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Monday 24 May 2010

Our Tragic Universe



[M]agic is as easy as putting a shortcut on a desktop if only we knew it. – Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe

Meg, the protagonist of Scarlett Thomas’s new novel Our Tragic Universe bears a striking resemblance to the author herself. Scarlett was born in 1972 which makes her 38 which is the same age as Meg. Meg ghostwrites science fiction novels aimed at a teenage audience under the penname, ‘Zeb Ross’, while she is thinking about her real novel provisionally called Sandworld or Footprints or Notebooking or possibly The Death of the Author which was actually the working title for Our Tragic Universe. Scarlett worked in genre fiction for years writing Lily Pascale Mysteries before giving them up to concentrate on literary novels. Both Scarlett and Meg do journalistic work (e.g. Scarlett was commissioned by The Independent to do an article on chicklit, Meg spends most of this book working on an article on New Age literature) and book reviews. Both have writer friends; Scarlett still keeps in touch with some of her New Puritan friends. Both live with their boyfriends. Both relax by knitting or playing the guitar or taking long walks on which Meg is accompanied by her dog Bess; Scarlett also has a dog, also a bitch (at least she did in 2003), who she refers Dreamer to as ‘Bookdog’ but I believe is actually called Dreamer; both dogs delight in chasing blue balls down staircases. Both women end up running away to the sea: Scarlett moved to Canterbury which is close to Devon which is where the new novel is set. Meg winds up in a fisherman’s cottage in Slapton Sands which is just about as close to the sea as one can get without falling in. There’s more but you get the idea.

In an interview on in 2007 Scarlett had this to say about her writing:

I'm very much someone who wants to work out the answers. I want to know what's outside the universe, what's at the end of time, and is there a God? But I think fiction's great for that – it's very close to philosophy.

No doubt when she wrote this she was thinking about what her next novel was going to focus on. Her chosen topic is pretty much everything (life the universe and) but it’s played out on a very small canvas. Most of the action takes place in pubs, over meals with friends and on walks with her dog. And what doesn’t take place there takes place in Meg’s head. For ‘action’ read ‘conversation’ by the way. Apart from driving between homes, pubs and work – none of it at high speed pursued by baddies – there’s not a lot of action in this book. One car does end up in the river but there’s no body in the boot.

The blurb promises a “brilliant new philosophical page-turner” which I would think would be a challenge for any Bright Young Things author – philosophy is not known for it rivetingness – but when a reviewer described one of her previous novels, Bright Young Things, as a cross between The Beach and Waiting for Godot I was open for just about anything; I like books which you can’t easily pigeonhole. What the blurb doesn’t mention is that at the core to this book there’s actually a love story. And there seems to be a pattern in her books based on this question posed by Colleen Mondor on the Bookslut site:

Romance plays a small part in both PopCo and [The End of] Mr. Y, although Alice and Ariel are admittedly far more focused on many other concerns in their lives than finding Mr. Right. (Not to stray into chick lit territory, but…) Why include the romance at all? Did both Alice and Ariel need to find a man along the path of finding themselves (and the treasure)? Or did they need somebody to flesh out the plot with, debate moments in the storyline and solve puzzles with? The guys are not critical to the story, in other words, but do they end up being critical to the women the stories are about?

All good stories work according to one of two models: tragedy or comedy, as we all know. In a tragedy everyone ends up dead, and in a comedy everyone ends up married. In both you have a central love story. You can mess about with these: combine them to form quests or epics, invert them, subvert them, lighten or darken them -- but they are still there. People don’t seem to like to read novels where everyone ends up dead, for some reason, so what you usually find are novels that conform to the comedy structure, like chick lit and lad lit; novels that are actually short stories (they have no conclusive ending, no central love story and usually one concealed but relatively simple theme); and novels that work within the rules (sort of) but try to screw around with things a bit, like mine do. Of course not everyone notices when you screw around with things...

