Meg Carpenter is broke. Her novel is years overdue. Her cell phone is out of minutes. And her moody boyfriend’s only contribution to the household is his sour attitude. So she jumps at the chance to review a pseudoscientific book that promises life everlasting.
But who wants to live forever?
Consulting cosmology and physics, tarot cards, koans (and riddles and jokes), new-age theories of everything, narrative theory, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and knitting patterns, Meg wends her way through Our Tragic Universe, asking this and many other questions. Does she believe in fairies? In magic? Is she a superbeing? Is she living a storyless story? And what’s the connection between her off-hand suggestion to push a car into a river, a ship in a bottle, a mysterious beast loose on the moor, and the controversial author of The Science of Living Forever?
Smart, entrancing, and boiling over with Thomas’s trademark big ideas, Our Tragic Universe is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, how we can rewrite our futures (if not our histories), and how stories just might save our lives.
Scarlett Thomas was born in London in 1972. Her widely-acclaimed novels include PopCo, The End of Mr Y and The Seed Collectors. As well as writing literary fiction for adults, she has also written a literary fantasy series for children and a book about writing called Monkeys with Typewriters. Her work has been translated into more than 25 languages.
She has been longlisted for the Orange Prize, shortlisted for the South African Boeke Prize and was once the proud recipient of an Elle Style Award. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing & Contemporary Fiction at the University of Kent in the UK. She lives in a Victorian house near the sea and spends a lot of time reading Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.
She is currently working on a new novel and a memoir about the year she reached 6th in the UK for her age group in tennis. Follow her progress and support her on Patreon - www.patreon.com/scarthomas
Our tragic universe, I feel is literally a way of looking at the world through the eyes of humankind... insular, finite and forever trying to ascertain why we are here. Meg is the commercial genre writing author who narrates this almost metaphysical discussions within a (very) loose story framework read, discussions involving the likes of writing outside traditional story narratives, genre writing, writing a literary work, envisioning humankind's/Earth's fate... and the quest for writing the story-less story... but does this work?
It depends what you want from this book. I must admit I don't understand the viewpoint of criticising the 'story', as as far as I can see this is an opening and questioning of mostly writing related issues using interesting-ish characters as the talking heads. For me this worked quite well, I feel that I have been made to read a theoretical work not-so-hidden in a story of a group of people living in a writing community in Devon (in the UK), and I quite liked it, and can only shower Scarlett Thomas with praise for this endeavour.
My favourite issue raised was that of the sharing and using of the 'hero story' to underscore Colonialism in the West... and I would further add, legitimise killing and destruction? Surely a real hero would be the person or persons who convinced their antagonists of the wrong and/or got them to change their minds? The 'hero story' essentially says that if you can't make someone see the world the way you do, killing them is a heroic solution? This is just on example of the questions and thoughts this interesting book raised in me? 8 out of 12. Thank you Miss Scarlett Thomas :)
In homage to Scarlett Thomas’ narrative experiment, I am sorely tempted to review the black paperback edges (gimmicky, annoying) rather than the story (gimmicky, annoying) on the principle that the review would be to the book as the plot is to the author – that is to say, only peripherally relevant, something that gets in the way of all the clever thoughts she’s had while writing.
Loosely speaking, there’s a relationship plot that might have been a bit too chick-lit for my taste, anyway, what with the authoress – let’s not have any subtle meta-fiction, in case the readers miss it - heroine weighing her current, dead-end relationship against the prospect of beginning a love-triangle somewhere else. So maybe I’m the wrong audience for Our Tragic Universe, but everything else: science, pseudo-science, obscure theorising, magic, potentially interesting characters and a touchingly written dog/owner relationship should have charmed and even engulfed me, had the point of it all not been ‘hey, look what I’m doing, it’s clever, right?’.
I was not charmed. I will allow that there are ideas aplenty; it’s brimful of storytelling and, presumably, storywriting convention (much of it couched in expository dialogue, unfortunately), and I kept reading because these were interesting, but the landslide of things about which I did not care outflanked them, and I finished the book with a disappointed sigh at the house-by-the-sea ending (I get it, I do, but still…), and a final trip to the bathroom to wash my hands free of black ink.
2021 reread 9 years ago, I read this book voraciously. It was not perfect. But every November since, I have thought about it. Remembered the feeling of it, the English seaside damp and the firewarmed pubs and the intimate plotless conversations. Realized I've never wanted to live inside a book much more than I want to live inside this one. Shaped my life, a bit, I think, around it. Quoted it, referenced it. Maybe fell in love with November as a concept because of it. Started regularly reviewing books on Goodreads after writing about it below. Occasionally kept it unopened on my bedside table when I needed it. Debated rereading it (and I am not a rereader).
This year, I finally did, and it was everything it once was, and 9 years of experience more. The ideas in those philosophical conversations I loved so much at 26 have become part of who I am, or maybe always were, but I can see now how they gave voice to parts of me I needed articulated. And something new: I am almost Meg's age now, and the personal conversations she has -- gossip from a wild friend, falling in love with someone older, feeling stagnant and not knowing how to leave -- all slice so much closer to the gut. Going from 26 to 35, I'll tell ya ------
But. Still. For all its storylessness. This book is perhaps the one that feels the most like home of any I've read -- now, too, because many of the parts of it I loved are now familiar in my own life. And I'm sure Scarlett Thomas would have a point about that somewhere, but for now, November is brisk and grey, and there will be wine and conversation tonight, and the snake is letting go of its tail.
Sigh. Scarlett Thomas -- you are endlessly frustrating.
Thomas is clearly intelligent; the ideas and concepts she weaves into her novels are bright, interesting, and fairly potent. The thing is...she knows she's intelligent. And it seems pretty important to her for you, the reader, to know it, too. It's not even that she's pretentious, or that her stories are -- well, not always, anyway -- but that she is so focused on her bright ideas that the stories themselves become...incidental. The End of Mr. Y, PopCo, now Our Tragic Universe -- whether intentionally or not, the plots get lost in the Socratic-method shuffle of characters drinking wine and chatting about big ideas. In every conversation. I wish I knew as many intellectuals as supposedly lonely Meg does.
