Monday, August 16, 2010

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Fictionless fiction, I realised, was what all realist writers, including me, wanted to create: something super-authentic and with so much emotional truth that none of it seems like a story at all.

Meg Carpenter, our narrator in Scarlett Thomas's Our Tragic Universe, ghostwrites young adult thrillers and leads workshops on genre writing; her own science fiction series is being dropped by the publisher. Most of the progress on her literary novel involves using the delete key on what she's previously written--a particularly bad state of affairs since the novel was due years back and the unpaid bills keep piling up on Meg's desk.

To supplement her meager income--since her live-in boyfriend is exceedingly depressed and useless--she reviews science books for the local newspaper. But then Meg reviews the wrong book, a book "about how to survive the end of the universe," a book she doesn't even like, and her going nowhere life is given a gloss of narrative drive. Meg, though, doesn't believe in apophenia, "the perception of meaningful connections where in fact there are none," and her friend Vi has a theory of the "storyless story":

Characters in storyless stories, she said, didn't worry about what they wore or said or did. They were Fools stepping over the edge of the cliff on all our behalves, so that we can also step out of the restrictive frame of contemporary Western narrative. Surely, she argued, we should have stories not to tell us how to live and turn our lives into copies of stories, but to prevent us from having to fictionalise ourselves. Maui is a Trickster who shows us the non-sense of the world. Perhaps Tricksters, the character you're not supposed to identify with, are in the end much more interesting role models than the princes and princesses of fairy tales, and the characters in American sitcoms that only exist in order to make us feel that we should be perfect, like them.

Now if the idea of a storyless story doesn't appeal to you, then Our Tragic Universe might drive you mad. Much of the book simply involves Meg walking the dog, discussing philosophy or writing with her friends or students, learning to knit socks, eating tangerines--nothing that's going to satisfy a keen craving for a plot that does more than follow a woman's daily thoughts and experiences. I still haven't decided whether Thomas has actually written a storyless story, since I can identify a beginning, a middle, and an end, as well as the fact that Meg's quietly gathered a few of the metaphorical "bottles of oil" that she imagines teaching her genre-writing students to put in their books to spur the plot: "I wanted to make my 'real' novel less formulaic and more literary, of course, but if I listened to Vi's theories, then my only narrative strategy would be 'shit happens.' "

No matter to me either way. This is my kind of book and I enjoyed Our Tragic Universe tremendously. I have a suspicion I'll be reading all of Scarlett Thomas's previous books while I wait for her next. And I'm moving Chekhov's A Life in Letters and Aristophanes's The Frogs closer to the top of my mile-high tbr stack thanks to the reading habits of Thomas's characters.

(For those who care about such matters, I read a review copy of Our Tragic Universe on my Kindle. This was my first download from NetGalley and I'm still unsure whether the books there are all time-limited downloads or ones that will remain unless deleted by the device's owner. Which is to say, FCC, I don't know whether I should classify it as a free book or merely a loaned one.)


  1. I wasn't a big fan of this book. I need some plot in my fiction! I loved individual passages, but I'm afraid I live up to the stereotype and need some story to drag me through a book. Such a shame as I loved Mr Y. I'm pleased you enjoyed it though :-)

  2. Sometimes I'm reluctant to admit just how much I love books that I know drive others crazy because I know they're never going to trust my tastes again. But as long as I can tool around in someone interesting's mind, I'm happy. I don't need plot at all.

  3. I think I would really enjoy this book. No plot necessary for me! :) Yes, someone's interesting mind is all I need.


As a reader I cherish the fantasy of one day stopping acquiring books, of subsisting only on what is already stashed away in the crammed lar...