Her answer would do just as well had I asked why include the romance between Meg and Rowan in her latest offering. The book would survive without it but it does add an additional layer of interest. This is not the only romance in the book if you take a fairly broad interpretation of the word ‘romance’. In fact the interrelationships between the Soap various characters are all a bit tangled. (Cue end credit music to Soap.) Here are the bullet points:

  • Meg lives with Christopher, a “thin, jagged beautiful blue-eyed” waste of space, who once seemed to understand her inner soul but now doesn’t.
  • Christopher’s father, Peter, runs a vegetarian café in Totnes and lives with the much younger Milly, a twenty-eight-year-old harpist, who Peter’s children, Josh and Becca disapprove of.
  • Becca is married to Ant whose brother, Drew, an actor, is Meg’s ex fiancé but who actually fancied Rosa, now Meg’s ex-friend, and is now about to act opposite a badly-miscast Rosa (according to Meg) in a remake of Anna Karenina, Meg’s favourite book.
  • Meg’s friend Libby is married to Bob, but is having an affair with Mark, “a bedraggled guy who had washed up in Churston” and was living in a beach hut there.
  • I have no idea who Mark is related to but Bob is Rowan’s nephew and Rowan is living with, and trying to be faithful to, Lise even though she’s already had an affair because, she maintained, she believed Rowan was having one, and still is, with Meg.
  • Meg and Rowan can’t actually decide if they’re having an affair or not. They’re trying not to but may be by accident. Or Fate. Or because the story needs it.
  • Frank, Meg’s old History lecturer, lives with Vi, an anthropologist who’s the one who teaches Meg how to knit.
  • Vi’s twin sister, Claudia, is an editor for Orb Books who publish the ‘Zeb Ross’ books and have commissioned Tim Small, who’s married to Heidi who’s having a long-time affair with Christ-knows who, to write the next ‘Zeb Ross’ novel about the Beast of Dartmoor.
  • The Beast’s relationships are not discussed apart from an appearance “panting softly” in the bedroom on the stroke of midnight of a woman called Margaret who lives in Dartmeet. The Beast may not be real or it may simply be a big dog or possibly a big cat.
  • ‘Zeb Ross’ isn’t living with or having an affair with anyone because he’s definitely not real but the publisher has decided that he has OCD which is why he never appears in public and why Josh doubles for him on his official website. The fact that Josh coincidentally has OCD and a fear of the number six is a distinct advantage. At one point he gets trapped in a card shop by a rack full of Sixth Birthday cards and has to be rescued by Meg and Milly who ends up buying all the cards and handing them in to a local charity shop.

Confused? Wait till I start talking about all the philosophy.

In an interview on the 3am magazine website she had this to say:

Ever since I started writing I've been obsessed with the idea of creating narratives around groups of people trapped together.

Okay this motley lot aren’t trapped in the same way as the six applicants in Bright Young Things who answer a job advertisement asking for bright young things for a big project and wake up on a deserted island after their pre-interview coffee is drugged. No, but they are trapped in relationships and friendships and work commitments.

These are not the only players in the book, not by a long chalk, but they are the main ones. Every now and then names like Sebastian and Clare pop up out of nowhere and vanish again. I’ve pawed through the book trying to find out who they are but can’t. Maybe they were mentioned in half a sentence a hundred pages earlier. I don’t know. It’s not exactly a cast of thousands but there are more people in this book than I personally needed to know about. There’s easily another two dozen names that pass by like ships in the night. A dramatis personæ would have been a real help. I wish they hadn’t fallen out of popularity.

So, I hear you asking, where’s all the philosophy in this? A good question. This brings me to probably the most important character in the book, but one who doesn’t actually threaten to appear until over 400 pages into the 444-page book. He would be Kelsey Newman, author of The Science of Living Forever, which we find Meg dipping into with a view to reviewing on the first page of the novel. In fact she does write a review but when she takes it in to her editor he tells her that he didn’t send her the book. So who did? That’s the first of a number of mysteries Meg has to solve. Another one is how to get a ship in a bottle. Only she doesn’t want to know the answer to that one. What she does want to know is why a ship in a bottle is washed up on the beach at her feet. And what did the nice (but a little strange) man she met in the woods as a child, the one who “looked like a wise old tree”, mean when he foretold her future saying:

You will never finish what you start ... You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing.

Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as creepy as it sounds though what her parents were doing letting their six-year-old daughter roam alone in strange woods I have no idea. Robert, “like the herb” – that’s the man’s name – lives with Bethany who might be his wife or his daughter or even his granddaughter and possibly a Faerie, teaches her about flower arranging, yoga and tells her about magic although his explanations go mostly over her head. It’s all over in eight pages or so but it’s her first encounter with New Ageism. And a telling one.

The other thing the book is about is writing. Most of the characters are involved in one way or another in the literary scene and so the nature of writing inevitably crops up.

The End of Mr Y The main thread of the book is a philosophical one, and it all revolves around a book. This was a key element in The End of Mr. Y, too, a book that purported to explain the nature of reality. In Our Tragic Universe it’s Kelsey Newman’s theories. The gist of it is probably best explained by Newman in the book’s epilogue:

[N]ow you won’t mind ... 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. No one knows much about the First World. It probably looked a lot like the world we are living in now, for reasons I will come to in a moment. It is the world whose scientists originally created the possibility of Omega Point, and thus ensured the immortality of all its beings. You were certainly one of those beings once. How do we know for sure that we are in the Second World and not the First World? Remember that the Omega Point is infinitely powerful. It can, and therefore will, use its Energia to create an infinity of universes that look just like the one you are in right now. There is therefore and infinity-to-one chance that we are not living in a universe created by the Omega Point; it is mathematically impossible for us not to be. ... It is far more likely that we are in a post-universe, which is eternal, than in a finite universe, which must be long-gone.

He then goes to say he will explain why we are stuck in this Second World in his next book, available from all good retailers. The Omega Point is “essentially the God constructed at/by/in the end of time”, what Jung termed the “Collective unconscious”, “a conscious, infinite entity from which the archetypes emerge” – this Newman explains in the second book, entitled predictably – Second World, in which he also explains that the Omega Point is made up of Energia, “a mysterious life force, or energy, or Qi.”

The second part of Newman’s new book is entitled ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and this is where Meg starts to feel as if she’s a character in a novel which, of course you and I know, she is. The hero’s journey is fraught with trials, monsters to be encountered and overcome. This ties in with a conversation she has earlier with Rowan in which she realises:

‘Well, all narrative is simulation ... Narrative is representation, or imitation, or mimesis – it stands in for something that it is not. ... But even a “true story” isn’t life by definition. Life is life. But on the other hand all we know about it is what exists as narrative. As Plato says there are true stories and there are false stories. The only difference, presumably, between a premonition story about the Titanic and a real account of it is the timing...’

Rowan responds:

‘So in that case it’s probably true then: premonitions are people predicting narrative, rather than events; telling tragic stories about things where tragedy appears to be inevitable. And then when the stories are compared – the “fictional” story and the “true” story – they are similar because they are stories.’

‘I bet almost all stories with ships in them have some kind of disaster at sea, just like all stories with animals in them put the animals in peril. In narrative any equilibrium must become a disequilibrium, All narrative involves change from one state to another: happy to sad, or sad to happy usually. But it can be alive to dead, broken to fixed, confused to comprehensible, separate to together – anything,’

‘Every ship is a shipwreck waiting to happen.’

kent_logo Life is a great quest, according to Newman and Scarlett, who teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and will know all about the seven basic plots, has sent her heroine on one. On the way she has to collect certain things, keys to knowledge mainly; she has to unlock the secret of the ship in the bottle, discover the meaning of Robert’s prediction, work out how to knit a sock and decide what she wants out of life. She has also to face certain demons, including the Beast of Dartmoor which may, or may not, try to devour one of the aforementioned characters towards the end of the book.