Now, I wouldn't say this is inherently a bad thing -- in fact, it's always nice to get some new (or at least newly-stated) ideas about metafiction, the artifice of narrative, and so on. And her characters, while (probably intentionally) not exactly likeable, are interesting archetypes and pastiches thereof. And, Thomas hits the nail on the head when her protagonist tells a friend to "fictionalise" his would-be scientific theory -- big ideas like those in Our Tragic Universe work best in fiction, when they aren't brought down by non-fiction's search for proof. But there are only so many times an author can use the same basic story as a vehicle for new ideas (brilliant down-on-her-luck broke female thirty-something protagonist with interest in older man sending her on literary/culturally revelatory quest [or questlike non-quest]? She's already written that book...twice) before it gets obvious, and irritating.
This is one of few cases, however, where an ending really saves it. Whereas in The End of Mr. Y, the book started strong and fizzled out, Our Tragic Universe really gives its ideological punch in the last 100-or-so pages. Nothing is "properly" resolved, though it's all been set up to be -- and that, for the genre-guzzling reader, is frustrating. As, of course, it's meant to be.
To be frustrating, though, isn't all that bad. Thomas wants to provoke her audience, and that's just what she's doing. I may find fault with her method, and the fact that she's as guilty of re-using plot/character/genre conventions as Meg ---- but ultimately, she pulls it off. And storyless story or no, when a book has this much impact -- it's worth that fourth star.
Once I was so far along in the book I decided to read the reviews because I wasn't getting anything out of it. Frankly, I didn't understand why it was reviewed so highly so I forced myself through it thinking it would turn around. On page 170 Meg lists the problems with her book. "The items on it were: It is boring; it has no focus; it is self-indulgent; I hate the central character; it's too depressing; no wants anything; no one does anything; there are no questions to be resolved; there is too much narration." This pretty much sums up Our Tragic Universe. When I got to page 174 I thought the book was finally starting. That was squashed about 3 pages later. There were some really good ideas that could have been made into a great book, but none of them went anywhere. Perhaps this was the point of the whole book, which I must say is not a good idea. If there were a "zero stars" option, that's what I would rate this book. Complete waste of time.
This is without a doubt one of the best books I've read all year, but it's quite a difficult one to review. It's hard to explain what the story is actually about; in many ways, it isn't really about anything, but without giving too much away, that's sort of the point.
Scarlett Thomas's last novel, The End of Mr. Y, was very good, but disappointed me because - after a fantastic start - the ending strayed too far into fantasy and became slightly ridiculous. Because of the similar cover, and the prominent presence of a bizarre theory about the end of the world and the whole universe living forever, I was concerned this could be more of the same. Happily, it seems Thomas has learned from her mistakes, as this begins in a very similar manner - sharing with its predecessor an immediately likeable, intellectual but somewhat flaky female narrator - but, rather than becoming increasingly nonsensical, just gets better and better. I took to Meg, the protagonist, straight away, and the addictive narrative and clever dialogue combine to make you fall in love with her friends and acquaintances too, all the while giving you lots of food for thought with discussion of everything from particle physics to the concept of a 'storyless story'. It's the latter idea that seems to form the basis for the book's plot (or non-plot) - ideas about narrative structure are debated throughout, and a conventional format is eschewed in favour of a portrait of life as it really is, lacking easy ways out or obvious happy endings.
If all of the above made little sense, it's because this is a hard book to describe. Suffice to say I adored the characters, wanted to inhabit the world depicted by the story, and didn't want the whole thing to end. I think you'll have to read it yourself to truly see what I mean. Recommended to everyone.
I read the first 40 or so pages and gave up. What I've read so far rated very low.
This starts with two twenty something women in London living with long term partners, one is having an affair and one would like to have an affair. I find love triangles boring and it looked like it was going to be a big part of the book.
I like a dark sense of humour but when one of the women hears her partner is back early from a trip abroad and is trying to find a reason why the flat looks unlived in because she has been at her lovers, she jokes that she will pretend she has been gang raped. I don't think that constitutes as a joke. Decided to give up.
The first thing you'll notice about this book is the unique design. The black-stained page edges and the reflective hardcover. The high-quality paper. These are the things which lend themselves to a unique reading experience, and that is what it is.
Our Tragic Universe contained most of what I love and hate about literary fiction. A writer main character who talks about writing to everyone around her but does very little of it in her somewhat disorganized life. The attendant guilt she feels. The nagging problem of the unfinished novel that most writers understand too well. The broken relationship with no hope because neither party is trying to make the relationship work in any meaningful way. Constantly resuscitated dreams, no loyalty to principles, selfishness driving the decisions she makes, super high maintenance friends with no regard for normal behavior. She is offered a way out but still clings to pieces of her messy existence. She displays an elegant understanding of the art of fiction, but life plays plenty of tricks on her. It could've been a slog, but Thomas manages to avoid most of the easy solutions.
The M. C.'s boyfriend, Christopher, is a deadbeat, a leech, a parasitic, personalityless worm. Another man, Rowan, is a flawed, but idolized ordinary fellow. Her female friends are quirky, garrulous, demanding, spastic enablers. All of them are far more articulate than real people.
She spends her time (which she has an unlimited amount of) pretending to be a fictional character, while her friends imitate Anna Karenina, making tragedies of their puny conflicts. A bit of it is hard to believe, but much of it is charming in an obliquely surprising way. Living out and discussing the plot holes in your own life might be fun, but it begs the question of your own silly behavior and motivation. Meg gets paid egregious amounts for her writing, but seems to do far too much knitting. Her useless boyfriend has strict principles related to environmentalism which increase their cost of living, and he never contributes anything except infantile commentary. She gets paid to write book reviews, which is the most unrealistic part of the book.
The author clearly cobbled the book together from profuse notes on topics she found interesting, from wide reading of nonfiction, selecting concepts and unusual phenomena to dress up her skeletal plot with strange arcana and alchemical mixtures of themes and plotless wandering, wrapping it all in suggestions of cosmic significance.
The book goes for it. Embraces the weirdness. Through subtle atmospheric details a mystique accumulates. Using giant leaps of logic in metaphor and imagery, she subverts expectations and falls into the common traps at the same time. There is much figurative language, a weaving of elaborate notes into digressive internal monologue, tangential discussions with friends, a hyperactive frenzy of ideas, which in the end is simply a sharing of wide-ranging conspiracy theories, chance encounters, instigated coincidence, fate's niggling, a pervasive powerlessness within the grand scheme of the novel, a discussion of pop culture and its definition of the edges of our consciousness, the boundaries it draws around our behavior. It is a mash-up of a ton of plotlines for potential novels, applying an addictive style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. It manages to make derelict characters fascinating in a train wreck sort of way. The perspective is relatable, but it is so focused on New Age pseudo-science, philosophical meandering, and loitering literary references, it might drive some readers mad. Meg's dopey side quests on every page lose their original flair the more she indulges in them. If you can handle obscure ruminations, the fatalistic viewpoint, and a slew of meaningless moments building into a profound summation of life's haphazard meaning, it should be fun for you.
