Our Tragic Universe, Paperback
3 out of 5 (8 ratings)


Could a story save your life? If Kelsey Newman's theory about the end of time is true, we are all going to live forever.

But who would want that? Certainly not Meg, a bright spark trapped in a hopeless relationship.

But if she can work out the connection between a wild beast on Dartmoor, a ship in a bottle, the science of time a knitting pattern for the shape of the universe, she might just find a way out.




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Review by

In homage to Scarlett Thomas’ narrative experiment, I am sorely tempted to review the black paperback edges (gimmicky, annoying) rather than the story (gimmicky, annoying) on the principle that the review would be to the book as the plot is to the author – that is to say, only peripherally relevant, something that gets in the way of all the clever thoughts she’s had while writing. Loosely speaking, there’s a relationship plot that might have been a bit too chick-lit for my taste, anyway, what with the authoress – let’s not have any subtle meta-fiction, in case the readers miss it - heroine weighing her current, dead-end relationship against the prospect of beginning a love-triangle somewhere else. So maybe I’m the wrong audience for <i>Our Tragic Universe</i>, but everything else: science, pseudo-science, obscure theorising, magic, potentially interesting characters and a touchingly written dog/owner relationship should have charmed and even engulfed me, had the point of it all not been ‘hey, look what I’m doing, it’s clever, right?’.I was not charmed. I will allow that there are ideas aplenty; it’s brimful of storytelling and, presumably, story<i>writing</i> convention (much of it couched in expository dialogue, unfortunately), and I kept reading because these were interesting, but the landslide of things about which I did not care outflanked them, and I finished the book with a disappointed sigh at the house-by-the-sea ending (I get it, I do, but still…), and a final trip to the bathroom to wash my hands free of black ink.

Review by

In brief, simultaneously one of the most annoying and enjoyable books I have ever read.Firstly, an admission. In November of last year I decided to try my hand again at the national novel writing in a month competition (Nanowrimo, for those who prefer it snappy). The idea is you charge ahead, not worrying about revision or planning ahead, for about 50,000 words until you have a book at the end. by the end of November I’d easily cleared 50,000 words... in fact I’m still plugging away at it as we speak (coming perilously close to an end, actually) as the word count gets worryingly close to 300,000 wordsSo the idea of writing a novel is very strong in my mind at the moment. I’ve probably read less novels in the last four or five months than I ever have, mainly because I’ve been pouring all my efforts into writing my own. But when an early reviewer book calls, I pay attention. And then the danged thing turns out to be, mostly, about stories and novels and the art of writing and telling them.Hmm.Firstly, Scarlett Thomas. I’m a fan. I adored "The end of Mister Y", which was an enthralling novel in every way: inventive, funny, incredibly inventive, educational, thrilling - everything you want from a book. I felt much the same way as I did when I first read Jonathan Coe's "House of Sleep" or "What A Carve Up!", marvelling at the brilliant story telling skills AND formal cleverness of an author firing on all cylinders. I mostly enjoyed "Popco", but felt a bit disgruntled by the ending which seemed a little bit of a letdown after the previous 300 or so pages of build up. If you like, it's the equivalent of the juvenilia of Jonathan Coe such as "The Accidental Woman". You can see the formative talents, and see something of the scope and brilliance that's about to flower... but it's not quite there yetSee, Coe went from "House of Sleep" and "What a Carve Up!" to “The Rotter’s Club” and sort of lost me there. Despite the fact it very closely mirrored my own school days (and the fact my best friend found it one of his most satisfying novels for those very reasons), I found it flat and meandering and lifeless and a bit limp. I’ve not even got round to reading "The Closed Circle" because of that sense of let down. I’m getting a similar feeling from "Our Tragic Universe" if I’m honest...I asked my wife a question as I struggled to the midway point of the novel. If you were to set a book at a writer's retreat - there's one not far from where we live that my sister cleans at - what would you want that book to be like? She said "a murder mystery" or something of that ilk. What she didn't want, and what I wouldn't want either, is a novel about authors whining about not being able to write books. Which is what a lot of the first half of this book seems to be doing. now there is a reason for this, and Thomas is playing a clever trick BUT to write a book where a lot of the plot is that life doesn't have a plot necessarily but is, as one of the characters so frequently describes it, "a storyless story" takes a great deal of skill and talent. And Thomas can't quite do it.Although I don't know Totnes or Dartmouth particularly well, I do live close to what is considered the Totnes of the north: Hebden Bridge. So I could relate to the characters and geography quite well (just adapting accordingly). but that also meant that Thomas is using as her central characters the slightly annoying, middle class, do gooding alternative types who wander about the valley (in my case) doing not very clearly defined artistic things with their lives. Thomas sees this as romantic, and I’m not so sure it is. I find it a bit slappable, and after a while you can't entirely see the difference between the narrator's boyfriend's passive view of ecology and the environment (meant to be a bad thing) and some of the other character's plights (which are meant to be noble, even though they tend to be about things like writing drafts of novels). At one point the narrator says something about she longs for realism in novels, but the problem is that Thomas only really seems to know a rather rarefied smug strata of society and about the problems of writing a book. Which is fair enough, but I’d like to see her push herself a bit more.The irony is that Thomas IS pushing herself here. "Popco" threatened to become a big, mad novel of conspiracy and secrets but sort of whimpered out into vague statements about ethics and big business. "The end of mister y" ballooned into one of the most extraordinary - and unexpected - narratives I have ever come across. I suspect she knows a lot of readers want more like that, and she teases you with mysterious books and wild beasts... both of which result in a very traditional solution. She’s trying to write a book about narratives and writing and stories and the very plotlessness of life... but she can't help but sort of occasionally flirt with bigger and stranger themes. It feels as if she too can't quite settle on her narrative, in the way her narrator can't.Also: a lot of the book is about people discussing things. No one seems to do anything but instead talk about it. This works depending on who they're talking to. Meg’s best friend Libby’s romantic predicament? Not interested because the character is too ill defined to care about. Her boyfriend's OCD brother? This works, because he's a fresh and unusual and well defined character (the proof of this is that his OCD is secondary to what he's like - not the entirety of his character). Thomas tries to turn all her characters from plot moving types into real people but sometimes they are just ciphers and she doesn't really spend enough time ironing out the wrinkles.Also it feels at times like an evening spent with a fascinating friend. No bad thing, but it stops the narrative at every turn. People discuss physics, tarot, alternative medicine and everything but the kitchen sink. Understandably, Thomas is interested in these and they're often very relevant to the narrative, but she hasn't really stopped the narrative stopping for these asides of meandering fact dumping. And also, the narrator knows her way around scientific theory and literary theory... but has never heard of the Cottingley Fairies? Really? Or is that just an excuse for someone to explain it later in the form of a conversation rather than discussing it too early in the plot (where it wouldn't be as effective).Because of this, the ultimate irony of the book is that Thomas seems to be a writer very much in the predicament of her heroine: writing and rewriting and tinkering with a shapeless plot which never really, fully takes off. I enjoyed reading it immensely because she's such a glorious writer of prose. But I constantly felt frustrated by it. It felt very much like the penultimate draft of a GREAT book... but my main concern is that actually that may have been the point all along. I await the next one with interest though, it must be said.