Prophecy is an interesting narrative event and a surprisingly popular one. What greater beast could a protagonist be pitted against than their own destiny? Fate is a theme that often occurs in Greek writing and the story of Oedipus is discussed in the novel; Newman attests that rather than “a profound symbol of the curse of knowledge and desire [Oedipus becomes] a failed project, a Game Over, an aborted Quest.” Why? Because Oedipus found out he was the monster. That’s no good. “[T]he monster has to be outside you, and you have to kill it and move on until you get your treasure and your princess and become enlightened and then ascend to the Road to Perfection.”

Scarlett Thomas has always described her novels as novels of ideas. The New Puritans she was part of in the nineties had this as part of their manifesto. Although she has been keen to point out that this grouping was an experiment, a one-off, there’s no doubt that she would never have got involved in the first place if she had not at least has some empathy with their cause which was essentially to do for literature what Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg had done for cinema with the signing of the Dogme 95 Manifesto.

In novels, plotted novels, things happen for a reason. In badly-plotted novels you know if someone sneezes on page 23 then they’ll probably come down with some mysterious malady by page 51. Life isn’t like that. And what we get in this book is life. I would love to do a Venn diagram of this book just to see where all the overlaps are. Meg plays the guitar, so does Peter and Rowan. Is this relevant? No, not really. A lot of people can play the guitar. And knit. And know about Tarot cards. If there’s a prophecy in a novel then that’s meaningful but how many people in the real world have their palms read or their fortunes told and life muddles on regardless?

Which brings us to the concept of the “storyless story” and the simple fact is that there is very little real story here. By story I mean plot. It has a plot, a thin one, but the plot is not the point of the book nor do we have a neat ending. We could project a neat ending but it might all end in tears too. Real life doesn’t have plot elements like red herrings or MacGuffins. It has coincidences. And coincidences are meaningless – that is not to say they can’t acquire significance – because there was no controlling force behind them, be it God or the Omega Point, to assign them one.

This is a complex novel. It doesn’t always read like one and you can get lulled into a false sense of security if you’re not careful. By ‘complex’ I mean ‘clever’ but it is also a hodgepodge. I mean that in the nicest possible way. There is just so much material in it and I’m not entirely convinced she manages to make all the disparate elements cohere but she has a damn good crack at it. This is, of course, based on a single read through. I suspect, had I the time and the inclination, then it would make more sense to me on a second read. I can say that I enjoyed trying to make sense out of it. That it didn’t make as much sense as I expected says more about my expectations than Scarlett’s ability as a writer. I suspect she did what she set out to do in this book, hide a piece of post-structuralist metafiction inside a love story. Or something like that.


Scarlett with guitar Scarlett Thomas was born in London in 1972. She was educated at a variety of schools, from a state junior school in Barking (which still had free milk) to a weird boarding school which was kind of nowhere. As a teenager, Scarlett demonstrated against many things, including the Poll Tax and the first Gulf War. Eventually, she went to the University of East London to do a degree in Cultural Studies, for which she got a First.

Her first three novels feature Lily Pascale, an English literature lecturer who solves murder mysteries. Each of the succeeding novels is independent of the others.

In 2000 she contributed to the controversial anthology All Hail the New Puritans, and she's has found the association a hard one to shake. In 2001 her novel Bright Young Things was published to wide acclaim, although it is not widely available now due to bad publishing. In the same year the Independent on Sunday included her in a list of the 20 best young writers in the UK. In 2002, she won an Elle Style Award for her novel, Going Out.

She has appeared on Newsnight and written for a variety of publications including the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and Scotland on Sunday. To relax, Scarlett enjoys going for long walks, playing her guitar, knitting, playing strategy games and listening to Radio 3. She may still have a dog and a boyfriend. I don’t know for sure.


Our Tragic Universe is available from Canongate and all good retailers for £14.99 or less. Oh, and the cover is far nicer than the illustration would suggest. The yellow is actually gold and it feels very nice in the hand.


Conda Douglas said...

Jim, your review of this book made me realize that nowadays, with the advent of e-books, POD and reviewers like you, it's going to be possible to publish a book that can't be categorized and stuffed into a small genre hole. I like that.

