There are lots of peculiar goings-on happening around Dartmouth. There may (or may not) be a large beast prowling the moors; a ship in a bottle which is washed ashore may (or may not) hold a significant meaning for the story's main character Meg; we may (or may not) all already be dead and living in some sort of eternal computer-generated afterlife and we may (or may not) be able to piece together meaningful thoughts on the nature of life via the study and practice of knitting, writing, loving, dog walking and reading Anna Karenina.
I guess you could say of any novel ever written that it is 'not for everyone', but I think that's true of 'Our Tragic Universe' in a deeper fashion than it is for just about any other book I've ever read. Personally I loved it - I loved the way the narrative bounced between esoteric ideas such as the Cottingley Fairies that so haunted Conan Doyle one minute and then the meaning of Tarot cards the next; all interspersed with thoughts on the difficult nature of human relationships, the importance of friends and the desire to find your own place in the universe.
One of the key themes of the novel is that stories don't have to have a narrative, they don't need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Since many aspects of life dribble vaguely onwards towards no readily discernable goal why should a novel be burdened with the need to tell a story? In the course of Thomas's book characters ponder the troubled nature of relationships - wishing they were with someone other than their current partner but knowing the object of their desire almost certainly has feet of clay; discuss fascinating ideas about story-telling, myth, the nature of reality and the nature of magic and generally move forwards in their lives at the snail's pace which is all most of us ever manage. Reaching a destination isn't always the goal, sometimes making sure you enjoy the ride is all that matters: finding happiness in the moment is perhaps more worthwhile, not to say more realistic, than planning ahead for that brilliant career or that beautiful house.
I hope I'm not making any of this sound drearily weighty. Our Tragic Universe has a very light step and, while you're never quite sure where it's heading, it never loses its sense of passion about life, ideas and love. Also Thomas has a gift for carrying the reader along - her prose is so smooth you find yourself reading 'just one more page' over and over again until a dozen or more have flown past. It's curious, and a touch eccentric, but it is an absolute joy to read and it'll stay in your mind for weeks afterwards. Forget the destination, that doesn't matter, just sit back and enjoy the journey.
This is a difficult book for me to review. I have no idea what the point of it all was or what it was really about. All I can say is that I did find it a compelling read. When I started it I wasn't sure if I would continue reading it. 100 pages in and I felt that nothing had really happened. But then I found myself being drawn into the story of Meg Carpenter, a writer of genre fiction, and a would-be writer of literary novels. She's a likeable character, stuck in a relationship with Christopher, who finds fault with everything she does. There are some moments early on in the book where I got quite excited about what might be about to happen, and I did feel that those moments weren't followed through. I think I was waiting for a real wow moment to come out of them.
I can't put my finger on why I liked this book as much as I did. I think it's all down to the author's writing style, her sympathetic heroine and an intriguing, if unfathomable story, which did keep me interested throughout, despite the philosophical parts that didn't mean a great deal to me.
A worthy follow up to The End of Mr Y in my opinion. I'll definitely read more of Scarlett Thomas's work.
In the Orient, a long time ago, Taoist and Zen monks used to tell stories that would illustrate the multi-faceted nature of our existence; simple tales that could be interpreted in many ways, and that would reveal more upon further reflection. Nowadays, some people find them very frustrating, because at times they can seem to offer very little reward to the listener - or the reader. These are Zen tales, and Scarlett Thomas refers to them very often in her new book.
Here's an example:
"The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, "Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?" *
This story, one of the less cryptic ones, provokes less frustration than most from readers. Some people see it as mere philosophical babble, others that he was reflecting upon how we interpret our reality, and the way that time is experienced - if butterflies live for only a short time, then how can the span of our lives fit into a dream it has?
The point of the story is to offer an object to meditate upon,, rather than a simple narrative to listen to.
Many people will find 'Our Tragic Universe' similarly frustrating, because it has a very different subject to her previous book, which was, to me, about science (which by it's very nature categorises everything). Here, she categorises very little, but leaves things to the reader to decide. Instead of science, she explores the world of mysteries and alternatives to the norm - faeries, tarot cards, cosmic ordering, zen tales.
I planned to do a really detailed review when I was reading this book; every time something that struck me as important was referred to or mentioned, I'd pop in a Post-It note and carry on going. But Amazon simple don't allow enough space for what I'd wanted to write.
'The End of Mystery/Mr. Y' and 'Our Tragic Universe' are like siblings who see the world very differently: one has a tight narrative structure where the plot leaps forward, the other seems at times to consist merely of a writer writing about a writer who has a writer's block; One is set in the Victorian era, a time of scientific discovery and belief in the utterances that scientists made - the other is set in the present time, where people are starting to doubt the certainties that were once taken for granted; One has an ending where all the answers are provided (although the editor didn't want it to end that way and I agree) - the other could be seen to have hardly an ending at all.
