Customer Review

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Zen tale for modern times?, 25 Aug 2010
This review is from: Our Tragic Universe (Hardcover)
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
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Initial post: 25 Aug 2010 17:59:29 BDT
That's a really, really excellent review Liam - its obvious you took a lot of thought over it - I especially liked the relationship you've drawn between this and 'Mr Y' - very apposite. I'd vote for this twice as helpful, if I could!
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