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21st September
2010
written by Steph

Scarlett Thomas is an author who has intrigued me for a while. I’ve heard good things about her last novel, The End of Mr. Y, and my friend Trisha really enjoys her writing, so when I saw that NetGalley had copies of her newest novel, Our Tragic Universe up for review, I hastily requested a copy. I didn’t really know what to expect, but suspected I’d be in for a relatively cerebral but quirky read. I was right. Our Tragic Universe is a novel that’s incredibly difficult to summarize, because it is largely a novel that is filled with ideas, and one that frequently verges into metafictional territory. Loosely speaking, the novel centers around struggling writer, Meg Carpenter. After experiencing some nominal literary success during her early 20s, Meg has since been wrestling with writing a proper, serious novel. Unfortunately, Meg has been much more productive writing pulp fiction, formulaic novels under the name of Zeb Ross, a job that does little to address her creative ambitions but manages to pay the bills. Meg’s boyfriend has no income of his own (volunteering on heritage restoration sites), so in a bid to make ends meet, Meg also writes the occasional book review for newspapers. To this end, Meg picks up a copy of a self-help book called The Science of Living Forever, which claims we are all immortal and that the universe is just a creation meant to allow us to live every possible permutation of the hero’s journey before we finally ascend to a higher plane. Initially Meg dismisses the book as nonsense, but when she begins investigating other self-help books for a larger editorial piece, she finds some unexpected answers to questions she didn’t even realize she had… Well, that’s one way to read the novel at least, and while it makes for a driving narrative, I wouldn't say any synopsis is going to full encapsulate this book. One of the driving questions/debates that Meg engages in throughout the novel with her friend is the concept of the storyless story (think of something like a Bhuddist zen story), which stands in stark contrast to the traditional stories which have a quest structure with a beginning, middle, and end. In storyless stories, events can seem random and don’t necessarily provide closure at the end of them… They are not necessarily about providing answers, but questions. In many ways, I feel Thomas herself was writing a storyless story here, as things happen and there are storylines that advance, but they don’t necessarily coalesce into a neat bundle at the end. Technically I suppose there was a story in Our Tragic Universe, but it also felt like a lot of time was spent spinning its wheels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not something you read for plot. I think the thing I liked best about this book was the way in which it approached the notion of fiction. There are many discussions that occur about the way fiction can inform reality (and vice versa). The point is made that when we write about things that in and of themselves may just be sequences of events, we frame them within a narrative structure and make them have a point. This is why fiction can be so lovely, because nothing seems haphazard or unimportant, everything can have meaning and we can search for answers that aren’t always readily available to us in other avenues. Stories are inherently rewarding in terms of their structure. Ideas like this about the purpose of fiction and the way it can structure our world, how reality and writing can blend, kind of tie in rather eerily well with previous books I’ve read like The Broom of the System, and even more recently, Moon Tiger. I feel like each one of these books grapple with these ideas and are mutually reinforcing and it’s very cool that I happened to read them all so close to one another. Happenstance or is the universe trying to tell me something? 😉 Of course there is so much more to this book than meditations on writing and reading. It’s also about relationships and existential crises both in terms of the scale of a single life as well as what happens beyond. It plays with ideas of religion and philosophy, both areas that allow for rather in-depth, heavy ruminations. And of course there’s tons of knitting too! So captivated did I become with the descriptions of the peace, tranquility and satisfaction that Meg takes from knitting that you’ve all now seen proof that I had to take up my needles once again. It’s tempting to say that Our Tragic Universe – as interesting as the ideas behind it are – is not entirely successful as a novel, because it doesn’t necessarily deliver the structure and formula we so often expect. But then again, clearly it’s enriched my life in a wonderful, lasting way and made a solid impression on me, as well as presenting me with another exciting way to contemplate the “why” of fiction. At the end of the day, can I really ask for anything more from a book? This certainly won't be to everyone's tastes, but I definitely found it provocative and rewarding. I think even if it didn't ultimately satisfy in and of itself, I'd be interested in reading more Thomas in the future. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

15 Comments

  1. 09/21/2010

    I keep seeing these books in stores, and they look so interesting, but the reviews I have seen make them sound pretty complex. I.e., lots of work for the reader!

  2. 09/21/2010

    New to me so thank you for this post.

  3. It sounds as though we had a very similar experience with this one. Loads of interesting ideas, but frustration at the lack of a plot. I highly recommend that you try The End of Mr Y as it contains all the best elements of Tragic Universe, but wraps them up in a fast paced plot.

