Review: ‘Our Tragic Universe’ by Scarlett Thomas

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Monday, June 27, 2011 - Save & Share - 3 Comments

Every week, W. H. Smith’s offers one relatively recent paperback title for only £2.99 when you buy the Times newspaper and, if it’s a book that looks interesting, I tend to take advantage of the offer.  I’m not sure why, as inevitably I then read the book and completely ignore the newspaper, thus making it not quite such a good deal, but somehow that always seems besides the point when faced with a shiny new book that I want to investigate.  It was this offer which lead to me buying The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas several years ago.  I’d never heard of the author or the book before, but I was irresistibly drawn in by the combination of literary theory and weird science that it promised.  Although her books are a long way outside of my usual comfort zone (the chief feature of which is a nice, linear plot) I find her writing addictive and so I was eagerly awaiting the paperback publication of her most recent novel Our Tragic Universe when I was spared having to buy a copy by winning a free review copy from LibraryThing.

As Our Tragic Universe is a book about storyless stories, providing a plot summary is next to impossible so I’m going to cheat and use the one from the back of the book this time:

It Kelsey Newman’s theory about the end of time is true, we are all going to live forever.  But who would want that?  Certainly not Meg, a bright spark trapped in a hopeless relationship.  But if she can work out the connection between a wild beast on Dartmoor, a ship in a bottle, the science of time and a knitting pattern for the shape of the universe, she might just find a way out.

Thomas’ novels that I’ve read have never been about the plot so much as they have the ideas contained within it and this one, if you couldn’t already tell from that blurb, is no exception.  In fact, Our Tragic Universe takes this even further by having probably the most plot elements of any of her books so far, none of which really come to anything.  There is Meg’s friend Libby’s unhappy relationship in which she vacillates between her lover and her long term partner, which remains unresolved as the novel draws to a close.  Meg’s own humdrum relationship with her boyfriend, Christopher, which might be a major point in any other book, is a non-issue even after she leaves him in order to concentrate on her work.  Events just sort of take place on the sidelines rather than being important in any way.

Character is similarly unimportant, the most distinctive character in the entire book being Meg’s dog Bess (surely one of the most appealing and lifelike dogs in literature), although an honourable mention goes to Christopher’s brother Josh.  It is interesting that these are both secondary characters however, and none of the people that one might expect to be significant and well developed are particularly distinguishable.

The important part of Our Tragic Universe is the bizarre theories and philosophies that it contains.  With Thomas’ books it is impossible to say at what point unlikely fact becomes improbably theory and improbable theory becomes crazy fiction, but frankly I never care because it’s all so confusing and fascinating at the same time.  In this particular instance, the theory is that at the end of the universe there will be so much energy compressed into such a small space that it will be used to create a new universe in which everyone who has ever lived will exist eternally.  This leads on to questions about the point of existence and the nature of reality and, as in The End of Mr. Y, these theories somehow end up being linked to literature and fiction, what it is and what it does:

In Newman’s never-ending universe there’d be time to write an infinite amount of novels, and even finish reading all the books I’d ever begun, and all the books I’d never begun.  But who’d care about fiction any more?  We only need fiction because we die.

Later on, Meg and a friend debate the comparative merits of unpredictable storyless stories over familiar, formulaic fiction:

You should read Aristotle again, because he tells you not just how to write those bottle-of-oil stories, but proper, meaningful tragedies.  And yes, they’re predictable too, sort of.  But he says that one of the key things the writer has to do is to make the person who hears or reads the story feel astonished, even though the story itself has a formula and is written in accordance with cause and effect.  It’s a great art to make someone surprised to see the picture, and even more surprised when they realise they had all the pieces all along.

This is a rather apt quotation as, abstract as this novel is, it does feel a bit as though Scarlett Thomas essentially writes the same book over and over again, possibly for the very reason that it is the ideas which drive her books rather than the more usual forces of plot and character.  All of the narrators feel as though they are variations on Thomas herself (the author gave up smoking while writing this book and ate a lot of clementines instead, so naturally Meg does the same) and you could replace the name ‘Meg’ with the name ‘Ariel’ in this book and it would slot quite happily into The End of Mr. Y without there being any jarring character differences.  However, strangely, I don’t mind this at all.  Because, as these books don’t feel as though they’re written for plot and characters, I don’t read them for those things.  I read them for the wonderful, imaginative, crazy ideas that Thomas has and that she continues to experiment with and expand with each of her books that I encounter.  These never fail to surprise, for all the reader has the pieces all along.

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas.  Published by Canongate, 2011, pp. 428.  Originally published in 2010.

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3 Responses to “Review: ‘Our Tragic Universe’ by Scarlett Thomas”

Comment from Eva
Time June 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I’ve never heard of Thomas, but she sounds like fun!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time June 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm

She writes interesting books, that’s for sure. They’re really difficut to describe and review, but worth the effort I think. ‘The End of Mr. Y’ remains my favourite, so I would suggest starting there if you want to try Thoms out.

Comment from FleurFisher
Time July 2, 2011 at 8:51 pm

I loved The End of Mr Y, but this book I’ve picked up a couple of times and put down again. Nothing was horribly wrong, but I wasn’t drawn in as I’d hoped I’d be. I’m encouraged that you made it through, so I will try again!

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