The concept of the storyless story, the simplicity of life created versus life lived, trying to be somebody you're not, stressing about your carbon footprint, how we make excuses to live an empty existence, knitting as a metaphor for writing and life, collages, motifs, mosaicked idea-webs, being content with obscurity, seeking out small adventures, fake memories, the question of whether we should believe in magic, alternate breathing techniques, curses, living forever, carpe diem, the value of dying, savoring momentary happiness, infinity, cowardice, doing things halfway, splendid anecdotes about the publishing industry, artificial relationships, image consciousness, virtual eternity, hipster mystic wisdom, Aristotelian poetics, genre techniques, how disasters are built into the system, inevitable loss as a product of gain, defamiliarizing the ordinary, fairy phenomena, success, failure, mass production, the essence of a person's soul, living out ideals, the small problems which consume us, the absurd lengths to which we will go to seek help, banish emotion or wallow in it. Self-help exploitation, and a rampant beast of Dartmoor (another instance of metafiction impregnating her reality).
Forewarning, this is a positive review though I can see where it might not appear that way. It was just a very hard book to write about!
Our Tragic Universe (originally to be titled ‘Death of the Author’) is a nonstandard plot. Part time writer Meg is living in a small town England. She is living unhappily with her long term boyfriend and her dog, barely scraping by. Meg is continually trying to write her “Real Novel”, editing and paring down her words, never able to solidify where she wants to take it. In the meantime, she takes on the grunt work of the literary world, reviews of trash novels for a newspaper, and ghost writing teen fiction using formulaic methods.
Meg is caught in an interesting kludge of personal issues. Her best friend is having an affair that is messy. long time friends have stopped speaking to her. Her boyfriend is spiraling into depression and taking her on a manic roller coaster as he falls. She feels trapped and unaccomplished. Her only real bonus is a love interest in a man nearly twice her age, married, who she doesn’t dare see anymore since they accidentally kissed. Early in the book, Meg inadvertently takes on a review for some kind of new age “how the afterlife works by bob-know-it-all” book and the flavor of the story really begins to ripen. Oh yeah, and I should mention there is a mysterious beast prowling the neighboring townships scaring the hell out of the residents…
The story is vibrant but many readers may be confused by the cluttered nature of the novel. it is cluttered just as life itself is, so it is fitting, though as a result, difficult to read. At some points, OTU read like a reality TV show for a person who has absolutely nothing interesting going on in their life, detailing minutia like knitting. At other points, it is a technical reading manual for obsessive compulsive literature majors. This could have been toned down and approached less lecture like, but in the end, was an important part of the novel’s structure. .
Previously mentioned, the plot of Tragic Universe is nonstandard in the fact that it really doesn’t have a core/central plot. Items that you think are key plot points are proven to be red-herrings, no more important to life than the number of concurrent green lights you drove through on the way to work today. Interestingly though, it highlights how many things we notice daily which have no importance, but to which we add false importance.
Regardless, all of the characters are interesting and well thought out. it was these that kept me coming back for more. I nearly stopped reading this book 7-8 times. Each time I prepped to give up on it, some small detail would catch my attention again and I was drawn back in for another 30-40 pages.
Ultimately, I believe this waxing/waning of interest may have been part of Scarlett’s intent as she wrote this “storyless-story”. Really, it is nothing more than a sign of the abilities of the author, in that she wrote something so realistic/painful, that giving up and utter enthrallment are with in breaths of each other. Reading OTU was like a broken ceiling fan on a very hot day, I kept fiddling with it- trying to make it work. Frustrated, at times felt like a pointless endeavor, but in the end, when the gears moved and the air flowed over my sweat beaded forehead, the effort was worth it, a welcome cool breeze to mellow the experience.
I would not suggest this book for people who are easily frustrated, trust me here. Also, if you prefer your books garnished, placed on a plate, and then fed to you in bite size portions, you may not enjoy this and should perhaps look toward other reading material.
To quote the novel (referencing everyday life having less “story”), “You just have to let go of the plot when it gets too much. Do something else”. Though there were many times I wanted to stop reading, I instead just took breaks from it and am glad I completed it. Our Tragic Universe was a literary vacation, a trip away from the normal methodologies employed by authors, memorable in both it’s genius, complexity, and bearable frustration.
In a solitude of the sea Deep from human vanity And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she. - Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the Loss of the Titanic
I love this book because it is everything I believe in :-) Literary Mythology, Alternate Reality, Faeries, The Fabric of the Universe, a Labyrinth, a Beast and a Telepathic Dog!