  4. 09/22/2010

    Scarlett Thomas is not an author I am familiar with. I am not sure I would enjoy this book, but I will definitely be looking to see what else she has out there.

  5. 09/22/2010

    This is the first time I am hearing about Scarlet Thomas and her work. A lot of the points in your review of this book intrigue me, but I am not sure if I would be pleased with a plot that meanders so much. I think it’s worth trying though and because you say that this book causes it’s readers to speculate of about the fiction and religion and philosophy inside it, it might make for a really interesting read. I will have to hop on over to NetGalley and download it. Your review was excellent, as usual!

  6. 09/22/2010

    @ rhapsody: Yes, this is definitely a book that the reader has to work at! It’s certainly not an idle book!
     
    @ Mystica: Glad I pointed you in the direction of something new! I hope you enjoy!
     
    @ Jackie: Yes, I think we did have similar reactions to this book; there was a lot to admire, but I wanted more story! I will certainly try out The End of Mr Y in the future!
     
    @ Stephanie: Maybe you’ll have more luck with Mr Y… I’m going to try it next and see if it is a better balance.
     
    @ zibilee: If you can get a copy through NetGalley, I’d say it’s well worth it because it is definitely not your run-of-the-mill novel. As I said, I don’t think everyone will like it, but it’s certainly worth giving it a shot to see if you might.

  7. JoV
    09/23/2010

    Found your blog, what a gem!!

    Read this last month and love it, perhaps because it’s my first novel by Scarlett Thomas, but I hope to read The End of Mr. Y soon.

  8. 09/23/2010

    You did a great job summarising the plot. It is a difficult novel describe, isn’t it? But you’ve written a wonderful review and I wish mine had been as succinct;) I agree with Jackie that ‘The End of Mr. Y’ is probably more successful and complete, yet I really liked this one too. It’s incredible that Thomas can still keep you interested even though the plot isn’t exactly what you would call thrilling. I’ve got ‘Popco’ on my TBR which I hope to read someday:)

  9. 09/23/2010

    This sounds really great — just the kind of novel I like to read. I like to read more traditional novels too, but experimental ones that are also fun can be exciting discoveries.

  10. 09/24/2010

    @ JoV: Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I’d really like to read The End of Mr Y after reading this one as well; Scarlett Thomas is certainly an author to watch (and read!).
     
    @ chasing bawa: I loved your review of this one, so you have nothing to apologize for! I’m not always known for being so brief, but I think I just couldn’t figure out a good way to summarize this novel in a halfway decent way, so this is what happened! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Popco… It’ll be Mr Y. that’s next for me.
     
    @ Dorothy: I really do think this is the kind of novel you would enjoy. And I agree that traditional novels are perfectly good too, but it’s nice to have some diversity in one’s reading. I always enjoy having my notions about the novel and fiction challenged!

  11. […] to end, often times abruptly, and I’m left wondering what the point of the whole exercise was. When I recently discussed Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, I mused about the notion of the “storyless story” and allowed that it’s something I don’t […]

  12. 09/28/2010

    Thomas seems to enjoy making her books an example of what she discusses, e.g. a storyless story or a thought experiment etc. The ideas which she explores in this book sound fascinating again, and that is what I really enjoy about her novels. Maybe this one is more to my taste as there is no realy über-funky plot to distract from the ideas? 🙂 But a friend warned me that this book is very esoteric, did you find that too?

  13. 09/29/2010

    @ Bina: This is definitely very esoteric – I used the term “meta”, but yours is probably better. There’s a lot of discussions of existential issues and the like, so it’s really not something to pick up if you’re looking for funky plots! Funky ideas, though, are in abundance!

  14. […] and her own story, where she came from, where she’s going. Reading it reminded me a lot of Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe in that the two are similar in terms of their sense of aimlessness that coalesces into something […]

  15. […] I read my first Scarlett Thomas book, Our Tragic Universe, last year, and found it immensely provocative. I didn’t think it was a perfect novel, but so few are, and I found the ideas that Thomas explored there so irresistible and vital that I knew I would need to read more things by her. Since her books are thinking novels, I found that my appreciation for OTU grew as my distance to it increased; I found I couldn’t stop thinking about the quandaries Thomas had posed and I had increasingly strong desires to reread it. So when I saw a copy of The End of Mr. Y on my friend Trisha’s bookshelf, I immediately asked to borrow it so I could continue my exploration of Thomas’s oeuvre and all the wacky ideas she poses. […]

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