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review 2014-06-18 04:31
Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas

The deep thinking and deep discussion going on in this book is my version of chick lit.  If you love exploring ideas, then a read of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas might just tickle your fancy like it did mine.  It ponders its way through the complexity of relationships, roaming through explorations into science, pseudoscience and philosophy, pondering what's able to be known and what isn't, what's real and what isn't, and how we all get sucked into our own narratives.

Meg is a thirtysomething writer who's stuck within her own novel, the one she's kept rewriting and rewriting and deleting until it's where it is now, back at a measly 43 pages.  She's also stuck in a relationship that's sinking fast, is contemplating entering another, and she's broke.

She also has rather interesting friends who have wonderful intellectual discussions.  If this is the sort of dinner table conversation you like, then perhaps we should have dinner:

"Aquinas wondered what would happen if God wanted to achieve universal resurrection.  In other words, bringing everybody who had ever lived back to life at the same time.  What would happen to cannibals, and the people they ate?  You couldn't bring them all back at the same time, because the cannibals are made of the people they have eaten.  You could have one but not the other.  Ha."  I looked at Rowan.  "That's a good example of a paradox."

... "This is an interesting conundrum," Conrad said eventually.  Aquinas focuses this problem on the cannibal, but in reality everything is made of everything else.  Every boat I build used to be a tree, several trees in fact, and perhaps meteorites, iron ore, plants and so on.  You can't eat your cake and have it too.  I think this is where the paradox comes from."

Depending on whether you think this sort of thing is pointless intellectual masturbation or it stimulates your imagination will determine whether you find this book a pain in the bum or a rollicking good ride.

Personally, I love books where the protagonist spends time pondering the reality of perception of her dog, Bess:

B gave me a look that I anthropomorphised into 'What on earth are we doing now?', so I explained to her that we were going to go and rescue Josh and then drive home to Dartmouth, and we might see some squirrels on the Lanes and when we got back it would definitely be time for her dinner.  She cocked her head sharply each times he recognised a word: Josh, home, squirrels, dinner.  I wondered if I could communicate with B more efficiently by using only nouns and then stringing them in the rough order that they were going to happen.  Was that what the world was to B?  Was it all just nouns on a timeline?  There had to be a bit more to it than that: she was visibly thrilled at the idea of squirrels, even though, as I'd said to Libby, she didn't chase them any more.  She did look a bit baffled, however, that the squirrels could come between home and dinner, so I changed the order to Josh, squirrels, home, dinner.  This time she whimpered slightly as I said each word.  I reckoned I could probably write a book on dog psychology myself after all these years of study.

Others have commented that Scarlett Thomas is too smart for her own good, that she draws attention to herself with "Look at me, look how smart I am" intellectual cartwheel-turning.  Of course, on one level that's exactly what she's doing, considering this novel plays with metafiction and the idea (strange to modern Wasterners) of the storyless story.  However, I found the exploration of ideas to be so satisfying that for me this all panned out as playful fun rather than egotistical masturbation.  Perhaps that says something about me, I'm not sure.  

"One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you write non-fiction everyone tries to prove that it's wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it."  I bit my lip.  "Of all the theories of the universe I've come across, [yours] is probably the best one.  Honestly.  But I can't accept theories of the universe.  I think it's too big to theorise."

"But isn't the point of being alive to try to answer the big questions?"

I shook my head.  "For me it's about trying to work out what the questions are."

Questions and answers.  The wonderful thing about loving both questions and answers is that when you get tired of the lack of answers, you can retreat backwards into living loving the questions.  Which, paradoxically, is a much bigger and more exhilarating space in which to live, leaving entire empty rooms for mystery, and for playfulness.

The ideas played around with in this novel mean that nothing is resolved in the traditional fashion, with ends all neatly tied up.  And while that annoys the hell out of me, it also makes me smile a little because, well, it's always a little fun to be fucked with ... before you go on to the next book that will probably have some neat resolutions and a bow on top.  I find it interesting that while I'm quite happy with open-endedness, I did notice a vague sense of dissatisfaction on finishing this book that I couldn't put my finger on until I considered it here.