Favorite Passages: I was reading about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby. ______
'All right. So I was out with you and I lost my keys. That's bad. Then to make it worse I got gang-raped while I was looking for them, and now I've lost my memory and the kidnappers took you away because you were a witness, and only Bess knows where you are, and she's trying to tell Christopher, but . . .' 'Too complicated. You need something simpler. . . .' ______
'I must be mad. What am I doing?' she said. 'Nothing,' I said. 'Come on, don't do this. It's going to be very hard to explain.' Then she pushed her car into the river and threw the keys in after it. 'I'll say kids must have done it,' she said, over the splashing, sucking sound. 'They must have stolen my keys. Even if it does sound crazy, no one will think I was desperate enough to push my own car in the river, will they? Nothing would motivate me to do something as stupid as that. Holy shit. Thank you, Meg. That was a brilliant idea. I'll call you tomorrow if I'm still alive.' _____
'There's a bit where members of a religious cult are waiting on a hill for the end of the world, which is supposed to take place that afternoon. When the world doesn't end, they all have to go out and buy new toothbrushes.' _____
Vi never used maps, but relied on a strange kind of 'luck' to find her way around. If she found a tree that had been cut down she apologised to it on behalf of humans. She talked to inanimate objects as if they too were alive, although since working at the nursing home her conversations with these objects often began with 'How the fuck are you, then?' ______
Back then, life felt like something that would happen in the future, not now; and it felt as if you could easily fit the cosmos into a single poem. ______
'So now you won't mind', Newman wrote, 'if I tell you something shocking. You are already dead. You died a long time ago, probably billions of years ago. In fact, you are already immortal, although you may take a few more lives to properly realise it. You are currently living, and re-living, in what I will term the Second World, which has been created by the Omega Point as a place where you prepare for the rest of eternity.' _____
In short, you get out of the Second World by becoming truly yourself, and overcoming all your personal obstacles. Then you will be ready for enlightenment and transcendence. You will receive plenty of Special Invitations in your life: those moments where you are invited to embark on an adventure, where the universe seems to be beckoning you with its finger and saying, Come here and try this. _____
. . . I'd written about 2,000 words of my novel and deleted about 20,000, which was a net gain of -18,000 words. Was it possible to submit a novel with a negative number of words? I'd changed the title a few more times too, and it was currently called The Death of the Author. It was all very frustrating. _____
These structuralists who go on and on about the universality of the hero's journey like to talk about the story of the Buddha, because he saw three fucked-up things and then set off on a journey and got enlightened at the end. But they don't pay so much attention to the Chinese story "Monkey", which is another Buddhist story, but with a silly Trickster hero who doesn't do the right things or ask the right questions, but ends up enlightened as well. They also don't pay any attention at all to the Pacific Trickster Maui, who, according to the stores fished up at least some of New Zealand with his grandmother's jawbone. Maui eventually dies while attempting to creep inside the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po, through her vagina, which is lined with teeth. He's supposedly a hero entering an innermost cave - ha ha! - and hopes to secure immortality for everyone. He has taken some bird companions on his great quest. But one of these, the Piwakawaka, or fantail, laughs at Maui and wakes up the goddess, who crushes him between her legs. _____
The storyless story is a vagina with teeth. _____
It's a big commitment, and once you open the doors to the Otherworld, you can't go back. But I happen to think there's a lot of magic you can do on your own. _____
You need to understand that good magic is always about bringing harmony to the world, not disorder. And you must also accept that magic has consequences. _____
You might feed the birds in your garden, or plant some new flowers. Faeries like nature. Indeed, they don't come into our world much any more because of what we've done to the natural world. _____
Perhaps I could make the point that when humans fiddle around with anything natural they completely mess it up, and messing around with infinity would therefore be an infinitely bad idea. _____
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. _____
The year before, I'd reviewed a book in which a scientist had used slicing ham as a way of explaining dimensions. The ham is three-dimensional, she'd said; and the slice is two-dimensional. It drove me mad. Two-dimensional 'objects' cannot exist, cannot be; however thin something is, it still has three spatial dimensions. I'd spent half the review explaining why it was impossible to experience a two-dimensional world, especially if one was attempting to travel form a three-dimensional world made of ham. Justine had come up with a nice image of a hock of ham, which she'd placed alongside an image of the scientist and a caption: 'The universe is not ham'. _____
Cones were beginning to grow on the branches of silvery-green pine trees, like little cosmoses sprouting in the kind of multiverse my father sometimes talked about. _____
Shallow, shallow. And the sea was deep. _____
Sometimes I imagined I saw pieces of novel coming out of her shit and always saws this as my own novel, which of course she couldn't have eaten because it wasn't finished. I saw a website once about all the weird stuff that comes out in dog shit: Barbie doll heads, toy cars, Lego, spoons. _____
She slept with my boyfriend, slept with my housemate's boyfriend, then got upset because she thought that she'd alienated us for ever and was found at 3 A.M. on the Sunday morning trying to drown herself in the duck pond in the local park. Not long after that, she was discovered by a producer while she was walking on Hampstead Heath. She'd started throwing sticks for his dog and he'd asked her to come and audition for a part in a major drama series about the supernatural goings-on in an English village. _____
. . . she knitted me 'the fabric of the universe': a black cashmere square with cross-stitched, silver stars. I used it once to demonstrate gravity to Christopher, and he said, "That's just stupid." Perhaps he was right. It hadn't helped that the only planet in my makeshift universe was B's well-chewed rubber ball. ____
. . . someone who believes she is so ugly that she can't leave the house. The woman decides she wants to die, but can't contemplate suicide, so she does all these dangerous things in the hope that she'll die by accident and not have to take responsibility for it. She starts off doing lots of DIY and trying to have household accidents, but she only manages to cut off one thumb, so then she moves into the outside world and ends up trekking through the jungle and doing extreme sports. She loses body parts as she goes, but somehow gains herself in the process. _____
For other people, love is like some rare orchid that can only grow in one place under a certain set of conditions. For me, it's like bindweed. It grows with no encouragement at all, under any conditions, and just strangles everything else. _____
. . . a complicated network of energies and cosmic checks and balances. He'd pick up on a vibration that something bad would happen, and switching the light on and off was form of focusing his energy in order to stop the bad thing from happening. _____
If I wanted to cheer myself up I put on my silver bird earrings. If I went to a dinner party I wore a long black patchwork skirt with the fabric of the universe - which also functioned as a shawl. _____
Seagulls in Dartmouth are fat. They have yellow beaks, red webbed feet, white heads and necks, black and white wing-tips and mean eyes. When they are not ack, acking they screech from the million-greyed sky, you, you, like the chorus in a tragedy. _____
He often said that he wanted to minimise the footprint he was making on the environment, but I sometimes wondered whether really he didn't want the environment to make a footprint on him as it trudged on into an unknown future. _____
He was right. Here was quirky. Here was real. Here was also cheap, and near his family. _____
. . . what I'm saying is that if a monster, or something you call a monster, comes to see you and you become its friend, it stops being a monster, at least to you. In that sense, there don't have to be any such things as monsters. You have to decide something is a monster before it becomes one. _____
In Taoism, it's only nothingness that gives anything meaning. A cup is only useful because it has an empty space inside for your tea, for example. The best part of a house isn't the walls and the roof, but the space inside, where you live. _____
