This was a quirky novel about a woman in a bad relationship writing genre novels when she really wants to write a literary masterpiece. There's a bit of a soap opera with who likes who and who's cheating on who going on with her and her friends, which is kind of fun. I found this novel well-written but didn't really like the way it kept drifting off into philosophical discussions. I'd end up zoning out and then would get back into the book when the actual story continued. I guess I prefer books that keep to story . . . but I liked the writing and characters well enough that I finished the book and found it enjoyable. I think those into philosophy will probably enjoy this book.
on August 8, 2010
With a tongue-in-cheek title such as "Our Tragic Universe," you know you're in for something off the beaten path. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is a first-person episodic, mainstream novel. Or is it? Perhaps there's more going on here than meets the eye. For instance, think about this: the protagonist of the story, Meg, sounds an AWFUL lot like the book's author, Scarlett Thomas. They're both writers, teachers, British, mid-thirties, have academic chums...and the book is written in first person. So you keep thinking, hmm, is she talking about herself here? Is this autobiographical? And then there's the conversations throughout about philosophies of writing, about books, about writing a "storyless story" (which makes you think, Hey! This book itself seems to qualify for that. What's going on here?) Normally, I don't enjoy metafictions. But what makes this different from, say, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Everyman's Library (Cloth)), is that you don't feel the author is playing headgames at your expense. She seems to be inviting you to play along with her (perhaps a hint is that early on, Meg tells how she loves solving crossword puzzles--the British kind, of course). Suddenly you realize that you are reading--and enjoying--a non-standard, "storyless" novel. Well, it's episodic. So is Deep in the Shade of Paradise: A Novel, which I highly recommend, but wouldn't categorize as breaking the rules, really. It's just a story about a period in these people's lives, told by one of the people, named Meg. If you don't like Meg or her friends, the lack of plot is going to be a problem for you. And if you aren't well-versed in narrative theory, the whole pseudo-metafictional thing may just be a bore for you. But for me, as it happens, I'm reading up on how to write a novel, so I found these conversations very enjoyable. I've read Frank Tippler, and Rupert Sheldrake. I know about the Omega Point (it's the end of the universe), and morphic resonance (it's your dog knowing when you're about to walk in the door, though I have to say my dog doesn't do that.)
I was puzzled by Meg's relationship with Christopher. She's living for seven years with this loser who treats her with no respect. Abuse, is more like it. And we have no clue until near the end of the book as to why Meg ever took up with this schlmiel (he's angular and sexy, whatever that means). But why does she stay with him? She's a very "together" person, she's making a living as a writer, she's quite an admirable person in some ways. She certainly has a good relationship with her dog. So why does it take her SO LONG to deal with it? Another thing that puzzled me was why everyone in the book was having an affair. Is everyone in Britain morally bankrupt? Or is this just some chicklit convention I'm not aware of? Of relationships and such, Meg is mostly mum. We don't really know, often, what her reaction is to an event, such as her boyfriend saying something abusive. She'll just carry on by taking the dog for a walk, and never mentioning the conversation again, or until later. She withholds her thoughts and feelings at odd times, and tells us the backstories of the other characters in a seemingly haphazard way. But she's such a good writer that I'm sure all of this was done on purpose, and I'm not smart enough to get it. I would've enjoyed the book more had it explored the pseudo-science bits more. It seems to be more than psuedo in the book, and yet in the end, we have a "Zeb Ross" ending, where all is explained rationally away (you'll know what I mean when you read the book) at the end by the scientists.
Thomas makes us think about fiction, and how we wish there were meaning in our lives. That things happen for a reason, and that if you work hard and heroically, you will get the girl and vanquish the dragon. We like to think that the Universe is not just some tragic joke. That all can be fixed and have a happy ending in 22 minutes plus commercials. That there are secret powers we know nothing about, and we're all immortal. That we aren't living the lives we see on television, so we jump from bed to bed looking for the right sitcom to live in. Thomas makes you question the assumptions your life is built upon. There's a lot to think about and enjoy here. I'm glad I got a chance to read this, thanks to the Vine program. Thanks, Amazon!
on September 29, 2010
After reading The End of Mr. Y, I thought this was going to have some science fiction elements and be very plot driven, but it turned out to be something completely different. Odd circumstances were set up, but the story never went where I thought it would.
I was going to describe Our Tragic Universe as a character driven novel, but that doesn't seem right, either. This is something completely different.
The characters in this novel discuss storycrafting quite a bit, and one thing that comes up often is the idea of the storyless story. This sounds like an oxymoron, but it's the best way to describe Our Tragic Universe.
