Pursuing natural health & thinking beyond the superficial. Deconstructing Culture.

… By challenging the rules of structured, creative writing whilst also being a novel.

This was a tough one to read and review; on one hand it’s a unique format, almost first person perspective of the writing process and on the other it has to be an interesting story. How to make education engaging?

The more I read and got a feel for what the author was trying to accomplish the more I respected her and appreciated the book as a whole, a feat in fiction trying not to be fiction trying to be fiction – kinda like looking at yourself in a mirror holding another mirror and living within the endless reflections – but can you really enjoy that, is it worth it?

The design of the book is equally impressive and captivatingly called out to me from the shelf – a Black background with shiny Gold circular, maze like print surrounding what looks like a Black howling dog/wolf, beautifully dark ink tipped pages and that sweeping title – bit like a luxury chocolate box. The choice quotes on the back were just dripping praise for the author’s big ideas and almost insurmountable achievement so all in all I was expecting an epic tale.

Our-Tragic-Universe-Product-pic

CHUCKING EVERYTHING IN THE MIX AND HOPING IT TURNS OUT OK?

What I got was not epic feeling at all but very mundane, possibly a ‘slice of life’ story that could easily be thought of as ‘chick lit’ by those who don’t read such books but patience please! This is all part of setting the scenario and showing readers how events, places and people come together in such a big world and by a giant, assumptive extension – the universe.

A novel’s checklist (in no particular order)?

Interesting/Quirky characters

Meg – or Egg as I called her – is a writer stuck in rut and waiting for a change, she’s primarily known for writing formulaic young adult fiction and hates it and the genre. She also writes reviews on popular and alternative science books and it’s one of those books that ignited the transformation she’d been longing for, that and getting a windfall.

I would list the other characters but they initially serve as nothing but background noise for Meg’s stream of consciousness and day to day goings on. They do stand out though in that they are not ‘run of the mill’ on the surface. For example none of them have what many of us would deem as a ‘normal’ job or education, they’re all arty/creative, lecturing in and learning subjects that seem to many impractical with a wealth of knowledge in Language, Cultural Studies and History – they travel to exotic places, learn the customs, research, restore artefacts, make and sell health foods and crafts. None of them have children either – which I find less believable than their collective interests but perhaps having little people in the story would have made it less high brow-trying-to-be-normal-trying-to-be-something-else-entirely. Regardless of their intellectual bubble they all have the same lowest common denominator – their love lives.

Webs we weave anyone? Tangled they are however we perceive. Though they seem to have come up with a way of avoiding negative fallout – by avoiding throwing stones at glass houses. If no one points the finger and judges, then they can’t be judged. We’re only human afterall, to err and all that, until of course we’re debating a subject where we have to be superior and suddenly we’re the amazing and unique species. Basically most of the characters are sleeping around or having affairs or have done so and they play a big part in who they are. It’s at those times when they’re talking about how bored and unfulfilled they are when it can feel like a soap opera and then the next you’re reading Sophie’s World. Sexual drama interspersed with intellectual discourse but without the comedy of Fraiser (tv show).

It’s sounding dire! To my mind it was – there was only one character I liked, an older aunt like lady who is seen as kooky by the rest of the cast. She likes to learn about everything, currently anthropology and whose words lead Meg to write a ‘storyless story’; she’s kind yet sharp and strong. She’s also the only one with a happy, long term marriage. Then there’s Meg’s cohabiting boyfriend – apparently gorgeous, not into sex (his and Meg’s relationship started off by cheating on someone else close to them but who in the ‘do not judge’ ethos of the book was apparently better off for it since the couples were mismatched, how convenient), likes his woman to be as natural looking as possible, is a full time volunteer on heritage sites and has a tendency to take out his anger in outbursts on inanimate objects and hurts himself in the process. Following him there’s Meg’s best friend who seems the opposite of Meg in that she doesn’t want for anything money wise and has a non-problematic long-term relationship but is bored with it. Lastly of note there’s Meg’s older man, or they both wish they were together but yes he’s married and that relationship is stale.

Thankfully in the second half of the book they become more readable, we learn more about them, how they affect Meg’s life and interact, and manage to make it as foreground characters.

Big themes

Magic and Beauty vs Science and Rationalization

Meg’s a no-frills, hard boiled, all down to experience, there’s an explanation for everything woman and wouldn’t touch a euphemism with a bargepole. Events in her life however and resurgent memories have different ideas pushing her to question the know-it-seen-it-all-yet-grass-is-still-Greener-or-at-least-must-be-conquerable-on-the-other-side-mentality.

