Daniel Parsons's Reviews > Our Tragic Universe
by Scarlett Thomas (Goodreads Author)
"It's so you can see what something's like, rather than make assumptions about it. I've got a friend who says that the human being is a big computer that can compute everything that machines can't - feeling, emotion and so on. For the human, no sum is too big. It's true, really. You can't learn about love from reading books. You have to experience it, especially if you want to write about it."
"If you can only experience things through experience and not books, what's the point in writing books of your experiences?"
"I guess because you can only experience things in one lifetime, so everyone experiences and writes different things. Or maybe having experienced love, or hate or whatever in one context, people are interested in reading about it in another context. You always ask such difficult questions."
I've resisted writing a review for this amazing book for a long time, because I wanted to write something that could express how it truly has affected me. But I have resigned myself to the fact that I simply don't have the cognitive power, the appropriate words, or even the right amount of self-awareness to say what I really feel. And at the same time, everything I've now just written makes Our Tragic Universe seem like War and Peace, which it isn't really.
Whereas Thomas' previous masterwork, The End of Mr. Y, set a mind-bending amount of astonishingly clever ideas in a world of abstraction and magic, Our Tragic Universe explores similar ideas but in a world firmly set in "reality". It's not really a spoiler to say that there's no magic here, no secret potion that allows you to travel through time or enter other peoples' consciousnesses. Instead, OTU tantalisingly teases us with possibility upon possibility, but seemingly every time takes it away from us as things are revealed merely as coincidence. Our narrator, Kelsey Newman (a genre writer, struggling to write her 'masterpiece', and a book reviewer on the side - surely one of the most interesting protagonists I've spent time with this decade) asks the ocean for help, and a ship in a bottle washes up. She secretly hopes her boyfriend is killed in a car accident so she doesn't have to deal with breaking up with him, and out of character, he doesn't turn up from work all night or the next morning. She is sent an obscure book on philosophy to review, which suggests that at the end of the universe, a super-computer will be invented that will 'reboot' everything, allowing everyone to re-live, and then finds out that the author is coming into town to give a lecture on his theories. Everything that happens to Kelsey appears to be connected to something else, or to her own hopes. Can it all just be coincidences, or is there some meaning to it? The answers aren't clear cut one way or the other, since Kelsey changes as a person because of what happens to her. Surrounded by fascinating, detailed characters, Kelsey's story - or anti-story, or "storyless-story" as she herself comes to think of it - is packed full of ideas. Thomas' writing is addictive, funny, engaging, and incredibly clever. But never clever-clever. Thomas credits her reading audience with intelligence, exploring and explaining ideas through interactions - never once do you get the "look at me and how I tricked you with my clever twists!" pandering that frequently saturates much of today's literature. This is definitely and defiantly a character-driven novel despite the afore-mentioned plot coincidences, and is hugely enjoyable and will keep you thinking for days after. Practically every page my breath was taken away by the sheer amount of big ideas and dialogues jumping out at me.
Very highly recommended.