That doesn't mean that nothing happens, but it doesn't follow a regular plot outline. Things do happen in the lives of the characters, but not in the formulaic way that we are accustomed to. The main character doesn't have anything that drives her to act. It's more like things happen and she adapts. When I describe it that way, it sounds really boring, but I wasn't bored. I enjoyed the writing and my curiosity about what was going to happen kept me reading.
I've never read a story like this before. It's worth reading just for its uniqueness. I think this is a book that will be discussed in writing classes, I'm just not sure if it will be received as an example of what to do, or what not to do. Either way, I liked it and feel as though I should read it again now that I know what to expect from this peculiar novel.
on September 26, 2010
If I could have one opportunity to meet with the author Scarlett Thomas, I would like to ask her why with all these wonderful ingredients and potentials in "Our Tragic Universe", she has chosen to disintegrate them into what appears to me as a storyless story (by her definition and by my observation). One that makes me feel tragic to even finish reading the book. If I could meet with Douglas Coupland who wrote that wonderful piece of praise at the back of the book, I would like to ask him specifically how "Our Tragic Universe" manages to surprise him in a terrific way, why he finds it addictive and thinks that the author is a genius. If I could meet with the one who wrote the synopses of the book, I would like to ask why he or she thinks that "Our Tragic Universe" is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, and how a story might just save our lives. I have devoured the book slowly, from page one to page 425, and I have found none of the above.
Scarlett Thomas is not new to me. I have read some of her previous works before. I had this hope that "Our Tragic Universe" would live it up to my expectation. This book is curiously divided into two parts. In part one, the main character Meg - a book reviewer, a ghost writer, an aspired writer, a lady in her late thirties, a character that at one point I thought Scarlett is Meg - has a rather mundane life that is getting slightly worse. In part two, Meg has a relatively more hopeful life that is getting slightly better. If I may deduce what saves her life (as promised by the synopses), it is money. Or rather the time freed up by not needing to think about making ends meet can be used to do something more interesting. If I may second guess on what the synopses writer means by "Our Tragic Universe" is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, it merely means that if you stuck or think you stuck in a relationship that is going nowhere, break up and start anew. However, I doubt that is what Scarlett Thomas has intended this book to be (and I surely hope not).
"Our Tragic Universe", to me, is an experimental work of writing. A storyless story as defined in page 388 and 389 (and hinted at the very beginning of the story) is as follows.
- [The storyless story] is the subtle rejection of story within its own structure ... It 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 readers are not encouraged to `get into' the storyless story but to stay outside.
To illustrate what a storyless story is like, here is an example (page 389). By and large, I see the similarity of that and to the entire book.
- A story about a hermit making jam could be as interesting as a story about a hero overcoming a dragon, except that it would be likely that the writer would make the hermit overcome the jam in the same way the hero overcomes the dragon. The storyless story shows the hermit making the jam while the hero overcomes the dragon, and then the hermit giving remedies and aid - and jam - to both the hero and the dragon before going to bed with a book.
And so I have subconsciously played along with this storyless story concept while throughout the bulk of the book, I was hoping that "Our Tragic Universe" would be as innovative and engaging as "The End Of Mr. Y". "Our Tragic Universe" has all the great ingredients. A book that Meg needed to review called "The Science of Living Forever" has a great potential to be the metafiction (a story within a story), such as the story by Lumas in "The End Of Mr. Y". "The Science of Living Forever" even has a sequel called "Second World" that would have fitted beautifully with this book in two parts. There is a mysterious wild beast living in town. There is even a ship in a bottle that mysteriously appeared at the shore when Meg was `conversing' with the Universe. The magical healing power, the placebo versus nocebo (the opposite of placebo), the conversation with the dead on an astral plane - tragically, none of these have been converted into something intriguing, something that lives up to the basic expectation established between a reader and a writer, something that is remotely close to "The End Of Mr. Y". This book may wish to break away from the standard structure of (1) having a central issue or the `ordinary world' of the problem, (2) the problem itself, (3) the way to set out and resolve the issue, (4) a previously unseen element in the central conflict that could make the problem seems insurmountable, (5) a climax or turning point, and (6) the resolution - as implied using Tarot reading on page 322. In fact, "Our Tragic Universe" has done it so well that it does not have any of the above. The fallacy of a storyless story, to me, is in the absence of a climax or a convincing turning point, it is not a very inspiring story. Having said that, with an open mind and if reading an experiment piece is what you are after, "Our Tragic Universe" is certainly unique. It is still an easy read with lively conversations filled with truncated ideas and well known stories. Be prepared that this book has nothing to with tragedy, certainly nothing to do with the Universe. And neglect the bad and misleading marketing tagline "Could a Story Save Your Life?".
