all the holes in her dissertation. Well, Ariel has found it, and she eagerly hands over all her food and gas money just to take this book home with her.
The book is called The End of Mr. Y by Thomas Lumas, and literary legend has it that the book is cursed. Of course Ariel reads it despite the legend, and soon she is navigating mindspace with her body paralyzed in the real world while two men are on her trail. The novel follows Ariel as she attempts to understand this fourth dimension and avoid getting sucked in to the point of death.
That's just for starters. Those interested in questioning the way the universe works, especially in regards to time, will have a ball with this novel. And, you know, if Thomas were merely writing a novel about mind reading and time travel, we'd maybe have grounds to critique her simplicity. As it stands, however, The End of Mr. Y manages to do more than just fiddle with time and space. There are high stakes here, and Thomas's fourth dimension is incredibly complex, supplemented by discussions and dramatizations of godly beings and the pathways of emotion.
While some aspects of the novel feel like overkill -- Ariel's sordid sexual history, for instance, is frequently mentioned but never explained in any satisfying way -- they can be forgiven for the just-right degree of pulp they add to the story. The book requires some pretty intense thought about thought about thought; Ariel's voice is, though philosophically bent, engaging enough to keep things moving. Even as she is explaining the basics of quantum physics to her friends (and the reader) at dinner, or attempting to link Baudrillard's simulacrum to Einstein's theory of general relativity, the narrative keeps moving. There is plenty of action to pick up the pace, and all this talk of thought experiments does lead somewhere; indeed, the theoretical elements pay off in one very spectacular ending.
As a cult novel, The End of Mr. Y is brilliant. Readers should take note, however, that the book is not quite "literary" and, as such, does not pretend to Greatness. Yes, it's a solid, smart, idea-driven, dare I say "fun" story; on the other hand, some of the language could have been more carefully chosen, and some of the characters' motivations could be clearer. But the concepts presented are persuasive, interesting, and impressively mind-blowing. I only wish this novel had been published when I was younger and more open to grandiose ideas like the meanings of life and time. It would have given House of Leaves a run for its money.