Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
20 September 2010
After a great deal of contemplation I've boiled it all down to these two points.
One: people aren't wearing enough hats.
Two: ever since there have been stories, people have understood that life is not like stories and, consequently, that stories are not really like life. Narrative compresses, elides, focalises and above all gifts structure to its events in ways life doesn't; or to be more precise, in ways life only does in our heads. Fictional representation of life is always misrepresentation, and our recognition of ourselves in the mirror of text (that girl is just like me! Hey, the story's set in Dartmouth—I know Dartmouth really well! I completely grok her messy relationship situation!) is always misrecognition. This, if you like, is Deconstruction 101; the realisation that, in this context, there really is no such thing as representation. Lacan noted that "the mirror stage," the moment when a child sees herself in the mirror and recognises that it's her, is a misrecognition (it's not her; it's an image of her) with profound consequences for the development of subjectivity—that, indeed, misrecognition is constitutive of our subjectivity.
This stuff is really neither new nor particularly profound. It goes back at least as far as Aristophanes, whose great plays Frogs and Thesmaphoriazusae are amongst other things expert interrogations of the relative merits and functions of heroically idealising versus deflatingly "realistic" art. Thomas makes quite a play with Aristophanes' Aeschylean-Euripidean standoff in Our Tragic Universe ("tragic," you see). I'll come back to that. But this theme, of the cleavage between the shape "art" gives experiences and the messy continguity and shapelessness of life, has been behind some of the greatest literature in the European tradition. It's what Don Quixote is about; it's the ground of all the playful shenanigans in Tristram Shandy (I was often put in mind of this novel when reading Our Tragic Universe, actually); Northanger Abbey plays it for laughs, sort-of; Proust made it his great theme; so did David Foster Wallace.
Wait—what was that about hats?
Our Tragic Universe centres on Meg, Thomas's narrator-heroine, living in a damp cottage in Dartmouth, scraping a living from freelance writing (pulp novels and reviews) whilst fretting that she has made no progress on her "proper" novel. Meg's boyfriend is Christopher, a man who, in trying to live a life without negative environmental consequences, actually manifests a rather monstrous self-absorption and blindness to the low-level misery he causes to those around him. Meg, stuck in this relationship, has kind-of fallen in love with Rowan, an older and married man
Our Tragic Universe is good on the people. Thomas is an very talented novelist, and one of her talents is a knack for believable, graceful and likeable characterisation—and that, given the pettiness, self-indulgence and venal annoyingness of many of her players, is quite some achievement. Meg's voice is superbly handled; the dialogue is supple, even in its infodumping mode; the prose is fluent, splendidly observed, very nicely done: a significant advance on the lively but sophomoric prose of Thomas's breakthrough title The End of Mr Y. Indeed, this novel contains all that book's fizz, its beguiling emotional honesty and its cleverness, whilst managing to rein in its more garishly extended-adolescent aspects. This is a very good novel indeed.
However, and though it is good on the people, Our Tragic Universe isn't really about the people. It's about the metaphorical millinery. Which is to say: it's about the stories people tell and to which they attend, both in the sense that these creatively misrepresenting stories structure our experience of life, and in the meta sense: for this is a novel about a novelist writing a novel that plays games that involve, in a nutshell, colliding what we expect of stories into what we know of life.
Accordingly it is not really a criticism of Our Tragic Universe to say that it is not a great story. That is its point. It is a novel that sets out purposefully to deconstruct the premises of narrative. What saves it from mere up-fundament-vanishing annoyingness is the enormous charm with which its deliberately inconsequential non-story is told. This, indeed, is the main point I'd want to make in this review. Thomas is a superbly charming writer: warmly witty, genuine, smart, funny, well-observed and cool.
And, actually, "non-story" isn't quite right. Thomas's book reflects the truth that the world is full of stories; that they proliferate endlessly. What the world doesn't provide is neat stories, or stories that fit our lives, or—above all—stories that come to loose-thread-tied endings. The paradigm is something like this Meg childhood reminiscence:
One time I saw a spider catch a wasp. I hated wasps, and I was quite pleased when this one flew drowsily away from me and got stuck in the web. In an instant, the fat spider came and started wrapping up the wasp in its white silk. The wasp struggled at first, and I felt sorry for it. But then it stopped moving. The spider worked away, turning it around, cocooning it, its thin, jagged legs moving this way and that, each one as precise as a needle on a sewing machine. Then it picked up the wasp in its front legs and took it carefully up to the centre of the web the way a human would carry a newborn baby. I watched for ages, but nothing else happened, and when I came back the next day the whole web had gone. Another day I found some string in the damp, creaky holiday house and made a shoulder-strap for my flask. (pp. 68-9)
This is very nice: an absorbing little narrative that deftly magnifies something mundane and trivial into something existentially resonant. The detail is spot-on, too—that "needle on a sewing machine" simile not only precisely evocative, but connecting with a larger thematic in the novel about "textile" (from, as Thomas knows very well, the Latin textus, which also gives us text), weaving, knitting, sewing. But most of all, the set-up leads us to expect a narrative resolution that Thomas's elegant sidestepping at the close neatly frustrates. The whole novel is not only full of this sort of thing, it is structured on a larger level according to this principle.
So, when she was a girl Meg met a magic man who put the Cutty Sark in a bottle and who told her fortune: "you will never finish what you start . . . you will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing" (p. 76). We can't accuse Thomas of not playing fair in her writing, because this is exactly what happens, to Meg, as to all of us. We none of us finish what we start; and we all come to nothing. This is what it means to be mortal. And if we don't overcome the monster, that may be because the monster doesn't exist. What this magic man is saying, in a nutshell, is that it is not in the nature of life, even a varied, interesting, satisfying life, to offer closure. Life discloses, it doesn't enclose. We can take such advice in the rather melancholy self-accusing way Meg initially does; or we could take it as liberating. That's up to us.
