Sunday, 17 February 2013

Book Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

A work colleague lent me this book because he said it reminded him of my life.  I opened it and read the first few pages on a cold, wintry Sunday in February.  I read, ‘It was a cold Sunday in early February’…intriguing…  I continued: ‘I’d spent most of [the day] curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced cottage.’  I looked at the walls of my damp and disintegrating house.  Curiouser and curiouser.

OurTragic Universe is a storyless story told by our narrator, Meg.  Meg is a writer who’s been trying to finish her literary first novel for years but spends most of her time obsessing over her dog, eating tangerines, knitting socks and bumbling around the Dartmouth area.  She seems to be in Devon due to some self-imposed exile from Brighton and lives in this mouldy leaking house (the rent was cheap) with her miserable boyfriend Christopher (who spends a lot of his time moaning and lying on the sofa being pathetic).

But then into Meg’s life comes… well not a lot really.  She’s interested in narrative theory and loves discussing different ideas of stories with her various friends and acquaintances.  So we get all the big names and ideas here: Propp, Jung, Campbell, Chekhov.  She’s sick of writing formulaic genre fiction (she’s a ghostwriter for a series of YA novels) and wants her literary opus to be a work of ground-breaking post-modern genius.  At one stage she considers turning her almost unintelligible notes for her ever-changing novel into the actual novel itself and calling it NOTEBOOK. She duly deletes most of her gazillionth draft and finds her word-count at 43.

Scarlett Thomas mirrors and explores a lot of these ideas through her plot and structure – not that there is much of a plot to speak of, more a series of random events.  Although are they random?  Meg tries a bit of cosmic ordering and can’t quite work out whether some things that happen are as a result.  Who knows?  You certainly won’t.  There’s also the Beast.  The Beast is roaming Dartmoor, howling at night and snuffling under doors.  Meg's dog goes to investigate and snuffles under the door too (as I was reading this my cat went to investigate some strange noise coming from under the front door). Now just as you think you've got a more conventional plot device…well, let’s just say don’t expect Hound of the Baskervilles.

This is an ideas book.  You've really got it all: reincarnation, cosmic ordering, narrative, cultural norms, parapsychology, Tarot, archetypes, animal psychology, Zen, magic… But often a lot of this knowledge is delivered to us through a long conversation and info-dump from characters just hanging round Devon, not doing a lot. This would be my main criticism of Thomas’ book.  However when the narrator is interesting, the ideas good and the writing wonderfully witty and insightful, you probably won’t mind.

But did I get any insights into my own life?  Did fiction continue to mirror reality?  Well let’s look at the evidence.
  • Lives in a mouldy, disintegrating house (check)
  • Leak in ceiling (check)
  • Persistent cough due to damp (sort of check.  Only while I was still sleeping in the room with no ceiling)
  • Thinking of moving (check)
  • Co-dependency with her dog (check – well, cat)
  • Loves having pretentious conversations about narrative and stories with friends (check)
  • Tarot (check)
  • Cosmic ordering (check – I thought it had worked too! But then it didn't)
  • Believes in magic (check – Sort of. When Derren Brown hypnotised the nation it rather embarrassingly worked on me)
  • Trying to write literary “opus” (yawn, check)
  • Favourite poem is Convergence of the Twain (check)
  • Mum is obsessed with scanning all her old photos (God yes)
  • The Beast (check – if we can count the foxes living in the garden)

Yes Meg is clearly me.  It’s official.  The whole experience reminded me a bit of that story – you know the one – where this girl is putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  As she adds the pieces she realises the picture on the puzzle is her own room, and there she is, sat at a table doing a puzzle.  How strange.  But what’s that at the window?  Only a few pieces left.  Is it…is it…some slavering axe murderer waiting to pounce?  Wait a minute, what’s that sound….?


  1. Oh I do hope you're NOT Meg - I thought this was one of the worst things I had read in a long time and that Meg should probably have put an axe through her awful boyfriend's head and be done with (and be rid of all his passive-aggressive bullying!). I got that it was a storyless-story... but it was still a dull, tortuous and uninspiring read to me and I am SURE your life is MUCH better! :-)

  2. Haha, I hope so! Although there is a worrying amount of mould growing by the may be too late...

    Quite interested in reading some of her other stuff as I hear it's very different. Have you tried any of it?


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