Scarlett's new novel makes many different points to reflect upon - at one stage, she suggests that Western traditional tales - with the knight, the princess, the dragon, the gold for example - are all about overcoming a hurdle to win sex and money. It's quite a limiting narrative. The suggestion is that a lot of us here see our own lives in a similar narrative type, whereas perhaps we should perceive our lives in many different ways; the simplest being the pleasure of experiencing things as they happen - being in the moment. Escaping the narrative. We as readers spend so much time anticipating what might happen next - why not enjoy the process of reading for what it is, instead?
It'll make you work if you feel you have to. It'll make you hate it if you expect a beginning, middle and end. Read it as the Zen tale above, have no expectations, enjoy the experience of being in the vivid world that Scarlett conjurs up - is it the world we live in, or not?
*Thanks to John Suler for the Zen tale
on 30 September 2011
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.
on 8 January 2011
On the cover of this book the question is asked 'could a story save your life?'...
This book is about a regular British girl leading a fairly regular life. The magic of the book lies within Thomas' amazing ability to meld theory and fiction. Throughout this book Scarlett Thomas magically weaves together theory and fiction in a way that challenges the mind to think of bigger questions. Scarlett Thomas poses questions and possible answers to life's biggest questions, within the context of a very ordinary life.
Throughout the book implicit parallels are drawn between the theory presented and the actual plot of the book - in so doing has Scarlett Thomas achieved...
...a 'storyless story'? - "It is not something from which the reader should strive to learn something, but rather a puzzle or a paradox with no 'answer' or 'solution'..."
...a fictionless fiction? - "something super-authentic and with so much real emotional truth that none of it seems like a story at all"
...a character who "didn't worry about what they wore or said or did", a fool "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", thus combatting the hero-myths that she refers to.
This book is a beautiful summary of a snippet of Meg's life - there isn't high drama, our main character isn't the perfect heroine that we strive to be like in our lives, but never achieve. For me the book is an account of everyday life, the normalness of living - the slight lows and slight highs. That is what makes this book unique...
For me this book is the Labyrinth that Thomas describes at the end: "There is no drama in the centre of the Labyrinth, just a place where you have come to rest for a while before you walk the path out again."
So could a story save your life? This one didn't save my life, but it has certainly changed it...
After loving its two immediate predecessors; `Popco' and `The End of Mr Y' I had great hopes for `Our Tragic Universe': alas, to no avail. It is quite difficult to give an overview of the plot since there really isn't one in the commonly accepted understanding of the word; i.e. the narrative of a sequence of events, usually temporally ordered so that effect may be construed from likely cause and all intended to evoke within the reader an emotional response arising, again commonly, from the resolution of a problem or conflict set up early on in the narrative. My immediate response to reading the last word was, thank God that's over with!
It could be argued, I suppose, that the `problem' is the protagonist, Meg's, hugely irritating fop of a boyfriend with whom she cohabits and by whom she is treated as a surrogate mother. Alternatively, the problem could be viewed as her inability to complete, or even start, the novel that she keeps wittering on about throughout the book in between wittering on about the end of narrative as a literary device and the fictionalization of real life.
Both Popco and The End of Mr Y had conventional narratives; there were discernible story arcs and you knew you were, with the protagonists, travelling along roads the end of which represented real and varyingly satisfying resolutions. If Thomas's intention was to demonstrate the storyless story she certainly made a good job of it although for what purpose, Heaven only knows! Surely, she ought to realize, by now, that what readers are looking for; at the very least is a (satisfying) story when they pick up a storybook to read!
on 24 June 2010
I really enjoyed Popco and The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas so I was really looking forward to reading her latest book.
The cover and book design are gorgeous and after quoting Nietsche, Plato and Chekhov, the first sentence in the book is now one of my favourite opening sentences:
"I was reading about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby."
Meg is an impoverished writer in an unhappy relationship. She should be writing her great masterpiece but instead is paying the bills by writing bad genre fiction and reviewing books for the local newspaper.
I enjoyed this book immensely but one reason for me taking so long to write this review is that I struggled to pin down what this book is actually about and how to review it. There are various subplots; Meg's failing relationship with her partner Christopher, her attraction to an older man, her continued attempts to write her book, the strange book she reviews about how to survive the end of the universe. But I think the main theme of the book is stories and narrative. The question of whether a storyless story can exist is discussed several times.
Like her previous books, I feel like Scarlett Thomas is writing about more than I can understand but despite that (and perhaps because of it) I always enjoy getting immersed in her worlds and characters.
Scarlett Thomas is a thoroughly modern writer, but I found myself being curiously reminded of Virginia Woolf in `Our Tragic Universe' One of the major themes is writing and the need for narrative, itself. Narrative generally involving a linear series of events making a story. Woolf also examined interior monologues rather than linear stories, at times exploring `stream of consciousness' so that past present and future exist in a character's head simultaneously.
Thomas here is also writing about writing. Meg, her writer narrator I assume in some ways reflects Thomas herself.