. . . "coming to nothing" could be coming to a place of peace or simplicity, a place where you understand the fabric of the universe, not just the patterns you can cut form it. Or perhaps it means you won't be successful in a conventional sense . . . _____
None of it's that far-fetched. So it's not so much a supernatural premonition of the future, but a different kind of premonition, or prediction, based on cultural factors and things people would reasonably know, or guess. _____
"Stop it," I said. "I'm reading." "What's it about?" "ESP," I said. "But it's a secret, so don't tell anyone." "What's that?" she said, looking over my shoulder and pointing at a picture. "This bit's about poltergeists," I said, stumbling slightly over the word. "Oh," she said coolly. "We've got one of those." _____
Things seem like magic only when we don't understand the underlying forces that make them happen. _____
On the Lanes I often got a strange feeling, as if I was back in that mysterious forest that I still wasn't sure I hadn't imagined in 1978. It was almost like becoming a fictional character in a world containing something more than the Standard Model and evolutionary theory, and in this world anything was possible, and things made a different, mysterious kind of sense. _____
I re-stacked the 'Stupid' pile and wondered if there really were that many people who felt so victimised by contemporary life, with its electromagnetic fields, meetings, childcare worries, pollution, radiation, mobile-phone masts, caffeine, sugar, monosodium glutamate, logical husbands and emotional wives, that they needed a book, or several books, to get over it and learn things like downshifting, going organic, positive thinking, saying no to people, overcoming anxiety, loving without conditions, establishing boundaries, asserting themselves and breathing correctly. _____
"So why isn't everyone doing magic and predicting the future if it's all possible?" I said. "I think because we're encouraged to believe it's not possible." . . . . "Maybe the people who really do it, do it quietly." . . . . "If you could do real magic you wouldn't need to have a stage show, I assume. Or write a book about it. You'd live quietly in a cottage somewhere and no one would know." _____
"Just because you can't see something doesn't mean it isn't there: think of genes, for example, or sound waves. And for every hundred terrible books on Tarot or poltergeists, there's one good one that does expand your understanding of the world somehow. You just have to know where to find it." _____
"So this health inspector was in a pub on Dartmoor the day before yesterday. He was looking at the kitchens, and there were feathers under the cooker, so he asked the landlord whether he let his pet cockerels or ducks come into the kitchen. He said, No, of course not. Then the next thing that happened was that a cockerel ran in, followed by a fox with one of the ducks in its mouth, and one of the other cockerels on its back, and the cockerels pecked out the fox's eyes while the fox killed the duck and then, blindly I suppose, killed the cockerels too. There was blood everywhere. The inspector closed the kitchen down." "Oh, yuck," I said. "Poor cockerels. Poor fox. Poor duck." _____
"There's been howling, weird footprints, ginormous piles of foul-smelling shit and all sorts of things. People have seen 'something' much larger than a cat or a dog prowling around, and some local had a photograph of a black blob that looked a bit like the Loch Ness Monster, except it was in a field. They reckon that it's probably a puma or a wolf that someone got as a pet and can't look after any more. One woman said that all the dog food she kept in her garden shed disappeared late one nigh, and when she got up there were just empty bags all over her garden. She said it had cost her about a hundred quid. Imagine spending that on dog food." _____
"Please don't leave me alone. The world's sort of vibrating." _____
It felt a little as if my external life had gone from being something the size and colour of a white handkerchief to becoming several yards of beautiful fabric, printed with complicated colours and patterns. The only problem was that Drew was the dull background on this fabric, not the pattern. And I wasn't sure what you could really make out of this fabric, and whether whatever it was would really suit me. _____
Don't you think it's interesting that people spent loads of time and money building structures for no reason other than to amuse themselves, or have something better than the neighbours, or so they could pretend to be living in the past, or in a fairy tale or something? I mean, surely history is interesting because it tells us about people? I think people who built follies were probaby much more interesting than people who built castles. _____
"And I can see space time laid out like a blanket . . ." "Like the fabric of the universe!" Libby said. "Exactly like that," I said, smiling at her. "You've confused everyone now," Bob said to Libby. "Oh. I knitted the fabric of the universe for Meg ages ago. That's all." Marked rolled his eyes when Libby wasn't looking. "'That's all,'" Rowan said, laughing. He caught my eye and then looked away again. "As if you're a kind of God of knitting." "Or God's assistant," Libby said. "I had to ask Conrad what the fabric of the universe would look like so that I could knit it." _____
"One of the artists I know collects paradoxes," Sacha said. "He pins them in a glass case like butterflies whenever he finds one." "Finds one?" I said. "What, just lying around?" "It may have been a metaphor. Perhaps there were no glass cases really either. We were drunk when we were talking about it, I think." _____
I'd respond by asking people why it was OK to eat pigs, say, which have the intelligence of three-year-old children, but not OK to eat three-year-0ld children. _____
I drove out of Dartmouth and after a while Start Bay emerged out of the brightening gloom like the end of a set of parentheses in a book about the natural world. Inside the parentheses was a story about the sea. Outside them, the land: green, red and brown fields, and hills curling over the landscape. I saw small, delicate clumps of snowdrops, big rough patches of gorse, and along the thin road, houses with yellow roses and mimosa growing in their gardens. The mimosa buds were yellow balls that looked like little models of molecules. It was too early for them to flower. _____
Just after six everything outside turned the colour of twilight. The sea and the sky became the same inky blue, separated by a darkening horizon: a blue-black line on a washable blue background. I wanted to take a picture. If I had, it would have been all blue, with only subtle differences in the strips of sand, sea, sky. When it became too dark to see outside I settled down in front of the fire on the big old sofa with my blankets and a bottle of wine Libby had given me, and drank myself to sleep as some cosmic force in-jetted the last bits of sky. _____
The astral plane kept fading in and out and crackling at first, and then it settled into a dreamy hyacinth-blue. _____
The Fool card, numbered 0, didn't represent what I'd first thought: a silly person about to step off a cliff because he's dreaming too much to even notice his dog jumping up and warning him of the dangers ahead. According to the book, the Fool card has always been fundamental; the Fool's number, 0, is a whole, a world, a circle; it is the non-existence that allows and precedes all other existence. The Fool card may therefore represent the basic nature of all of us: someone in an original state of being or enlightenment who is wandering around with few cares or possessions, uncorrupted by culture. This person seems foolish only to those who are unenlightened. The card also shows the innocent, natural wonder of stepping out into the unknown. We may assume that stepping over a cliff is dangerous, but perhaps the Fool knows he is simply stepping onto the next ledge down. _____
"So all fiction is the same?" "No, no." Vi shook her head. "There are stories with no formula, but they are a bit harder to find. Mathematically they are expressed differently. You'd need imaginary numbers - the square roots of negatives - to express those stories in equations. I'm working on a paper about this at the moment."
With semi-comic characters who talk about Nietzsche whilst knitting, and try to debunk pseudoscience and supernatural experiences during dog-walks, Our Tragic Universe is a charmingly shambolic (to some, shambolically pretentious) blend of 1970's British kids' fantasy novel, eccentric chicklit with an M.A., metafiction and amusingly presented mundane detail. It has curious contrasts: ostensibly fairly high, polymathic intellectual content and some startlingly fresh metaphors alongside instances of over-simplicity, clumsiness, illogicality and even errors of source interpretation that would annoy a seriously scrupulous and learned reader. I kept describing the book to myself in terms such as “trashy” and “guilty pleasure” (having noticed I don't really like any “proper trash” among books the way I do with films and music). And then there was the chicklit-like feeling “I want to be friends with these characters.”