Perhaps I want bows more than I realise.

Source: discombobula.blogspot.com/2014/06/book-review-our-tragic-universe-by.html
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text 2014-05-05 18:26
Taking comfort in a re-read
PopCo - Scarlett Thomas,Tanja Handels
The End of Mr. Y - Scarlett Thomas
Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas

I can’t seem to do a proper review of any of these books. So, if you want to know about the plot, please move on to the next review. Here I am going to ramble a bit about the beauty and comfort of the re-read.


There are some books I can always return to. I think we all know books like that. Most of these books come from our childhood or teenage years. I still find comfort in rereading The Neverending Story for what must be the 870th time. Others helped us through hard times. The Harry Potter series got me through a break up when I was twenty-two – it was the only thing I could stand reading. About once a year I return to Longbourn and Pemberley because I can lose myself in Austen’s world and language.


Scarlett Thomas three most recent novels – Our Tragic Universe, The End of Mr Y, and PopCo tend to give me a weird kind of comfort. It is not that the stories are the kind of brain-candy that just lets you shut off and stop thinking – quite the opposite really. These are books with intriguing (and very flawed) female characters who are facing some difficult situation in their respective lives. Be it Alice Butler in PopCo who is confronted with the wrongness of her corporate job and the task of cracking a hundred year old code. Or Ariel Manto and the cursed book “The End of Mr Y” that lets her escape from poverty and find new dimensions and adventure; or Meg who has to deal with storyless stories, ponderings on narratology and the question if she is living the life she should.

On closer look that last bit can really be found in all three novels. So can homeopathy, a love for tea, and countless theories from various scientific fields.


Thomas’ books are always a challenge and always introduce the reader to new and exciting concepts. I can understand that some people do not like this kind of novel. I have read reviews saying Thomas is too smart for her own good and that all that smart-ass attitude actually hampers the story’s flow and bores the reader. I actually love those parts of her books. Characters get into long philosophical or scientific conversations and I just wish I could be there and be part of it.

Any time I don’t know what to read next I come back to Meg, Alice and Ariel. And I feel like they are friends I haven’t talked to in a while and I experience the plot and the theories again and sometimes find a new angle or something I had forgotten about. And again I am fascinated and entertained by the creativity and innovation. And always I wish I could go to England and be friends with these characters. I also want to pick up knitting again and start to write a story and drink tea and learn about homeopathy. These books trigger my imagination and always wake up some kind of longing. While at the same time they make me feel like I’ve come home.


I love them and I am very much looking forward to Miss Thomas new book when it finally comes out.



An Afterthought. One thing I found funny while reading PopCo in 2014: it was published in 2004, the first time I read it was in 2009. Five years later, during my reread I noticed the fact that Alice is astonished by wifi technology! She can go online without using a cable! Technology today is moving so fast!


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review 2013-09-27 12:58
Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas

Today I went to the supermarket to pick up some cigarettes. Some bitch with a lottery ticket cut right in front of me in the queue, looked me right in the eye while she did it too, daring me to challenge her. I did not. I had a really long discussion with the woman at the till about how I do not look my age, and how I'm constantly carded because I look sixteen when really I am almost twenty-four. This was a boring discussion. Then I remembered that I needed milk. I thought for a moment there was none left in the size of jug that I like. Then I looked closer and I saw some right at the bottom way at the back. So I grabbed two jugs and then paid for it. Then I walked home. It took me around forty minutes to walk home and I got to thinking about what it's all about. I mean what's going on with me and with life in the general sense. I'd had a massive row with my boyfriend earlier in the day I was going over it, figuring out who was right and who was wrong. I saw a couple of dogs playing in the park on my way past. I thought how wonderful it would be to have the attitude of a dog: there's no yesterday, there's no tomorrow, there's only the here and now, chasing this ball and fleeing about like nobody's business. Those dogs were just bursting with joy at the treat of being alive! So I got home and tossed out the recycling because it's Thursday and then sorted through some laundry. I made some tea. I smoked a couple of my cigarettes. I stared out the window. I live on the second floor of my apartment block and it can be fun to sit and watch the seagulls soar as they are right at eye level. Sometimes they fly so close to the window, screaming and wheeling around. They wind the cats right up. I got to thinking some more about the way that animals live in the moment, every second of their lives is about that second. They make no plans, they have no regrets. These seagulls cared for nothing at that moment except their flight. I do not know what they were doing. Maybe they didn't know either. So after a while I got tired of sitting there so I roamed around a little and then I put on my running shoes and went for a run up to the river and then back. It was chilly, but not a cutting cold as it had been during my run the previous day. And on and on and blah and blah and yawn ......


