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Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Once in awhile after a string of brain numbing, slow-moving dosage of literature reading, something refreshing, witty and mind-boggling breathe new life to my reading doldrums. I welcomed it and I am pleased to say Our Tragic Universe is one such book.

I picked this up not because it has the most gorgeous looking cover, only available in hardback, the yellow in the cover and the spine is actually gold and the side of the pages are black! I was also looking for an author whose last name is T, I am so glad that I picked this book up.

Meg is a borderline poverty-stricken writer in Dartmouth. She writes pseudonymous genre fiction according to strict formulae, she reviews science books for the local newspaper, and one day is given the book The Science of Living Forever by Kelsey Newman to review. Newman’s thesis is that, at the very end of time, the universe will contract to a point of infinite power, which computer programmers will then use “to simulate a new infinite universe: a never-ending afterlife”.

Meg Carpentar doesn’t take it all that seriously – “What on earth would I do with all that heaven?” – but it does set her thinking about how an infinity of her current life would be far from desirable. Stuck with an erratic, unemployed vegan called Christopher, Meg is dealing with a surprising crush on Rowan, a 65-year-old maritime museum curator who she meets in the local library. Life is further complicated by an array of equally moody and quirky friends, where everybody knows and involves with one another.

  • Peter, Christopher’s father, runs a vegetarian café in Totnes and lives with the much younger partner called Milly, a twenty-eight-year-old harpist, who Peter’s children, Chris and Becca disapprove of, but Josh came to depend on.
  • Becca is married to Ant whose brother, Drew, an actor, is Meg’s ex fiancé but who actually fancied Rosa, now Meg’s ex-best friend, who is acting in a remake of Anna Karenina (Meg’s favourite book, another to add on the tragic human love story of the universe).
  • Meg’s friend Libby is married to Bob, but is having an affair with Mark, who Libby thinks is not capable of giving her a comfortable life but felt drawn to him anyway.  
  • 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 believes that Rowan was having one with Meg.
  • In the meantime, Meg and Rowan can’t actually decide if they’re having an affair or not.
  • Frank, Meg’s old History lecturer, lives with Vi, an anthropologist. Frank taught Meg how to knit and Vi was estranged from Meg for awhile because of what Meg said.
  • 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 to write the next ‘Zeb Ross’ novel about the Beast of Dartmoor.
  • ‘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 some disability which is why he never appears in public and until they get Josh doubles for him on his official site.
  • The fabled Beast is not related to anyone in Dartmouth, it may may simply be a big dog.

But then the Newman book turns out not to have come from her editor after all, so who sent it? But could there be an important connection between a wile beast living on Dartmoor, a ship in a bottle, the science of time, a knitting patter for the shape of the universe and the Cottingley Fairies? What she does want to know is why a ship in a bottle is washed up on the beach at her feet? Or is her life just one long chain of coincidences?

A big part of the book is devoted to discussion and debate, in particular Meg’s struggle to write a novel outside the confines of traditional narrative. As Meg constantly seek her friends to discuss theories of self-filling prophecies, the theories of unsinkable Titanic which was given a name that implied it would sink in the first place, the Tao-Te Ching of nothingness, she constantly argues with friends about the purported evil of strict narrative conventions, particularly within genre, versus the idea of the “storyless story” and the “historyless history”, a conflict that Thomas has no doubt experiencing and experimenting with. Some of argument went beyond my head, but I was still happy to ponder over what the characters discussed.

Some of my favourite passages:

I love the universe, but I didn’t love it so much that I wanted to stay beyond its natural end, stuck with everyone else in some sort of coma, wired up to a cosmic life-support machine. I had been told once –and reminded of it again recently – that I would come to nothing. What on earth would I do with all that heaven? Living for ever would be like marrying yourself, with no possibility of a divorce. (Page 7)

“coming to nothing” could be coming to a place of peace or simplicity, a place where you understand the fabric of the universe, not just the patterns you can cut from it. Or perhaps it means you won’t be successful in a conventional sense….’ (page 153)

It seemed to be one of the small sadnesses of contemporary life that there was always someone in the office, of down the road, or across the river who understood your inner soul better than your partner did, not that I had any such person. (Page 160)

I think what I’m saying is that narrative has to have patterns, otherwise it wouldn’t be narrative, and while life doesn’t have to have patterns, the minute we express it as narrative it does have to have patterns; it has to make sense. Therefore we impose patterns on life in order that we can express it as narrative. (Page 163)

I said that unless we gave up on our addiction to self-help industry and reclaimed old skills and hobbies, we were in danger of turning ourselves into fictional characters with no use beyond entertaining people and being emotionally, aesthetically and psychologically neat and tidy”.