I do not think I would subscribe to the notions of fictionless fiction, historyless history, romanceless romance, unproven proof, and uncertain certainty (page 390). I think these are some pointless phases the author has dreamed up with (that anyone could create a dozen more). I do not think that being a realist writer means that he or she has to produce fictionless fiction (page 390). To me, the goal of a realist artist is to produce artworks with the goals of truth and accuracy in mind. That, in the context of writing, is a job belongs to the journalists. A fiction is not a real story, as repeatedly mentioned in a wonderful book called "How To Read Novels Like A Professor". A fiction is simply a work of fiction.
on September 22, 2010
If you've read Scarlett Thomas's work before and are ready to dive into her newest book, I suggest you take a few minuets and think about it. If you loved her previous ability to build up action and suspense while adding conversations about what words really mean, and ideas of NoCO more than the conversations and philosophical discussions, you may not enjoy this book.
Thats not to say that her new book is bad in any way, I enjoyed it a lot, but it takes a certain kind of person to fully enjoy it. Unlike her last books, which though intellectual and extremely thought provoking still had really good and well paced plots, this one doesn't. Its part and parcel with the idea of a non-story, which is constantly talked about within the book itself.
This story without a story though is an interesting one in that it takes a look at relationships, how they grow and crumble, what causes them to start, and then to falter. Whether friendships or love, this book takes a hard look at them, while discussing new age ideas, the afterlife, monsters on the moore, dog psychology, how to write book candy, publishing industry, maritime history, ghosts, "energy", magic, and holidays; all combined with lots of tangerines.
Tangerines in this book take the place of cigarettes in Thomas's past books, and I feel its quiet fitting. The book can be broken up and eaten in parts, and still taste good, it can be consumed all at once, there are even sometimes "little tangerine babies at the top", and millions of ways you can peel a tangerine. I don't think this was on purpose, its probably more likely that the author quit smoking while writing the book and needed something for her protagonist to do while drinking tea, reading books, and pondering the great expanse of the universe.
But like a Tangerine also, this book will not be for everyones taste. Its not a normal story, which will upset many. Its not a "psychological thriller" like the Amazon coding suggests, its not even a novel in the sense that most in the west think of a novel with heros, but it is a way to sneak the authors thoughts into writing, without everyone coming at her with pitchforks and torches. And for those who like the first 20 pages, you'll like it till the end (mostly), but if you dont like the first 20 pages, put down this book and wait for her next one (which I hear she's going back to University to get a degree to write).
on April 5, 2011
[Warning: some comments below might be interpreted as spoilers.]
I enjoyed some aspects of Thomas's writing style, but the final outcome of the book was so annoying that it tainted the parts I liked. I had hoped that all the meandering into different topics (which should have been cut down), and the possibly supernatural happenings would come to something, whether supernatural or no, but the book just kind of stops. This is not to say that nothing happens, but the biggest crisis comes to a minor character, and the heroine pretty much decides that she doesn't care about it. I found that really frustrating. In fact, I found the heroine frustrating in general, although her observations were so whimsical and poetic that I can't say I wholly disliked her. But I disapproved and/or was confused by a number of her decisions and actions (an example: her apparent belief that it's okay to break up with a long-term live-in boyfriend simply by moving out without ever saying anything to him). She also seemed to be in denial about a number of things, but it wasn't clear that the author was aware of this.
Many reviewers have complained about the book's "storyless story", but I don't think the author achieved this, if it was her goal. Although the book does not have a tight plot, the heroine ends up in a different place than she began, both literally and figuratively. A character in the book states that a "storyless story" is "constructed to help you break away from drama, and hope and desire", but the book certainly doesn't do this, since much of the last quarter of the book deals with the heroine finding some of her desires, and gaining hope for the future. Her desires don't go away. (Although a wish to "break away from drama" might explain why the author did such a weak job dealing with the book's final "supernatural" encounter.)
If you're interested in reading just a collection of musings on life and literature, then you might enjoy this book, or perhaps skipping around it. But as a coherent novel with purpose, it disappoints.
on July 19, 2010
Review: Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas
Forewarning, this is a positive review though I can see where it might not appear that way. It was just a very hard book to write about!
