(I try to review books individually, but I wanted to get these last two done before the end of 2009 and, as they are thematically linked, I cheated.)
Both these novels have books within them which possess the protagonists. With Mister Toppit, the book series within the book has a protagonist based on the main narrator – Luke Hayward – as a child and he spends his adolescence attempting to escape his fictional counterpart. Only a few sentences of the Hayseed Chronicles are quoted in the novel. With The End of Mr Y the fictional book has a much greater role: anyone who reads Thomas Lumas’s The End of Mister Y is cursed, vanishing from the real world. After her professor leaves suddenly, Ariel Manto finds his copy, with one key page missing. She is compelled to find the missing page, follow its instructions and discover what became of both her professor and the book’s author.
Authors as father figures are key in both novels. Mister Toppit is told as a series of interconnected narratives from the different people involved. Primarily Luke but also his sister Rachel (who was denied a role in the Hayseed Chronicles) and Laurie, an American hospital radio presenter who witnesses Arthur Haywood’s death. Arthur, the author, is the only character to be denied a point of view, existing solely through other people’s perceptions of him. Saul Burlam, the professor in The End of Mister Y, is both a fatherly and vaguely sexual figure to Ariel – a woman who has already reimagined herself (she tells the reader she renamed herself).
Another odd similarity between the books is that I had to check each time whether they were set in Britain or America. The End of Mister Y is set in an unspecified university town and it only becomes clearly British when Ariel pays in pounds for a book. Mister Toppit is partially set in LA but otherwise dashes between a West Country house and Soho. Again, it wasn’t until Arthur was walking around Soho Square that I was sure the book was set in Britain. It’s an odd criticism to make, perhaps, but I do like prose to belong distinctively rather than to be from some odd mid-Atlantic nothingness. I don’t mean towns need to be named, just that I shouldn’t need to double-check the publishing details to be sure where a book was written.
The main difference between the books – one that seperates them quite clearly – is that in Mister Toppit, the Hayseed Chronicles remain books. Written as a form of escape by Arthur, they trap his family. The fans struggle to see Luke as himself and not as the protagonist in his father’s books, whilst his sister’s absence from the books causes her to lose her real identity and his mother is annoyed to be trapped in real world wranglings with Laurie and others over posession of the books’ ‘inheritance’. In The End of Mister Y, the fictional book creates an escape for Ariel and other characters, plunging them into the addictive Tropsphere.
Mister Toppit is fundamentally realist, The End of Mister Y is fantastical. The End of Mister Y deals with ideas of language, physics, reality, reading. Mister Toppit merely looks at how a fantasy can destroy lives. Of the two, I’d say The End of Mister Y should be easily the one I preferred, but its epilogue soured it for me.