Our tragic universe (by Scarlett Thomas)

18 06 2011

There were 2 reasons why the cat picked up this book: the packaging and the Patrick Ness blurb.  Of course a book should first and foremost be “an interesting read” (insert your own definition of ‘interesting’) , no matter how it is packaged, but in the digital age of eReaders, Kindles, iPads and what have you, the actual physical item can be an equally important marketing trick. In this regard, a gold & black mazelike cover and black-rimmed paper is definitely eye-catching. Blurbs are another important sales strategy, and because Patrick Ness wrote the best YA-trilogy the cat has read the past couple of years, this was reason enough to pick up this book.

Now you might think that this is just a bit of a trivia introduction, yet another pointless way of starting a review, but believe it or not, both elements do also feature in Scarlett Thomas’ eight novel, Our Tragic Universe. The main character, Meg, is an author who spends most of her time writing formulaic genre fiction. This is not her ultimate goal as she’s been writing her proper novel for years and years but to no avail. Because she’s on the brink of financial ruin (her boyfriend Christopher doesn’t have a job), she also writes book reviews . One day she – mistakingly – reviews a book by Kelsey Newman, The Science of Living Forever. Despite the fact that she deems Newman’s ideas as complete nonsense, and intellectually all too easily underminable, the book about Omega Points, and Infinite Life and Second Worlds stays with her long after she’s done reading it. She clearly decides that an infinite repeating or continuing of her current seemingly aimless life of writer’s block, doomed relationships and sock-knitting, is not exactly the most desirable state of mind, and why would you want to live forever anyway?

For the cat, Our tragic universe first and foremost worked as a thought experiment. It’s definitely interesting to see how an author can weave Baudrillard, Anna Karenina, Chekhov and the Cottingley Fairies all together to form a kind of metafictional jam, bound together by philosophical discussions about the very nature of narrative.

Scarlett Thomas has Vi, Meg’s anthropologist friend say the following about narrative: “The whole point of a storyless story is, (…) the subtle rejection of story within its own structure. In this sense, the storyless story is almost what we would recognize as metafiction, but more delicate. Rather than being similar to a snake swallowing its own tail (or tale) the storyless story is closer to a snake letting go of itself. “(p. 388) As such, Scarlett Thomas practices what she preaches. You get an almost structureless structure in this novel (there are no real chapters, for instance), which deals with seemingly all elements of life: from jam making, to sock knitting, to adulterous relationships, to the mysterious Beast of Dartmoor, to writing genre fiction, to literary, philosophical and anthropological theories about the nature of our (tragic) existence to etc. etc.… all of these elements are introduced, talked about (almost ad nauseam), but never fully completed, never fully explored, never resolved (neatly or otherwise), each and every element in the book follows its own almost rigorous rule of storylessness and structurelessness.  As such, this book could have meandered on for 400 more pages (luckily it didn’t)…or it could have ended after a mere 100 pages… Maybe it should have?

Yes, all of this is very interesting, and definitely intellectually challenging. However, not for one moment was the cat enthralled by it all. This book just didn’t work for the cat as story (Scarlett Thomas would probably argue that it shouldn’t!). If there’s anything that was confirmed by reading Our tragic universe, then it is this: the cat needs to be both intellectually challenged by and emotionally involved in the book!  Meg says that she wants a  “tragic universe, not a nice rounded-off universe with a moral at the end” (p.380) This, the cat can accept on an intellectual as well as emotional level. Life doesn’t need to be a neatly organized sequence of events, despite the omnipresence of lives like this (yours truly included) . “(……) narrative [on the other hand] has to have patterns, otherwise it wouldn’t be narrative, and while life doesn’t have to have patterns, the minute we express it as narrative it does have to have patterns; it has to make sense,”  (p. 163) says Rowan, Meg’s wannabe (or not) lover. The cat would say that a story does not need to have emotions at its core (sappiness is not what the cat is after!), nor does it need to make sense (it can even be quite nonsensical in its conception). However, a story definitely needs to be able to emotionally involve its reader. And this is where Our Tragic Universe tragically failed for the cat. The characters in this book lead – for lack of a better word – normal lives (of things happening to them, relationships starting, ending, etc. etc.), but they oh so revel in their own normalness and they are oh so self-important that it’s almost impossible to feel any sort of emotions for them – besides boredom. These characters bored the cat. They are tiresome. Now, the narrative of the normalcy of life doesn’t need to lead to dull or emotionless stories. Raymond Carver proved as much.

The blurb of this books asks “Could a story save your life?” The cat definitely says “yes”. However, Scarlett Thomas’ storyless story most definitely can’t save this cat’s life. Too pointless, too much leading to wherever, nowhere, infinity… Thomas also writes that “(…) a key feature of storylessness [is] that all structures must contain the possibility of their own non-existence” (p. 60). For the cat, the non-existence resided in the fact of non-involvement on an emotional level. As such the cat cannot rate this book. Any rating the cat would give wouldn’t be representative of this story’s intrinsic value. The cat is a literary glutton. She wants to have it all: neat packaging, the intellectual challenge and the emotional involvement. I’m sure the storylessness of this book will work for some. It just didn’t for the cat.

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