The book explores the idea of a "storyless story" or "realist fiction" which discards and critiques traditional narrative structures, as does the Alt-Lit / memoir-as-novel stuff I've been reading recently - those writers do indeed make it sound, as Meg the narrator here says, "as if the superobjective of everyone in the Western world was simply 'I wish to become a[n advert-perfect] fictional character" (p.316). They have made points similar to "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" (p.400) ... And I daresay Scarlett Thomas was rehearsing for her next publication Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories whilst writing this. Unlike Alt-Lit - and the self-help books Meg is commissioned to write a Sunday supplement feature about - Our Tragic Universe doesn't just set up mirrors facing into a depressing little goldfish bowl without comment. It's alive with other ideas and activities and people, exuberantly expressed.
Reading this, I experienced a similar sense of comfort as with Nicola Barker's books, or Come to the Edge and Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna. But Barker and Kavenna are both more accomplished creators of conceptual novels with underlying ideas. The reader has to think, whereas in Our Tragic Universe the ideas are always put on a plate for you by means of the characters' conversations and narrative. Barker's Clear does that to some extent, but it's more streamlined. Thomas seems to just throw around a lot of stuff she's interested in, seeing where it lands – which is why her characters seem so friendly: it's a more conversational and casual tone, like spending time with interesting people. And just as you don't expect friends always to agree with you or to be right 100% of the time, I kept forgiving things because I just liked the book and the protagonist so much regardless.
Oh dear. I so wanted to enjoy this book. Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr. Y is one of my all-time favourite books, yet this reads like some early precursor to that book.
This is a storyless story, and deliberately so. The story is wilfully, purposely, missing. Thomas is a lecturer on creative writing, and her protagonist Meg is also a writer who lectures on creative writing. Meg wants to write a storyless story - and so clearly does Scarlett. This novel speaks incessantly about story, plot, character arc, etc, and continually lobs ideas at us like tennis balls. But all this comes to nothing. Meg won't let it - she continually writes new ideas into her novel, then deletes them. Scarlett won't let it - this is a storyless story, and she isn't going to give us a plot, or a mystery, or resolve any of the elements of the novel. Grr!
The book is far too clever for its own good. This is typical: "Vi spoke English with the kind of accent that has evolved in a variety of different directions, like an adaptively radiated species." Much of the novel consists of people telling each other stuff. After all, nothing of any significance is allowed to happen.
If you want to know why a storyless story doesn't work, read this book! Or perhaps ask Scarlett Thomas - as a lecturer in creative writing, she really ought to have known the answer herself. Grr!
I have a real weakness for this author who won't be everyone's cup of tea. here she willfully writes a novel about narrative, but without much of one at its heart. A writer who doesn't do much writing, takes walks around the locale of Totnes, visits friends and all sorts of other procrastinating activity, while musing on the nature of fiction versus life. I know it doesn't sound much, but there are some fantastic insights in the book. There are studies of relationships here, failing relationships at that, but they are in the context of purpose and drive within human existence and what happens when that is stopped up behind a wall of suburban routine and collapsed ambition.
"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". Precisely. Love it.
here's a slightly longer consideration of the book on my book review Vlog:
I like metafiction much more than the next person, but this was beyond reason. It's one thing to write a structureless, boring story. It's quite another to write a structureless, boring story about writing a structureless, boring story. It's like infinity times infinity plus a whole lot of bullshit. No thank you.
Oh my god, I loved this book! I have a first edition hardcover with that cool black/gray, white, and gold cover and the black-edged pages. I bought it at City Lights when I was on my way home from hiking in the Redwoods and then left it sitting on my shelves for two years. After slogging through In the Garden of Beasts, I just wanted to read something I wanted to read, so I grabbed Our Tragic Universe, flopped onto my bed and practically stayed there until I had read to the end.
The whole story is so 21st century British, so off-the-beaten-track of even that, so literary in a non-literary way. Meg Carpenter (broke, writing book reviews and genre fiction to pay the rent while she works on her novel everyday but deletes everything she wrote the next day) is such a sympathetic character. She is like Anne Lamott without the Christianity and with an even more dry sense of humor.
Plot is not the essence of this novel. It moves slowly. You want Meg to maybe have a little more grit or something but then she wouldn't be Meg. It's a novel about a novelist by a novelist and about being a novelist in an insane, uncaring world. It's about friendships and love and relationships but has an exactly zero mush factor.
I haven't looked up any other reviews before writing my thoughts but I would say Our Tragic Universe might not please the wide majority of readers. It pleased me a great deal. It made me want to keep reading books when I was despairing about contemporary novels. It made me want to work on my own writing.
Best of all, by sort of blandly being true to herself, all good things come to Meg in the end. I did not expect a happy ending. (This is not a spoiler.) I wanted Meg to be happy but I would have understood had Scarlett Thomas decided to go another way. Possibly this is a book about faith--in yourself, in our tragic universe. If you are a writer, you owe it to yourself to read it.
I'm not actually sure whether I liked this novel. It's somewhere between a meta-fictional literary experiment about the nature of story and the storyless novel, and a heap of selfwankery pretentious crap. On the one hand, the human relationships are quite nicely described, and enough weird and interesting things happen to keep you reading. On the other hand, the endless discussions that the characters have about literary theory, the nature of narrative, and so on, reminded me a lot of my less interesting university courses on postmodern literature. The similarities between Scarlett Thomas and her protagonist Meg sometimes appear clever, but sometimes it just looks as if Thomas was desperately trying to come up with THE NOVEL of the English language, and when she couldn't just decided to write a novel about not being able to do it. A bit like Meg ends up doing. Is that second stage metafiction already?
Something annoying was Meg's steadfast refusal to accept the supernatural, despite having met faeries as a child, their neighours having a poltergeist, and good stuff mysteriously starting to show up after the "ordered" it from the universe, the Beast showing up.... Her world seems to run on narrativum, like the Discworld. Certain things happen because the narrative requires them to happen in order for that kind of story to work.
The philosophy about the Omega Point is reasonably interesting, but in the end doesn't lead anywhere other than to long pointless discussions. The theory is based on the convergent evolution theory by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which states that evolution is continuing with a very clear aim in mind: the creation of a god, or god-like being in power and intellect. This is of course a fallacy, as evolution is not going anywhere, but just promoting what works best at a given time under given circumstances.
