Book 14: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

End of week thirteen of the Readarama challenge, and it has taken me most of the weekend to slog through my 14th book. I really, really wanted to like this book, but the book would not play ball! Let me give you some background…

I first came accross Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas in a cafe. My husband (at the time my boyfriend) and I sat down to have lunch and I discovered that the cafe had books on the shelf behind me, that they were inviting you to swap. I found there a very exciting looking gold and black hardback book. I had previously read Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y and I’d really enjoyed it. It had been thought provoking and gripping. I read the first page of Our Tragic Universe then and there in the cafe, but I didn’t take it away because I had nothing to leave in its place. Instead I asked for it that Christmas, and it has sat on my shelf since 2010. I have tried to read it once, and became distracted by something else. When I picked it up again last weekend I coudn’t wait to try it again, and had high hopes.

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This morning when I restarted reading after having trudged through close to 200 pages last night, a list on page 170 caught my attention. The main character is a struggling author, and I couldn’t help but feel that maybe Thomas was drawing on her own life experience. Meg, the extremely annoying protagonist, has written, deleted and rewritten her ‘literary novel’ over and over. Nothing has happened to her for the 169 preceding pages, except day to day drudgery, reviewing books, hating her partner of seven years and trying and failing to rewrite her novel. Meg then writes a list of the problems with her previous draft:

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.

I’m sorry to say this, but it struck me that Scarlett Thomas couldn’t have better described her own book. She’d hit the nail on the head as to every single reason why it was disappointing me so much.

Eventually, around the page 300 mark, and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, Meg leaves terminally irritating and weird Christopher, who she seems to have disliked violently for most of their seven year relationship. The book perks up slightly after this and I managed to enjoy a few of the incidents that involved Meg. All of the best parts of the novel involve Christopher’s OCD brother Josh. He let a glimmer of light into an otherwise dull and plodding rambling read. Here was a well written character, sometimes in crisis, but always interesting. I enjoyed his character enough to get me through the book when it seemed too grim to continue. I was even annoyed he didn’t get given more space in a book that at times went on about the same thing for pages at a time. There were some interesting asides about zen stories, fairies and magic, though the main character really doesn’t believe in any of these. As she puts it on page 380, ‘ “I want a tragic universe, not a nice rounded off universe with a moral at the end.” ‘ and on page 400 ‘ “But I can’t accept theories of the universe. I think it’s too big to theorise.” ‘

Unfortunately a great deal of the book is devoted to Meg thinking about various theories and things, and it just wasn’t enough for me. She and another character called Vi talk about the idea of a ‘storyless story’, and whatever they meant by that, I couldnt help but feel that this book lacked any kind of plot. There was a very exciting few pages around the 400 page mark, but the only major incident of the book was explained away a few pages later in a text message. I did enjoy the concept of a beast on the loose, and an author looking for it. But then, that’s a theme I always enjoy. I come from Norfolk, where the legend of Black Shuck is still told, and I pictured this beast in much the same way.

So, I really tried to like this book, and I want to be positive about it, but there isn’t a lot to enjoy in it. Read it if you love theories and reading about the mundane parts of an authors existence. Read it for Josh, Andrew and Tim, the three interesting characters in amongst a cast of pretentious and unlikeable people with seemingly endless “important” ideas. Maybe read it if you have several hours and nothing else to read. The cover is great.

I would give 6/10 to Our Tragic Universe, and I would love to hear if any of you disagree with me. Please do leave comments if you think I’ve missed out on something.

Next week I plan to start choosing my reads by alternating between my bookshelves. There are five in my house, some where I have read most of the contents, others filled with those books still to be read.

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3 thoughts on “Book 14: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

  1. Pingback: 30 Day Book Challenge: Day 7! | Xarglebook

  2. I hated OTU the first time I read it, I resisted its unconventionality, like you I just wanted there to be a normal, well rounded plot. But that’s the whole point of the book. It’s very metafictional. The book itself is a storyless story. That description you quoted, I think it’s MEANT to be a description of the book you’re reading as well as the one Meg is trying to write. I hated it at first, but now it’s one of my favourite books.
    And it’s not ENTIRELY a storyless story, it does have a very subtle plot about Meg navigating obstacles in her life (her life does seem to be better at the end), but yeah, it’s unnerving when you’re reading expecting it to be a normally plotted book.
    Also I think Meg does believe in some of the fantastical elements, the fairies, poltergeist and Beast of the moor, cosmic ordering. The book is very careful not to give us a neat, scientific explanation for the weirdness (like the Zeb Ross books do).

    So..yeah. I guess I think OTU is definitely an acquired taste. There are some parts of Scarlett Thomas’ writing that really annoy me, but I’ve grown to really like the kind of low-key, subtle, realistic plotting of OTU.

    • Thanks for your comment. Thinking back on it, I thought that the description of Meg’s book was deliberately a description of the book. It remains one of the things I quite like about it looking back, clever of Scarlett Thomas to do this. I don’t think I could go through reading it again though, I found Meg’s life a bit too depressing, and not enough was made of the fantastical elements. What did you think of The End of Mr Y (which I love)?

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