Review of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the unique design. The black-stained page edges and the reflective hardcover. The high-quality paper. These are the things which lend themselves to a unique reading experience, and that is what it is.

Our Tragic Universe contained most of what I love and hate about literary fiction. A writer main character who talks about writing to everyone around her but does very little of it in her somewhat disorganized life. The attendant guilt she feels. The nagging problem of the unfinished novel that most writers understand too well. The broken relationship with no hope because neither party is trying to make the relationship work in any meaningful way. Constantly resuscitated dreams, no loyalty to principles, selfishness driving the decisions she makes, super high maintenance friends with no regard for normal behavior. She is offered a way out but still clings to pieces of her messy existence. She displays an elegant understanding of the art of fiction, but life plays plenty of tricks on her. It could’ve been a slog, but Thomas manages to avoid most of the easy solutions.

The M. C.’s boyfriend, Christopher, is a deadbeat, a leech, a parasitic, personalityless worm. Another man, Rowan, is a flawed, but idolized ordinary fellow. Her female friends are quirky, garrulous, demanding, spastic enablers. All of them are far more articulate than real people.

She spends her time (which she has an unlimited amount of) pretending to be a fictional character, while her friends imitate Anna Karenina, making tragedies of their puny conflicts. A bit of it is hard to believe, but much of it is charming in an obliquely surprising way. Living out and discussing the plot holes in your own life might be fun, but it begs the question of your own silly behavior and motivation. Meg gets paid egregious amounts for her writing, but seems to do far too much knitting. Her useless boyfriend has strict principles related to environmentalism which increase their cost of living, and he never contributes anything except infantile commentary. She gets paid to write book reviews, which is the most unrealistic part of the book.

The author clearly cobbled the book together from profuse notes on topics she found interesting, from wide reading of nonfiction, selecting concepts and unusual phenomena to dress up her skeletal plot with strange arcana and alchemical mixtures of themes and plotless wandering, wrapping it all in suggestions of cosmic significance.

The book goes for it. Embraces the weirdness. Through subtle atmospheric details a mystique accumulates. Using giant leaps of logic in metaphor and imagery, she subverts expectations and falls into the common traps at the same time. There is much figurative language, a weaving of elaborate notes into digressive internal monologue, tangential discussions with friends, a hyperactive frenzy of ideas, which in the end is simply a sharing of wide-ranging conspiracy theories, chance encounters, instigated coincidence, fate’s niggling, a pervasive powerlessness within the grand scheme of the novel, a discussion of pop culture and its definition of the edges of our consciousness, the boundaries it draws around our behavior. It is a mash-up of a ton of plotlines for potential novels, applying an addictive style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. It manages to make derelict characters fascinating in a train wreck sort of way. The perspective is relatable, but it is so focused on New Age pseudo-science, philosophical meandering, and loitering literary references, it might drive some readers mad. Meg’s dopey side quests on every page lose their original flair the more she indulges in them. If you can handle obscure ruminations, the fatalistic viewpoint, and a slew of meaningless moments building into a profound summation of life’s haphazard meaning, it should be fun for you.

The concept of the storyless story, the simplicity of life created versus life lived, trying to be somebody you’re not, stressing about your carbon footprint, how we make excuses to live an empty existence, knitting as a metaphor for writing and life, collages, motifs, mosaicked idea-webs, being content with obscurity, seeking out small adventures, fake memories, the question of whether we should believe in magic, alternate breathing techniques, curses, living forever, carpe diem, the value of dying, savoring momentary happiness, infinity, cowardice, doing things halfway, splendid anecdotes about the publishing industry, artificial relationships, image consciousness, virtual eternity, hipster mystic wisdom, Aristotelian poetics, genre techniques, how disasters are built into the system, inevitable loss as a product of gain, defamiliarizing the ordinary, fairy phenomena, success, failure, mass production, the essence of a person’s soul, living out ideals, the small problems which consume us, the absurd lengths to which we will go to seek help, banish emotion or wallow in it. Self-help exploitation, and a rampant beast of Dartmoor (another instance of metafiction impregnating her reality).

Overall, an entrancing read.

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