Thomas plays games with the sorts of expectations narrative conventions generate for the reader. In Meg's adult life that same ship-in-a-bottle washes ashore at Dartmouth. Is this coincidence, or something more structured and connected? There's a good deal of laying-the-ground for something significant to do with the "Beast of Dartmoor" which may, or may not exist; and may, or may not, have eaten a key character. It is hardly a spoiler to suggest that this storyline does not pay out, like a narrative one-armed-bandit.
One framing device for all this is a big science-fictional idea with which the book flirts: that we might all be living in a simulacrum. Our Tragic Universe starts with Meg writing a review of a book called The Science of Living by "Kelsey Newman." This is a Tipleresque Omega-point confection that argues the end of time will involve the concentration of unlimited powers of information manipulation which in turn will result in the creation of an infinite simulation of reality in which everybody who has ever lived will be recreated. Thomas mentions Tipler specifically, but I assume she shifts this notion onto her fictional "Newman" so as to go in non-Tiplerian ways with it. So, Newman thinks we are massively more likely to be already living in this simulation than otherwise; and he has written a follow-up title called Second World which offers "a blueprint for living" based on the assumption that the Omega point is real and now. When Meg submits her review the editor of the journal denies ever having sent her the book in the first place. Is this significant? Is there a cosmic conspiracy at work? Or is it purely coincidental? Or is it some third thing, some excluded middle of coincidental-conspiracy reminiscent of Foucault's Pendulum or Crying of Lot 49?
There used to be a publishing category called "the novel of ideas." It's fallen from favour, although we can read Our Tragic Universe as a late entry in the mode, I think. And by that token, I'm not convinced Thomas is sure enough of her ideas—or to be more precise, not sure enough that ideas alone will entertain its readers. When Thomas Hardy met readers, and those readers told him that they had read one of his novels, his question was always the same: "and did it hold your attention?" This is, obviously, a core writerly anxiety. It takes a brave author to ignore the suspicion that they are boring their readers.
How does Thomas set out to hold her reader's attention? She indulges, as have others, in what we might call the QI-ification of contemporary publishing. QI, for those SH-readers not familiar with it, is a BBC gameshow chaired by Stephen Fry in which panels of celebrities strive to be "quite interesting." Like Thomas's novel, the vibe of the show is non-combative and unnarrative, and like the novel it trades on a pleasing combination of likeability and wit. But most of all, it tickles our mental Trivial Pursuit glands. Books by writers as diverse as Bill Bryson to Neal Stephenson to Dan Brown are crammed with interesting facts. Other books, books perhaps that refuse to play this game, may find themselves judged and found wanting by the criterion of quantity and accuracy of interesting facts delivered.
And in Our Tragic Universe, a crateload of quite interesting facts is unpacked and parcelled out to the reader. A lot of it is interesting, too, though some of it acts a little gummily upon the progress of the whole, and some of it is wrong. Thomas makes an extended play with " . . . lost his bottle of oil," a phrase Aeschylus inserts deflatingly into Euripides' dramatic speeches. She takes it to be "a formula" and about the way "in tragedy if somebody loses a bottle of oil it's a really important bottle of oil and they end up dead" (p. 48). But this isn't right; Aeschylus's point is bathetic, not tragic—comically deflating Euripides' too-regular metrical speechifying. There are other bum notes: "a TV satellite had come down in the Pacific and caused a tidal wave that had devastating . . . one of the Japanese islands" (p. 62). Not unless it was the size of Phobos, it didn't. Not that the bum-notes really matter. This novel contains a wealth of enjoyment, and a banquet of food-for-thought. You won't be bored.
If I end my review, though, with a qualification, I do not do so in an attempt to be offputting. Because, really, you should read this novel: you'll enjoy it. My niggle was that the non-ending was not non enough for my tastes; that, to be particular, there's too much soap-opera of Meg's relationship with her noisome boyfriend. But I must add a rider, to the effect that my tastes are not the same as most peoples'. I might have preferred a more modishly alienated and oblique story; but Thomas has instead given us a remarkably engaging, multifaceted emotional trajectory. I was drawn into Meg's affective life; I understood why she was with horrible Christopher, though I also wanted her to ditch the loser. All this is integrated seamlessly with the larger questions the book raises. Hmm—how can I put it?
In "Picture This," one of Blondie's better songs, the female narrator begs the listener to imagine certain things:
Picture this, a sky full of thunder.
Picture this, my telephone number.
Now that I'm in my crusty middle-age, I tend to take that couplet as an ironic juxtaposition; for, after all, the cosmos—its vastness, its sublimity—has no interest whatsoever in individual human dating troubles or crushes. But when that song came out, and I was young and easy beneath the apple boughs, I suppose I took it differently. It seemed to me then to embody a straightforward truth: that the turmoil in my heart at asking a girl out and the turmoil in the sky as the thunderheads clashed and storm possessed the heavens—these were, somehow, the same thing. Because they were both iterations of a kind of intensity. Except, of course, they weren't. Except of course, my crusty middle-aged perspective, being less illusioned, is also less mendacious.
And that's my point. Our Tragic Universe juxtaposes the celestial significance and the small-scale emotional bumps in non-ironic and wholehearted fashion. That means that readers smart enough to appreciate its intelligence and young enough not yet to have developed calluses on their organs of feeling will find this novel to be one of the best of the year. Besides, who listens to Blondie nowadays? You're more likely to be into Lady Gaga. Now there's a person who knows how to wear a hat.