Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

ourtragicuniverseI love Scarlett Thomas. I love the fact she writes novels that are unabashedly about big ideas. Philosophical novels spliced with alternative theories from the worlds of science and medicine in the quest to find out what it’s all about. Life I mean. I also love the fact she isn’t too bothered by the intricacies of plot or character. In the two other novels of hers that I have read, PopCo and The End Of Mr Y, I got irritated when she reverted to plot or relationship details that interrupted the flow of creative thinking and speculation. So I am very indulgently disposed to her writing and accept that not everyone else might be so like minded.

In her latest book, Our Tragic Universe (Canongate, 428 pages), she doesn’t even contrive to offer up fragments of plot. Nothing very much happens at all against the backdrop of a couple of failing relationships and people dropping in on one another for social calls and philosophical discussion within the twee and parochial locale of Totnes and Dartmouth in Devon. Characters introduce themselves by jumping straight into deep and meaningfuls  which soon spin out into wild theories about the universe and our existence. There are studies of relationships here, failing relationships at that, but they are in the context of purpose and drive within human existence and what happens when that is stopped up behind a wall of suburban routine and collapsed ambition. But again, they are soon fed out into wider philosophical issues. It’s noteworthy that two or three pivotal events happen off page and having been built up to, are referred to only as having already taken place and dealing with the fallout.

One of the characters is an anthropologist trawling the world for ‘The storyless story”.  And the novel takes that form. Every time its protagonist gets back to work on her book, or does something decisive to move her life on, she also unravels it and defangs any of the narrative from it. She is constantly deleting her novel. She forever passes up the impetus of action in her life and just seems to drift along, leaving things unfinished, letters unopened, email invitations unanswered, until time and circumstance force her hand into only one possible response to them. She is like the dice(wo-)man who never rolls the dice.

The whole novel reflexively interrogates its own narration. Cause, effect and consequence are constantly probed as to how contingent they are. I am happy to report that Thomas drives a dagger right through the heart of narrative consequence here. Using the example of a cat emerging through a catflap, first you see the head, then the body and finally the tail. Narrative would tell you that the appearance of the head causes the body to emerge and that in turn entails the inevitability of the tail. While they certainly follow on one another, each is not causing the next to happen. Everything is author ex machina in fiction world. And yet we look to derive ‘truth’ about our own lives from reading fiction and as the novel’s protagonist points out to a wannabe author, if you write non-fiction you are likely to be challenged up and down the line on points of fact.

All the time characters are drinking tea or eating pizza and ranging into discussion about Aristotle’s musings on narrative, Tolstoy versus Chekhov, self-help books determining that people CAN change, when in this novel they absolutely don’t, the best they can do is make the odd change in their circumstances here and there, even as to splitting up with a partner. Jokes are also freely offered, along with koans, paradoxes or the role of The Trickster. Archetypes and heroes are assessed as to their validity. The tarot is offered as a form of narrative organisation, no less legitimate than any carefully crafted novel. After all, it supposedly unlocks the life and present situation of the querent.

You may call the following a spoiler, but it’s two (with one in the full sample below) fascinating points made in the novel that I think are crucial to contemporary fiction and alone are worth forking out the purchase price of this novel. And they hardly give away any plot twists, since of course there is little plot to speak of. And look on the bright side, by distilling them, I’ve saved you the effort of ploughing through the novel, if you’re not prepared to indulge Thomas’ endless discursiveness like I am.

1) “We should have stories not to tell us how to live and turn out lives into copies of stories, but to prevent us from having to fictionalise ourselves”.

2) “The (fictional) hero’s journey is not as universal as Joseph Campbell has suggested. The hero’s journey is actually the colonial journey. It’s the journey of the American dream. There are many different types of story patterns all over the world that don’t show a hero going to good fortune from bad fortune through overcoming. Of course at the moment the loudest voices do tell these hero-myths and claim that this has been so since the beginning of time.”

Marc Nash, author of Long Stories Short, 2013


As he got up to go to the bar, I realised he was wearing aftershave; it smelled like Ceylon tea and cinnamon. I looked at my phone. I hadn’t heard anything from Rowan since I saw him at my place and there was still nothing. Then I looked at Vi’s piece. It was what she’d been talking about for such a long time; her theory of the ‘storyless story’. She argued that, although she had named and analysed it, the storyless story was not new. However it had almost been forgotten in the West in recent years. The whole point of a storyless story, she said, is the subtle rejection of the story within its own structure. In this sense, the storyless story is almost what we would recognise as metafiction, but more delicate. Rather than being similar to a snake swallowing its on tail (or tale) the storyless story is closer to a snake letting go of itself. Vi had written a manifesto for the storyless story that suggested that the author of the storyless story would usually be a Trickster, as would his or her characters. The storyless story has no moral center. It is not something from which a reader should strive to learn something, but rather a puzzle or a paradox with no ‘answer’ or ‘solution’, except for false ones. The reader is not encouraged to get ‘into’ the storyless story but to stay outside.

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