No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2012/24: Our Tragic Universe -- Scarlett Thomas

Problems with this novel (again). The items on it were: It is boring; it has no focus; it is self-indulgent; I hate the central character; it’s too depressing; no one wants anything; no one does anything; there are no questions to be resolved; there is too much narration. Then I thought this would make a nice opening to Notebook, so I pasted the whole list onto the first page. I smiled at my own audacity. Surely no one, not even the most metafictional and post-modern of writers, had ever begun a novel with a list of its own faults? (p. 170)
Meg, a blocked novelist, is trying to review a book for a national newspaper. The book is about postmortality, with the central premise that everyone is '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' (p. 40). Meg has plenty of time to spin notions from this theory (another excellent way of avoiding writing her Great Novel) while trying to avoid the rather more pressing issues of her dysfunctional relationship with Christopher ("if I could kiss someone else, then I could never kiss Christopher again. In the last five months he hadn’t really noticed this." (p.20)), her friend Libby's inability to choose between her lover and her partner, and Meg's own directionless life.

This is a storyless story, a rambling exploration of the esoteric and the eccentric (Chekhov's Letters, the Cottingley Fairies, a beast that may or may not be roaming Dartmoor, a prophecy made when Meg was younger ("'You will never finish what you start ... You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing" (p.70)) and the mystery of the book she reviewed, which turns out not to have been sent by her editor at all.

It's a couple of weeks since I read Our Tragic Universe (mea culpa, am behind on my blog: hey ho) and more than any of the events that occur (more or less at random) in its pages, I recall a profound irritation with the ending, which felt too romantic to fit the rest of the novel.

But I do love the immediacy of Thomas' descriptions of the south Devon coast in winter, quiet and faded after the summer rush of the tourist season. I was charmed by Meg's dog Bess (possibly the most likeable character in the book). And I am amused by Meg's fascination with her own failure to write, which oozes verisimilitude:
I was always trying to make the novel catch up with my life, and then deleting the bits that got too close, wiping them out like videogame aliens in a space-station corridor. I still didn’t know what to do about it. I’d invented a writer character from New York who deletes a whole book until it’s a haiku and then deletes that, but then I deleted him too. (p. 35)

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