Our Tragic Universe

tragic uniThe Short Version: Meg is a writer but hasn’t written the novel she’s been trying to write for ages.  Instead, she helps write a pseudonym and publishes some reviews on the side.  She lives with her boyfriend, who’s kind of a douche.  There are friends and struggles and possibly a mythic creature and definitely a whole lot of philosophy.  In short, a Scarlett Thomas novel – just one with a bit less plot than normal.

The Review: See, I’ll bet that vaguely sounds like the starter for a plot, doesn’t it?  That short version up there.  Yeah, well, SURPRISE – there’s little plot to be found here.  Of course, that’s to be expected when the characters get to talking about ‘storyless’ narratives and Zen stories.  Especially in a Thomas novel – if someone mentions an idea (like Chekov’s gun), you can bet it’ll play into the narrative in some way later.  So here we have a lot of talk about the universe and infinity.  Quests – life quests, that is – and obstacles.  It’s all a bit New Age-y – which fits in with the books Meg has been reading for her first column.

Look, this book is neither bad nor good.  It falls squarely in the mundane.  I find myself barely remembering any of it less than 24 hours after I read it – and I read it while on vacation, when I had nothing else to take up my thoughts.  But I think this is, actually, somewhat of the point.  The novel doesn’t have a major driving plot – the closest thing to it is Meg’s romantic life.  But even that barely works because there’s very little resolution and the book continues on long after that resolution has been reached.  Mostly, the book is about a confused girl in SE England living a rather ordinary life.

Except maybe it isn’t ordinary.  She may’ve met with a faerie (very Rooster Byron-y, if I do say so) when she was a girl on holiday and she seems to’ve hit some kind of karmic jackpot – she requests a number of things from the universe and they all seem to come to her, like a great streak of luck.  She might have ‘healing hands’ or something similar – an ability to heal the people she encounters.  Well, ‘heal’ – big quotation marks on that one.  But this is left undeniably ambiguous and the Big Questions of the novel are left rather unanswered as well.

The last 50 pages or so take a strange turn, as though someone tried to goose Thomas into getting a plot.  But then it fades into LOTS of really dense talk about the structure of the universe and what power we have over our existence.  It’s really cool stuff, although not on the level of the cool stuff in Mr. Y.  Or even PopCo.  Just… plain old cool stuff.  Brain-bending stuff.  And Thomas has some fun with narrative conventions, too, which ought to make any stodgy readers blow a gasket.  But that said, it felt like this book didn’t have the clarity and drive of her earlier books – there was a bit too much meandering, not enough arriving.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  Like I said, squarely ordinary.  Sure, the ideas are not for the faint-of-mind, but not on the level of mind-blowing-wtfness that I almost now expect from Thomas.  Still, if nothing else, she has a remarkable and unique feeling about her books.  Every single one feels like it should be read under a blanket (not a heavy one, though) by the window on a rainy English afternoon in September.  Sure, I like to think that a lot of books should be read in those conditions – but I actually mean that the book itself seems to almost provide those conditions without them actually being present.  That’s magic in and of itself.


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