Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas
`This, for me, is a key feature of storylessness: all structures must contain the possibility of their own non-existence - some zip that undoes them.' She smiled. `The storyless story is a vagina with teeth'
While the above quote may seem an odd one without context, it is I can assure you, as odd with. Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas (Author of The End of Mr Y, a book I loved) feels like an extension of the only scenes in Mr Y that I was less fond of. It covers a month or so in the life of Meg, an author who teaches (as opposed to the lecturer who writes from Mr Y) who's only achievement is as a reasonably successful ghost writer for the fictional Zeb Ross and as the writer of a series of (now cancelled) low brow science fiction novels, struggling, as she has for years, to write her "Novel". We see her simultaneously realise she has fallen out of love with one immature man, and fall for another 20 years her senior.
While I found myself quickly drawn to Meg I also found the similarities to Ariel Manto from Mr Y very striking, the writers/teachers attitude, the attraction to older men and the unending navel gazing. I recently discovered that, in her creative writing lectures, Ms. Thomas is a proponent of write what you know, l could easily have guessed this without this insider knowledge. The End of Mr Y could act as a guide book to the University of Kent campus, and I have no doubt that I could do a decent job of finding my way around this part of Devonshire after reading this book.
Whether intentionally or ironically if feels like this novel may in fact be Meg's great "novel".She has the authors ability to find hobbies and feel the need to shoe horn them in to her writing, and spends a lot of the book considering how she can turn her real life in to fiction. Really the novel is just a shell for a series of dinner party conversations, seemingly about what ever topic had been interesting the author at the time of writing, covering such disparate topics as the storyless story, knitting, vegan-ism/cannibalism, alternative/holistic medicine, physics, chemistry and the nature of the universe. I think my main problem with the book is that I found the shell so well written that I wanted more, while Meg is not necessarily the most likable protagonist she is compelling and when ever the plot really seemed to get going, suddenly we're in another dinner party and I found myself really having to put, what felt like a physical effort, in to getting through them to the next nugget of that ever illusive plot.
It is fundamentally a novel written for its characters, these are people with no real conflict (and tellingly no offspring) none of whom are anything more than aged children who never stopped being students and joined the real world. Novel's can be great media for presenting ideas, as discussed in the book itself when the Meg suggests that another character turn his theory of the nature of the universe in to fiction as;
`One of the paradoxes of writing is that when your writing non-fiction everyone tries to prove your wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it.'
Ironically Thomas herself completely fails at this, she presents these ideas almost rote from real sources with little interpretation from the characters, leaving one to think, why don't I just go read that instead.
It's not a bad novel by any means, it is however a disappointment, The End of Mr Y left me wanting more, and so, I was excited to read Our Tragic Universe, but it only left me wanting more of the plot and none of the navel gazing chinwaggery. I will go back and read Pop Co. (Published before Mr Y but recently reissued in nice matching cover) I hope to find a different character and a bit more plot but I won't be surprised if I'm disappointed.