Our Tragic Universe (originally to be titled `Death of the Author') is a nonstandard plot. Part time writer Meg is living in a small town England. She is living unhappily with her long term boyfriend and her dog, barely scraping by. Meg is continually trying to write her "Real Novel", editing and paring down her words, never able to solidify where she wants to take it. In the meantime, she takes on the grunt work of the literary world, reviews of trash novels for a newspaper, and ghost writing teen fiction using formulaic methods.
Meg is caught in an interesting kludge of personal issues. Her best friend is having an affair that is messy. long time friends have stopped speaking to her. Her boyfriend is spiraling into depression and taking her on a manic roller coaster as he falls. She feels trapped and unaccomplished. Her only real bonus is a love interest in a man nearly twice her age, married, who she doesn't dare see anymore since they accidentally kissed. Early in the book, Meg inadvertently takes on a review for some kind of new age "how the afterlife works by bob-know-it-all" book and the flavor of the story really begins to ripen. Oh yeah, and I should mention there is a mysterious beast prowling the neighboring townships scaring the hell out of the residents...
The story is vibrant but many readers may be confused by the cluttered nature of the novel. it is cluttered just as life itself is, so it is fitting, though as a result, difficult to read. At some points, OTU read like a reality TV show for a person who has absolutely nothing interesting going on in their life, detailing minutia like knitting. At other points, it is a technical reading manual for obsessive compulsive literature majors. This could have been toned down and approached less lecture like, but in the end, was an important part of the novel's structure. .
Previously mentioned, the plot of Tragic Universe is nonstandard in the fact that it really doesn't have a core/central plot. Items that you think are key plot points are proven to be red-herrings, no more important to life than the number of concurrent green lights you drove through on the way to work today. Interestingly though, it highlights how many things we notice daily which have no importance, but to which we add false importance.
Regardless, all of the characters are interesting and well thought out. it was these that kept me coming back for more. I nearly stopped reading this book 7-8 times. Each time I prepped to give up on it, some small detail would catch my attention again and I was drawn back in for another 30-40 pages.
Ultimately, I believe this waxing/waning of interest may have been part of Scarlett's intent as she wrote this "storyless-story". Really, it is nothing more than a sign of the abilities of the author, in that she wrote something so realistic/painful, that giving up and utter enthrallment are with in breaths of each other. Reading OTU was like a broken ceiling fan on a very hot day, I kept fiddling with it- trying to make it work. Frustrated, at times felt like a pointless endeavor, but in the end, when the gears moved and the air flowed over my sweat beaded forehead, the effort was worth it, a welcome cool breeze to mellow the experience.
I would not suggest this book for people who are easily frustrated, trust me here. Also, if you prefer your books garnished, placed on a plate, and then fed to you in bite size portions, you may not enjoy this and should perhaps look toward other reading material.
To quote the novel (referencing everyday life having less "story"), "You just have to let go of the plot when it gets too much. Do something else". Though there were many times I wanted to stop reading, I instead just took breaks from it and am glad I completed it. Our Tragic Universe was a literary vacation, a trip away from the normal methodologies employed by authors, memorable in both it's genius, complexity, and bearable frustration.
This review was based off an advance digital copy provided by the publisher
on June 10, 2016
This book came at the right time for me. I've realized that the stories we tell ourselves are often the causes of our problems. Reality is not a story. Instead stories are how humans make sense of reality. As such, I've been interested in writing that does not have standard plots but can still keep the reader's interest. This book is a meditation on storytelling and the nature of reality. It also has a great dog.
on September 7, 2011
i was trying to describe this book to my dad, and kept grasping for words that would neatly explain it. nah, couldn't do it, had to really take some time to think about it. i found that, upon reflection, i'd really like to have spent more time in that cool old town in the uk with meg, the main character. i'd like to hear more about her life, whatever she would choose to share.
the book is complicated by much discussion about philosophy; it seemed a little odd inside a book about a girl breaking up with her boyfriend and taking her dog for walks. but the point is, it worked- for me, anyway. i will be reading more from this writer-i will read anything by a great writer, and this was very well written. it's just a meandering story, peopled with interesting characters, interesting locale, interesting thoughts.....a book that is different, certainly, but not in a bad way.
i recommend this book, if you want to take the time to have a kinda unusual experience.
on May 1, 2013
My first novel from Scarlett Thomas was "The End of Mr. Y." What a fantastic book! (and i'm not normally into science fiction!)
I went on a book-buying spree, and purchased this one, and "PopCo" at the same time. I happened to read this one first.
It was just disappointing. I didn't feel a connection with the characters, and I didn't feel as if they were cohesive, either. It was just a let-down....