‘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…’

‘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.’

Rating: 4.5/5

I make it sounds so serious and all, but really the novel is a very fun read. At times the novel reads like a chick lit and it is my guilty pleasure to listen to girly conversations and gossips inserted in the midst of life’s big questions, my idea of a stimulating conversations in a real life situation. Contrary to views that sees this novel as plotless, it contains a plot that spurs me on. Will Meg kiss Rowan? Will she leave Christopher? Will she write her novel? The questions kept me flipping the pages faster than I could read.

If you had the chance to read about her profile a little later at the bottom of this page, you will notice a lot of predicaments that Meg is in are similar to Thomas’ real life. Although she said:

I wanted to write a novel while at the same time unravelling it, so that the result would be simultaneously broken and whole.

I don’t believe that novels are, or should be read as, autobiographical documents. The main skill – and one I find myself constantly working out how best to teach – in fiction-writing is the process of fictionalisation, which is an almost unfathomable, but always exciting, conversation between the real and the unreal. The real, as every writer knows, doesn’t make good fiction. But fiction must somehow take its bearings from the real, and in the end have a bearing on it. I draw all my characters out of myself – my own understanding of love, pain, anger and so on. But none of them is exactly me, and none of my characters is taken from real life.

The general view is that this is pale in comparison to The End of Mr. Y. Our Tragic Universe is my first introduction to Thomas, so I wouldn’t know how it compares to her other books. As for now, I love the combination of hypothesis, philosophy, sidesplitting humour and relationship stories. I think I might have found myself a new favourite author. 😉

I am reading this for A to Z Challenge.

Hardback. [Canongate 2010][428 pages][Dartmouth, UK][Library Loot], Finished reading at 21 August 2010.

About the author:

Scarlett Thomas was born in London in 1972. She is the author of the novels Bright Young Things, Going Out, PopCo, The End of Mr. Y, and Our Tragic Universe.

Scarlett’s work has been translated into more than 20 languages, and she has been longlisted for the Orange Prize, and shortlisted for the South African Boeke Prize. In 2001 she was included in the Independent on Sunday’s list of the UK’s 20 best young writers, and in 2002 she won an Elle Style Award for the novel Going Out.

She has written short fiction and articles for various anthologies and publications, including Nature Magazine, the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday. She has also had stories broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She currently lives in Kent, UK, where she teaches Creative Writing. In her spare time she is studying for an MSc in Ethnobotany. She is currently working on her ninth novel, The Seed Collectors

More on http://www.scarlettthomas.co.uk/about on the hilarious first person version of biography.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


5 thoughts on “Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

  1. This sounds delightful, and wow, what a cover. Thanks for apprising us of this unusual sounding book. I have to look for it!

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | August 22, 2010, 12:40 pm
    • @Jill, you really really should try this, I think you will like it. Even if you don’t, it will still brighten up your shelf! (be careful with the Gold though, it seems to fall off easily when scraped). 😉

      Posted by JoV | August 22, 2010, 10:05 pm
  2. I’m one of those that thought The End of Mr Y was far better than this. I think this is simply because I like a plot and OTU didn’t have one! I admired individual sections, but Mr Y had all the magic of this book, but with a gripping plot. I’m sure you’ll love it!

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | August 26, 2010, 9:04 am
    • @Hello Jackie, I’m sure I will love The End of Mr Y! I’m convinced after reading your review on OTU. Can’t wait to read it…. Thomas is my kind of author! I feel it in my bones… 😉

      Posted by JoV | August 26, 2010, 8:55 pm


  1. Pingback: The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas « Bibliojunkie - September 18, 2011

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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