There are many, many subtle layers within this book. She examines fiction, and the metaphysics of fiction, and the need to tell stories about ourselves, and turn our lives into a linear narration, but in fact that isn't how we live. The narrative is something observed from the outside. From within our inside we constantly inhabit Woolf's stream of consciousness, memories (often quite trivial, sometimes momentous) rising up within us as we inhabit the present. Meg is attempting, possibly, to write a storyless book, one without beginning middle or end. And indeed this is something Thomas constructs with the book. Writing about her writer-like-her writing a non narrative book by writing a non-narrative book. Fiction is illusion - but which level of THIS illusion are you reading in this book. There IS an narrative, and a sequence, but the linear progression is quite small and subtle. The image of the labyrinth (another thread in the novel) is the pattern of the book. There are many, sometimes confusing and elusive threads criss-crossing through the book. In some ways, it seems as much of a `spoiler' to name the threads themselves as it would be to give plot spoilers in a more conventional novel. But there are many, both obvious and subtle. With a more 'conventional' assessment of fiction - her style is clear, her characters are interesting. Those things are made safe and accessible for the reader. Because of that she can afford (and does) to be extremely dense and complex in her objectives and super objectives in the book.
I've probably succeeded in putting readers OFF the book - the reverse of what I mean to do - its a slightly strange taste this book has - but you will want to take a little bit more, read a few more pages, and just a few more - trying yo get to something which is always just a bit out of reach
Be prepared to work at this book, Thomas is easy to read, but forces the reader to grapple with some very complex concepts. Just don't expect the journey to be along a broad highway, with clear signposting. Or to know exactly where you are going, as it might just be the place you just left!
This was the third book by Thomas I'd read, after PopCo and The End of Mr. Y. I spotted that it was coming some time ago (when it was still provisionally called "Death of the Author") and was waiting to see if it would follow up the themes of those books. Actually, it's quite different in essence, being much less plot driven, though it resembles them - in visual design and more importantly, in voice. Thomas's central character, Meg, - I hesitate to say "heroine" given there is a strong "non hero" thread - is recognisable from the earlier books. I think that one of Thomas's strengths is her ability to draw sympathetic, though flawed, but above all, interesting and witty characters, people you'd want to spend time with (and who, as they are characters in a book, you can).
If anything this comes through more strongly in the current books than in the others. Apart from Meg herself, there is a whole gallery of friends, relations, ex lovers, and sort-of in-laws, all of them well drawn (even the ones who are peripheral to the main action), all of them with their own agendas and problems, most of them slightly baffled by life. I slightly lost track of who was who and who had been who's ex, but the book was no less enjoyable for that. Indeed it seemed to me that part of its appeal was leaving areas of backstory hinted at, though clearly important to the present day set up. What, exactly, happened in Brighton seven years ago? How did the spooky goings on next door to Meg's childhood home contribute to her parents' divorce? Is Rosa really dead?
I said this book is less plot driven than its predecessors, but it might be fairer to say (though at the risk of sounding pretentious) that it's main theme - or perhaps its plot - is the idea of plot and of plotlessness. You don't get the 1984ish conspiracy thriller overtones of "PopCo" or the SF structure of "The End of Mr Y". Instead you get Meg, in her late 30s, a writer living with her gormless partner Christopher in Torbay. Seven years ago Something Nasty happened in Brighton, though we don't know what. As a result Christopher can't get a paid job. Meg writes book reviews and what is rather primly categorized as "genre fiction" but wants to write a "proper" book. We get glimpses of Meg's past, including her rather fairy tale like meeting with some New Age types in a cottage hidden in the woods as a child. There is a lot of dog walking, and discussion between Meg and her friends about the End of Time (mentioned in the book's opening sentence, the most arresting one I've read for a long time). Also, and especially at the start, we share Meg's thoughts about writing her book, and her ideas on storytelling in general.
And somewhere outside this well-lit centre, a Beast howls, and gets closer.
One of the things I enjoyed about this book was the deft way that Thomas explains and then upsets literary conventions - describing rules and set-ups and then not following them. Or does she? She also has some wonderful bits of language. How about "Weak early spring sunlight stroked the table top"? Or a character with "the kind of accent that has evolved into a variety of different directions, like an adaptively radiated species."?
A tragic universe, we are told, is one without a neat final meaning, and nor, I think has this book. It's very hard to sum up, because it contains so much: there is no redundancy, so no scope for compression. It speaks for itself, and needs to be read. And it is a very very good read.
(Thomas's next book is apparently to be called "The Seed Collectors". Good to know she has another in the way...)
on 6 November 2011
In the last few years my reading has tailed off - I've become jaded (and perhaps a tad cynical) getting the 'read it before, guessed the ending' feeling after a couple of chapters.
Not this book. I was delighted to be completely surprised and engaged from start to end. My thinking was constantly challenged many fronts, the writing is excellent and hugely entertaining. The plot is almost indescribable - in the best possible way. An absolute pleasure to read. I think it will stand up to repeated visits and new insights. A keeper - buy your own!