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.

So true.

*You can read interviews with Scarlett Thomas here and here.

I’d like to thank the lovely people at Canongate who sent me a copy of Our Tragic Universe upon my request.

12 Responses to “Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas”

  1. Iris Says:

    I’ve seen the cover of this book on several blogs & it piqued my interest, but your review managed to convince me that this is a book I need to read. Thanks. And that quote, it’s great!

  2. Oh, I love that quote: thank you for posting it! Her would have made a great bookclub choice I thought, with lots of scope for discussion; it sounds like this one shares that quality.

  3. This sounds like a fabulous read. I enjoy books about the writing-life and the quote you provided is very true. Having come from an English lit background, we are told to delve into the themes and symbolism with a fine toothed comb, trying to see the “truth” in fictional words.

    Sounds great,

  4. chasing bawa Says:

    Iris: I’ve only read her previous novel which I really liked, but have another of hers on my shelf. Give her a try if you can.

    Buried in Print: Yes, I think it would be a great book to discuss. Her novel is packed with lots of interesting ideas.

    theliterarylollipop: I don’t come from a literary background but I’m always looking for ‘truth’ in books. I love reading about writers and the writing life, but Thomas’ work shows the difficult side of the writing life in a very humorous and deadpan way. I really enjoyed that.

  5. itoeri Says:

    sounds like a book i really want to read esp when deals with our modern lives. cound’t guess the story from the title – thought it was your scientific choice : )
    wonder how many hours you spare for reading and related research a day?

  6. Nymeth Says:

    As I think I told you before, the word new-agey does scare me a little bit, but I won’t let that keep me away from Thomas. Do you think I should start with this or with The End of Mr Y?

  7. Bina Says:

    That´s a great quote! 🙂 This book sounds really great, I like how one can always recognize Thomas´ books rightaway because of the cover design. I´ve only read PopCo but enjoyed it a lot and I definitely want to read The End of Mr. Y (and now this one, too).

  8. chasing bawa Says:

    itoeri: I actually finished this about 10 days ago but wrote my review rather slowly. I have to confess I’m rather slow at reading these days. It normally takes me about a week to finish a book as I’m so easily distracted. I blame internet tv, youtube and all the free J-dramas.

    Nymeth: I read The End of Mr. Y first which totally blew me away, so I would suggest you start with that. Our Tragic Universe is of a gentler pace and a bit more new-agey, and I don’t want that to put you off 🙂 However, I’ve only read these two books, so I don’t know how her other novels would compare.

    Bina: I was wondering what Popco would be like as I haven’t read it yet (but I found it a few months ago in a charity shop), so it’s nice to know you liked it 🙂

  9. Annabel (gaskella) Says:

    Sounds like another must-read for me. I really enjoyed her previous novel and have her first one Popco on the TBR pile too. It was lovely to meet you yesterday too.

  10. farmlanebooks Says:

    I’m really pleased to see that you enjoyed this. I loved Mr Y and plan to read this in a few weeks time. I’m really looking forward to it.

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