This theory and the Omega Point was explored in a much more clear and interesting way in Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos series. Which is pure genius, by the way, and should be required reading for every self-respecting sci-fi fan with a brain. (yes, the man is spouting weird things these days. That doesn't in any way devaluate these books. And this is not Orson Scott Card we're talking about here, after all)
In short, I don't really know how to rate this novel. There are very interesting passages in it, but on the whole, I was constantly waiting for something to happen...
Finally reached the end of this book that can be summed up in two words - mind f**k!
It is a true example of a storyless story! How can a book divide your own opinions so completely? At times I wanted to give it 4 stars but at others zero stars (more 0 than 4).
I think the best way is just to tell you what I liked and didn't like and then you can read it and join the debate of whether it works or doesn't. (This list is as confusing and as contradictory as the book itself - sorry about that).
Things I liked;
All the theories of life and the universe Magical debates Literary style debates
Things I did not like;
Meg (protagonist) Constant digression into all kinds of theories (some of which are so boring) Unlikeable characters (wtf did Meg see in Christopher - what a complete arse) No real story Tim - didn't get the beast thing and why he even in it Descriptions of knitting Meg's friends
The book induced A LOT of eye rolling but also some head nodding...I don't know it's all just a bit weird.
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
I suppose if I'm being entirely truthful, a big part of why I was so profoundly disappointed with Scarlett Thomas' Our Tragic Universe was not from the quality of the book itself, but simply from a case of mistaken assumptions; namely, based on the whimsical jacket copy and exquisite production details (including a custom-glued full-color glossy hardback cover and pages dyed black at their edges), I had been expecting this to be some smart, well-done New Weird comedy along the lines of China Mieville's Kraken, instead of the ho-hum, cutesy-wootsy, "Sex And The City With a Dark Streak" social-realism chick-lit tale it turned out to be. And while that's not my particular taste, the book is certainly on the high end of the quality scale for what it is, and I suspect will be well-liked by those specifically looking for this type of work; but I just can't help but feel frustrated and disappointed anyway, because of all these details that pointed to one kind of book and a manuscript that actually delivered the opposite. I know, I know, don't judge a book by its cover! I know!
Out of 10: 7.1 or 8.1 for fans of dark-tinged chick-lit
This may reflect my mood more than the book itself:
While I quite enjoyed Scarlett Thomas' writing itself, all I could think about the intellectual conversations in the novel was "what a load of pretentious pseudo-intellectual crap"... and I am in academia.
Scarlett Thomas’ books have a quantum quality about them. I really enjoyed this but I feel like if I recommended it to someone they would enjoy it less. It’s as if the act of recommending it would reduce its quality. This book would be best enjoyed when stumbled upon randomly in the corner of a dusty bookshop, but would probably be terrible if it was effusively recommended. I felt similarly about The Seed Collectors.
The ‘Schrodinger’s book’ thing is apt since Thomas tends to write simple real-world tales interwoven with quantum mechanics, zen theory, magic and theories of consciousness. A detailed synopsis of this book makes it sound turbo pretentious: it’s about a writer, Meg, who is trying to write a ‘storyless novel’, one which doesn’t conform to standard tropes of a hero overcoming the odds, a three-act structure and a happily-ever-after. I don't think it's a major spoiler to say that the book itself is a storyless story (ooooh meta). So far, so wanky, right?
But there’s a lot more going on than just some experimental metafiction. Meg is one of the most well-rounded, realistic and likeable characters I’ve read in ages. In her late 30s and struggling to make a living as a writer, Meg is in a depressingly awful long-term relationship with Christopher that she can’t seem to get out of. She’s also managed to piss off her best friends Vi and Frank and she’s in love with a much older man.
I think Thomas has a skill for writing realistic female protagonists. We learn about Meg’s life in minute detail but it’s warm and witty and never boring. Her defunct relationship with Christopher is particularly lifelike. It’s clear from the outset that he’s a horrible person - he’s immature, unable to reflect on his own behaviour, prone to taking out his frustrations on Meg. He also refuses to get a job because his dream job hasn’t come along, so Meg supports them both on her meagre income. Yet Meg doesn’t seem to be able to extricate herself from the situation. The horrible inertia of being unable to escape a bad relationship was very well done, and I was turning each page willing Meg to get out of there.
There were some great secondary characters too. I liked the relationship between Meg and her friend Libby. The non judgmental way that Libby’s extramarital affairs were treated was refreshing. Also the friendship between Meg and Josh, Christopher’s hyper-intelligent obssessive compulsive brother, was great.
So overall, despite the grandiose theory behind it, this book didn’t feel pretentious to me. It was engaging and intelligent and fun for the most part. Because I’d guessed from pretty near the beginning that it was going to be a storyless story, I was prepared for the ending to be non-traditional, so I didn’t feel disappointed when that was the case.
But I’m not going to recommend it because then you wouldn't enjoy it...
Given that I rather disliked the two Scarlett Thomas novels I’d previously read (Bright Young Things and PopCo), you might reasonably wonder why I even contemplated reading a third. Curiosity, I suppose — I just wanted to see if I could find one that I liked. And, well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I particularly liked Our Tragic Universe, but certainly I found it a more worthwhile read than those earlier novels.
Meg Carpenter is a struggling writer, trying (and largely failing) to make ends meet with genre novels and reviews of science books. Her latest book for review outlines a theory of how we might all live (subjectively) forever when the universe ends – or, indeed, might already be doing so without knowing it. All nonsense, thinks Meg, and she’s not keen on the idea of living forever anyway. Events take a strange turn, however, when it transpires that her editor didn’t send Meg this book at all – so where did it come from? Is it coincidence, or a sign of higher purpose in the universe? Does Meg even care? Should we?
In some ways, it’s hard to know what to say to a novel that more or less tells you that it’s not going to play ball. There are repeated mentions of concepts like the ‘storyless story’, and Meg comments that she’d prefer it if the universe didn’t have meaning – one can pretty much see where Our Tragic Universe is (or, rather, isn’t) going. This is resolutely a novel of anti-discovery, where the mysteries of the world will not only not be solved, they’ll hardly be investigated; where characters would rather evade their personal problems than tackle them head on (as an example, near the beginning of the book, one of Meg’s friends takes the extreme step of pushing her car into the river to cover up the fact that she’s having an affair); where life goes on, but doesn’t necessarily progress (Meg is supposedly working on a literary novel, but all she ends up doing over the course of Thomas’s book is scrapping more and more of it). But, fair’s fair, we were warned it’d be like this.