And are you getting my point? This is Our Tragic Universe, or rather my tragic universe. This is a story about daily life with no plot. It's going nowhere. I could ramble on some more. I could add in some interesting events, I've got plenty. I could give more of an insight into my opinions and thoughts on the world around me, I've got plenty of those too ....But they won't add anything to the main plot, because there is no main plot. There's just me, living my life. Shit happens along the way but essentially I'm just staggering along doing the best I can, the same of which can be said about the storyline in Our Tragic Universe. Or the lack of storyline. I know, I know ..... This is supposed to be the whole point. Can we bend the literary rules and create a novel with no conventional outline? Can we create the storyless story? The answer, in my opinion, is no. Not if you want people to care.


I did not care for Meg. The portrayal of her dying relationship with Christopher was the only redeeming thing about an otherwise pretentious and highly dull character. This book is far too heavy in, I'm sure what Scarlett Thomas hopes is deep, meaningful, enlightening and thought provoking conversations between a lively cast of characters but in actual fact comes across as pompous ramblings about creating a truly original narrative, the history of tarot cards and the relationship between Tolstoy and Chekhov to name a few topics. There's an awful lot of this conversation which sounds suspiciously like it's come straight out of a college fiction workshop, which really begins to grate after a while. At the end of the day there's only so much of this ridiculous dialog I can take without a decent story line to back it up and pad it out. It would be easier to tolerate if something was actually going on. Because strip all that endless talking away and you're left with nothing more interesting than that story I told above about my day. And who the hell wants to hear about that?


I wish Scarlett Thomas would stop trying so hard to dazzle us with her ideas about time and space and physics. I wish she'd be more subtle about it rather than shoehorning it in there and trying to cram it down our throats until our eyes are actually watering. I do truly wish this as I think she has some wonderful, thought provoking ideas and I really enjoy her writing style and her descriptions. I just can't stand to be made to feel stupid, as if these interesting ideas need to be spelled out to me and repeated over and over as if that's the only way I'll understand. Please .... I'm not an idiot.



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review 2012-09-07 00:00
Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas I really want to rate this book higher. I liked the main character enough, I loved the interplay between all of the characters and the overall "realness" to the story. And I think I understand how Thomas was going for a "storyless story" here. But it took me literally THREE MONTHS to read this book. That's got to be some kind of record. There are several books I've started and then dropped, and that didn't happen here. I WANTED to read it and wanted to finish it. Lots of great insight to humanity and relationships in this book, but let's face it - it isn't WAR AND PEACE. The fact that I would paused reading it to read other things and then get back around to it isn't a sign of an enthralling read. I will read more of her books, if only to see if they all affect me in this way. Maybe it was just bad timing or not enough suspense to keep me up reading through the night. I didn't have the feeling like with other books where I postpone the reading to savor it longer. I just kept sliding it to the backburner. I would recommend this book to someone who enjoys metafiction or characters more than plot. I have high hopes for my next Thomas read. :)
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review 2011-06-08 00:00
Our Tragic Universe
Our Tragic Universe - Scarlett Thomas I hardly know what I think about this book. I liked it well enough, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what it was actually about. Perhaps it, in itself, is one of those storyless stories that Vi goes on about?The End of Mr Y (also by Scarlett Thomas) is certainly better, but I'm not sure I'd call this bad - just... different. I became really fond of Meg, which was fortunate, as the book was more a simple account of her life over 4'ish months than an actual story with a plot.I liked her job though :)
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