Review by

I would suggest that anyone reading this book will come away with strong views on what the author was trying to do with this novel, and I’m sure many of us will be wrong, or will have only identified a few of the things Thomas was attempting, or will have spotted things in the book that Thomas never knew were there. It is a book with many layers, angles, concepts and convolutions, and as such is open to multiple interpretations. Let’s start with the literary elements. Firstly, the protagonist, Meg, is an author with delusions of literary grandeur. She keeps body and soul together by writing Science Fiction novels and giving writing retreats to people who wish to write as ghost-writers for a series her publisher, Orb Books (amazingly close to Orbit), promotes in the name of a non-existent author. Apart from a £1,000 advance she received several years ago for her literary novel, which she has never managed to write, all her income is derived from her Science Fiction writing and the writers’ retreats she runs. Despite her all but total financial dependency on Science Fiction she is a literary snob who looks down on genre fiction, even to the extent that when someone speaks to her about taking up the TV rights for some of her novels she queries whether or not the programmes could be made and no mention of her name be involved lest she be associated with Science Fiction.The book shares an attribute with many of the older Science Fiction novels, which is often highlighted by critics as a deficiency; it is the info-dump; the dialogue between characters which is used to explain the science or other technical details. In Our Tragic Universe the info-dump is used to explain some literary theory which is critical to the story, such as the concept of a story-less story.Scarlett Thomas has, whether intentionally or not, emulated Brecht’s approach to drama. He wanted the play goer to be always aware of the play being a play, and used techniques like having the Stage Manager working visibly on stage. Thomas has presented the reader with literary theory about the structure of novels while telling the story and letting the reader see the structure of the novel theoretically while reading it.Apart from the literary contortions, Thomas treats us to a glimpse into the lives of people in a sleepy part of England where we find people who have, in many cases, pretentions well above their income, or for whom money doesn’t appear to be difficult to come by. Into this world of retirees, craft-shop proprietors, wineshop owners, and academics, we add a few infidelities and arguments over the value of various literary viewpoints, and we have people pondering the value of the relationships they have been in for many years and looking at their options.I enjoyed reading this book. I’m sure I have merely scraped the surface of what the author put into it, but it was entertaining and gave me a few interesting pointers in relation to literary theory that I intend following up.While I did not find Our Tragic Universe a book I would recommend to everyone it was sufficiently entertaining that I will be happy to soon read the other Scarlett Thomas novel in my library, The End of Mr. Y.I think Our Tragic Universe would be a great book for a reading group to use for one of their reads. It will certainly provide much to talk about.

Review by

Reading the previous reviews, this is a book that seems to have divided people. I'm on the thumbs up side. I loved this book with it's smatterings of magic, philosophy and folk lore to name just a few of the concepts it touches on. Unlike some other reviewers, I felt that I really got to know Meg. Perhaps it's because her life is the kind of life I'd love - a little cottage by the sea, sock knitting into the night and writing about various hobbies for a newspaper whilst discussing anything and everything with friends - sounds idyllic to me. I'd love to spend the afternoon with Scarlett Thomas - her head sounds like it must be so full of ideas and concepts and sometimes these do come bursting through the story line, but I like that. The 'storyless story' is mentioned frequently in these reviews and as others have already discussed this far more articulately than I could, I shall merely point potential readers in their direction. Reviewer pgmcc in particular pretty much says it all, although I have given the book a higher rating. It's a novel where not much happens in the physical world, but much discussion takes place and it's this that really gets the reader thinking.

Review by

I found this really disappointing - after enjoying "The End of Mr Y" enormously, this was dull and failed to grab my attention.

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