As for me, I see in Our Tragic Universe some of the characteristics that irritated me about PopCo and Bright Young Things, notably quite a lot of awkwardly-inserted exposition. But… somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much this time. I think that’s because the book is so single-minded and open about its intentions (and successful in achieving them) that I’m happy to sit back and let it all unfold. So, I can appreciate that Our Tragic Universe is very good at what it does – as I said earlier, though, liking it is a different matter.
Our Tragic Universe is supposed to be another book in a series of books by Scarlett Thomas that poses questions about the universe, the end of time and the existance of man. Sadly, it fails spectacularly.
I've read both The End of Mr. Y and PopCo, and OTU just doesn't live up to the complexity of the first and the thoughtfulness and insight of our current world in the second.
The theme is inconcise - the book concerns itself with the end of the universe - an endless loop of events repeating themselves, the universe resetting itself when it reached its end, and questions of narration - the storyless story, the fictionless fiction, the Hero's journey vs. the anit-hero. This is exactly where the book fails - it looks like she tried to use this concept on her book as well - there's no definite beginning, no highpoint, no end, not much of a journey for the protagonist of the story. As usually, Scarlett Thomas brings a lot of elements together, but this time, she fails to connect - rather keeping them disjointed. This all might be a concept, and I guess one should give her kudos for attempting such a concept, but the problem with it is that it all becomes horribly boring. (Also, why not discuss the concept of the storyless story on a higher intellectual level? I thought that was her stick...?)
OTU failed to capture my attention - I was rather annoyed by it, if I have to be honest. The naivetè of her do-good characters in PopCo was quite charming in its idealism (something, the world needs, IMHO), but when you apply it to the bunch of pseudo-humanists that inhabit OTU, it just gets annoying as all hell.
All in all - disappointing. And really, I wanted to love this book, because I both love The End of Mr. Y. and PopCo.
I liked the cover when I saw it at the library. Let's see what happens! ... Update: I started skipping pages about 30 pages into it. I really look for my reading to help me relax and escape at the end of a long day. This feels like too much work, and, frankly, boring. when I was in graduate school working on a Russian lit doctorate, I'm sure I would have found something brilliant to observe about the narrative style, etc. However for relaxation and thoughtful entertainment, it's dull.
il gioco della storia nella storia con una narrativa senza narrativa mi è chiaro alla fine il problema è che le teorie di Derrida di Che fine ha fatto MR Y sembravano meglio organizzate di quelle sull'universo che sono qui citate... diciamo che in parecchi punti la spiegazione risulta decisamente pesante e gratuita. Ma la Thomas rimane sempre uguale a se stessa anche se mirabilmente in questa occasione chiude almeno bene il romanzo. sconsigliato a chi non ama i romanzi lenti e contorti...
so for the first 200 pages i didnt really like it, I didn't find it that interesting and thought this book deserved no more than 3 stars. But after that things took a turn and interesting things started to happen, so I'll happily give this book 4 stars
- dogs - labyrinths - the intricacy of relationships between men and women - the tragicomic aspects of the above and modern life in general - funny, intelligent story-telling - the subversive, quiet abandonment of the former - the laconic characterisation of human archetypes - the smooth interweaving of theories about language, philosophy, art, music, and literature with a well-crafted narrative - magical aspects in mind-games scrutinising the alleged rationality of existence - the clever discussion of what all this striving for happiness is about
I went into reading this book somewhat blind. I had bought it on publication, having loved 'The End of Mister Y' and 'PopCo' and had high hopes for this too. Sadly it wasn't quite what I expected. Whilst far from being a bad book, it also wasn't a great one for me. I enjoy Metafiction (usually) and this had some of the qualities of that but seemed to be aspiring to achieve the same thing as the protagonist in creating a Storyless Story. It did make me wonder how much of the authors own experience lay between the covers, I'll have to dig up some old interviews (the internet is great for that) but whilst I quite enjoyed following the slightly soap opera style content I was left wishing for something more concrete. Still, I enjoyed it, even if I didn't adore it.
I read fast. Too fast sometimes. I can devour books (and music and films..) to the extent that I don't always give them the attention they deserve. I blame the internet - now I can be selective I haven't read a crap book for ages, and there is always something else to look forward to.
A really good book, however, will slow me down. I like a book that makes me ponder, where I have to put it down for a few minutes to digest, and just make sure I got that bit right. If a book can do that a dozen times it is destined for my absolute favourites shelf.
With Our Tragic Universe this sometimes happened twice on one page.
So what's it about? On the surface it's about a bunch of dissatisfied people trying to sort themselves out. Yes there are odd events bolted on, but that's' about it. And that's just as it should be. As a statement on the human condition it's the best thing I've read in a very long time.
This is a book of very big ideas. I'll give an example. Early on some of the characters are making beetroot soup and discussing existentialist aesthetics. Within a few pages they come to the conclusion that, if Nietzsche's right then no one finds anything and they all end up dead, with 'shit happens' being the only narrative strategy left. The sheer brilliance of the writing is such that this is not at all pretentious, it is very funny, and you feel closer to the characters as a result.
It keeps that standard all the way through. Every piece of dialogue is like the best conversation you've had with you closest friend, but with out the filler.
The sheer amount of thought is impressive enough. Dostoevsky and Chekhov play a big part, as does Cosmology, Mythology and Magic. You'll find one of Xeno's Paradox's her, some Quantum Conciousness there, even Chalmers Philosophical Zombie's have a walk on part. It's fun to play spot the reference, and think you've been reading some of the same things Scarlett Thomas has. It's a cleaver book that makes you feel clever while you're reading it. It never shows off or or talks down to you.
What stands out for me though, is the way she weaves all these disparate threads together into a seamless whole. Like knitting a sock I suppose..
Yet all this philosophising if for a purpose. Wittgenstein said something about philosophy being therapy (see - now I'm sounding pretentious), and that's what's going on here. These people care - they want to feel good about themselves, and they want to do the right thing. Both at the same time of possible. In this sense, the lack of story allows the reader to relate to the book in so many different ways that it becomes something like a literary Rorschach Test.
I could say so much more, but this is already my longest review.
On the top of the good reads home page it's asks us to list our favourite books. Rather than generate a list of the day I wrote 'Books of Ideas, Books with Heart, Books with Soul', so that it would not be perpetually out of date. Not many books can be all three at once, but Our Tragic Universe is, and beautifully so.
Can a story save your life?
You know - just possibly it can.
It can certainly make you feel much better about the one you have.