Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
7 May, 2010
is a wonderful book. Her previous novel, The End of Mr. Y, published a few years ago was a surprise hit for me as I hadn’t heard of Scarlett Thomas before. Although Our Tragic Universe deals with some heavy concepts such as the end of time, the after-life, coincidences and the nature of fiction and narrative, it’s written in a simple and engaging way. I seem to have an affinity for her prose; I simply read and fall right into her story.
I found this a bit more new-agey (I’m not a big fan of this word and should really find another description but there is a strong hippy element to this novel) compared to The End of Mr. Y which had a lot more about quantum physics and a mystery, but this didn’t detract from the story at all. In fact, Thomas’ strength seems to be to take the mundane and give it a twist. Same with all the new-agey stuff; she tries to rationalise it. There is a latent humour bubbling just below the surface of the novel and I found myself savouring each word as she fleshed out the problems and issues dealt by her protagonist Meg as she tries to work out the meaning of her life. In a way, it’s like a bildungsroman for the mid-thirties (can you tell I have a thing for the word bildungsroman?) I like it because it isn’t about the young, it’s about thirty-somethings and older who are still meandering through life, unsure and still questioning what they are supposed to be doing, dealing (or not dealing) with problems and having mini-breakdowns. In a way, it is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s novels, there is a dash of the fantastical, but a lot more science and philosophy.
Our Tragic Universe is set in Dartmouth in Devon near the Dart Estuary. It’s a very contemporary novel and you will recognise a lot of the characters that populate it. However, the plot is a little convoluted, although I felt that it did come together in the end. It’s not that it’s too complex, the overall story is simple. Meg is a thirty five year old writer ghostwriting for a popular sff imprint (hilarious) but still working on her ‘real’ novel. I think most writers would understand what she’s going through. She’s in a relationship with no future and has a crush on a friend twenty years older than herself. And then she gets sent a strange book to review which sends her views on life into warp. Essentially we follow Meg as she fumbles through trying to figure out her life and what is important. And in amongst that we are confronted with the nature of life, coincidences and meaning. Does that make sense? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter because it will as you read along.
My summary seems really new-agey and cosy, and although this novel did give me the warm and fuzzies, it’s a pretty sharp and observant treatise on contemporary life. As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this book.
Here’s is a gem of a quote to whet your appetite:
One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you write non-fiction everyone tries to prove that it’s wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it.
I’d like to thank the lovely people at Canongate who sent me a copy of Our Tragic Universe upon my request.