Jim Murdoch said...

There is still the same problem of attracting readers. I have my little band, Conda, including your good self, who I know will have a wee peek at whatever I post and so there’s a good chance that you’ll see something that otherwise would never have crossed your path but the real difficulty is getting new readers. I am constantly amazed to find new authors who have been on the go for years and I’ve never heard of them. Some of them are even dead by the time I get to hear about them. It’s like this girl. I had seen The End of Mr Y in a bookshop – it is a striking cover – but that was it. I’m not even sure I did any more than admire the cover. There is simply too much vying for our attentions.

Kass said...

Life doesn't have tidy plots, except the ones we go into at the very end.

I like the bit about the little old tree man who told her fortune. I was once told by someone who did numerology, astrology and hand-writing analysis that ALL the men in my life would deceive me. Duh.

I also like the idea of acknowledging the things that trap us and how we work our lives around that.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know what you mean, Kass, and I like books and films where they don’t try to tie up every loose end. As long as the major thread is tied up neatly that’s fine. It’s like Lost, at the moment the Web is awash with people in various states of elation, deflation or frustration by how the writers decided to end the show and all of them have a point. Much has to do with expectation. The more you invest in something then greater the risk of disappointment.

Lost is, of course, the perfect crucible drama, x number of people trapped together and yet the writers showed amazing creativity in providing escape and respite for them. All it took was thinking out of the box. You could argue that Daniel Defoe simply didn’t use his imagination. But all that’s done is leave the door open to others to revisit the scenario. Defoe was an 18th century man and limited in his views. Since then we are willing to accept so many more things.

So things like marriage and jobs and where we live are no longer things that trap us the way they use to. They still can. A fear of open spaces can trap us if we let it.

Dick said...

I was really looking forward to reading 'The End Of Mr Y', which looked so promising, and then so disappointed as I faltered to a halt around page 30. I wish I'd read your fanfare first! Well, on the strength of it I shall climb back into 'Y' and see if I can progress beyond p. 30!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, let us know if you manage it, Dick. I get the feeling from other reviewers that Our Tragic Universe is not her best work. I can't say not having read anything else by her. But if that is true then I'd be more than happy to have another crack at her. Even if that's not the case I like her approach to writing. I just wish she could get where she's going in a few less pages but that's just me. I wish every novel was 100 pages long.

Conda Douglas said...

Valid points, Jim, too much of too much. I'm hoping that there will be major review sites that people can trust soon--they're starting up for e-books, but struggling for virtual shelf space like everything else.

Rachel Fenton said...

I am going to have to read the thing to see for myself! Sounds like it is stuffed too full but then I like stuffed full sometimes.

You are right in what you "said" to Conda, Jim, that this book would otherwise not have crossed my path but I like finding new and unexpected things here!

Jim Murdoch said...

When I want to find out about a book I do one of two things, Conda: type the name into Google or look for it on Amazon. More often than not I check Amazon first because there I have reviews and purchase options (including used which I always go for) all in the one interface. Web users are basically lazy. We want everything one click away and the more work you expect a potential customer to do the less chance there is that they’ll buy anything.

And the above is fine when you know what you want. The Web is like a dictionary that way. As long as you know the word then a dictionary is a great thing but what happen if you only know the definition? That’s where it’s down to pure chance. When you check my site on a Monday you’re basically browsing. Marketing is hard because no one is looking for you. You need to find out where people are looking, stand there and do something interesting to catch their attention. Easily said.

I really have to wonder whether the publishers who very kindly send me free books cover their costs let alone make a profit.

And, Rachel, glad I managed to pique your interest. The big question, to carry on from what I’ve just been saying to Conda, is: what are the chances that you will actually buy the book? I’m not asking for a serious answer but the fact is that most of us need to make that purchase as soon as we’ve made the decision because if we don’t then other things start to distract us and we simply forget until the next time (if we’re lucky and there is a next time) we run across the book again.

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