‘Deceptively clever’ – Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas’ novel does indeed contain a whole universe. It’s not so much to do with its length, although it is a substantial book (hardback, with 428 black-edged pages) but because of the sprawling ‘patchwork quilt’ of themes and metafictional structure.

In fact, it’s exactly the kind of book within a book – or notebook within a novel – that the protagonist, Meg, plans to write:

‘I immediately made a note – ‘Maybe notebook is novel?’ – and then realised that if the notebook was the novel, then the note about the notebook being in the novel would also be part of the novel, and then I felt a bit dizzy.’

Meg is a thirty-something writer living in Dartmouth who is fed up, lonely and struggling to pay the bills. She reviews popular science books and writes genre fiction (as Scarlett Thomas did at the beginning of her career) but she longs to produce a ‘literary’ novel.

She has fallen out with her friend Vi and having second thoughts about her needy boyfriend Christopher. She’s also got a crush on an older man – Rowan, the married director of the local maritime centre. To make matters worse she hates the book she’s reviewing, The Science of Living by Kelsey Newman.

Newman makes the radical claim that we are all already dead and existing in a kind of afterlife, thanks to the miracles of physics. For Meg, the thought of living forever is depressing. Not least because her future – foretold by a mysterious fortune-teller she met as a child – sounds bleak:

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

This is Scarlett Thomas’ eighth novel and the second in a loose thematic trilogy. As in her previous book, The End of Mr Y, Thomas combines philosophical discussion with a compelling and unpredictable storyline. She covers all kinds of subjects, from dog psychology to knitting, but if this book falls into any category, it’s that of the ‘storyless story’, which is also an ongoing theme.

According to anthropologist Vi, ‘The storyless story has no moral centre. It is not something from which a reader should strive to learn something, but rather a puzzle or a paradox, with no ‘answer’ or ‘solution’ except for false ones.’ It’s a credit to Thomas’ light touch that, even if nothing conclusive happens, you’re with her to the last page.

Our Tragic Universe is an ambitious, labyrinthine book. Yet it’s carefully controlled and the action plays out on a small stage. Devonshire is described in subtle, perceptive detail and the love story between Meg and Rowan is interesting enough to counterbalance the novel’s weak points – the underdeveloped narratives (like the car in the river) and a few long, contrived debates. Overall it’s an impressive book and while the mysteries might remain unsolved, it takes a brave writer to come to nothing.

Any Cop?: This book is deceptively clever. Being a storyless story it lacks plot, but makes up for it in ideas.

Helen Small

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