There are even meetings with the Green Man, a triple-goddess, a mysterious ship in a bottle, and musings on the Cottingley Fairies and their significance.

The quest for the ‘Storyless Story’

Basically a story without rules and structure, it just happens, there’s no moral of the story and the storyteller is a straight up reporter without commentating or an agenda. Meg becomes focused on trying to write one no matter how complex that actually is and it adds to her dilemma trying to breakaway from her typecast seeking to upgrade to classy, ‘real’ writing. To make it worse she handicaps herself by trying to make this ‘storyless story’ her magnum opus. She deletes far more than she writes, comes up with one idea after another, goes through and to an extent parodies ideas and mistakes made by novice writers and generally has ‘writer’s block’.

It seemed the book implied that life is closest to a ‘storyless story’, I say that’s only possible if it’s not orchestrated, sabotaged or deconstructed every second trying to find meaning, reconstructed, wondering what makes us so individual or special – which she, troubled people and teenagers do all the time. She also has to bypass the fact that life is a complex of rules, structure and that magic spark that we keep naming and dividing into smaller weights but bigger measures and re-naming because we can’t pin it down or make it fit. (Hey I say that art and science are states of discontent and the desire to copy/manifest inspiration – it’s not all bad, but when you start wondering if you can manufacture life turning it into livestock/assets and owning the space time continuum, stop and slap yourself, hard.) As long as there’s thinking and feeling going on there’s narrative and meaning whether some think it matters or not regardless of who or what is narrating, even if we’re born in a cage and can’t move ‘til we die or ‘move on’, we may not even be aware of narrative that we’re part of. As long as it happens and/or is described (any method, talking to oneself, telepathy, text message) there’s narrative. We don’t need stories because Death makes us search for meaning as she asserts, we are stories.

Big but lesser themes in this case

A superhero saving the world or mega-villain egomaniac trying to avoid comeuppance and nature?

All that lives eventually dies. Yet so many seek eternal life via all kinds of methods; sucking blood/life energy, reincarnation, time machines, body snatching, cloning… Having kids. In this story one strangely elusive Kelsey Newman, author of a hit-selling popular science book, doesn’t believe that life on Earth moreover humans should ever die and indeed that such an event should be prevented at all costs. Even if it takes empire building throughout space until the end of time and then at that moment circumventing it with the aid of technology and starting time all over again, and again ad infinitum. Despite definitively panning his work Meg et al are very interested in him and find that they’re not the only ones…

The beast of Bodmin Moor and the Nature of the Beast?

Many a phantom, strange creature or big cat has been spotted or imagined in the British Isles and the beast on the front cover is another. Meg et al live in Dartmoor and there’s a beast on the loose. One of Meg’s creative writing students decides to enrich his life by tracking it and becomes a local celeb but when he finally comes face to face with it I bet he wished he was wearing incontinence pads and interestingly enough his account of it doesn’t match anybody else’s. It’s a strange plot device, perhaps even an avenger/dark protetcor and it’s (later described as ‘she’) on the hunt for Kelsey Newman.

Archetypes and Symbolism

There’s quite a few examples throughout the book to illustrate theories and archetypes, I won’t go into them all but interestingly enough Meg, her best friend and the older aunt Lady become mirrors of the triple-Goddess when Meg takes up and becomes quite fixated by knitting only to find the other two already know how and surprise surprise she just has to make something really advanced. They become the weavers/hands of fate which conflicts with the ‘storyless story’ and Meg also has to be the Trickster because the closest you get to a ‘storyless story’ is watching the inmates on Big Brother sleep or sit in one spot, they’re dreaming or daydreaming but to a drama hungry/blood thirsty audience that is boring.

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY? ABIT ABOUT THE AUTHOR

‘They’ say to write about what you know and if possible what you enjoy, and I got a definite feel that Scarlett Thomas was writing about herself early on in this book and as Meg’s journey continued that feeling just got stronger. So while it may seem strange putting the author info at this point in the review – that is the reason.

I don’t claim that Meg’s life mirror’s Scarlet’s – just that there seemed a merger between the protagonist and narrator especially when one or other tried to deal with the parallels and paradoxes of trying to write a ‘storyless story’. I’ve since read that whilst writing this Scarlet stopped smoking and ate a lot of clementines as Meg did.

Scarlett teaches Creative Writing at the University of Kent, her personal website as advertised in the book no longer works but her profile is on Wikipedia and the university website http://www.kent.ac.uk/english/staff/thomas.html

‘Her most recent publications include Monkeys with Typewriters; Our Tragic Universe; and The End of Mr. Y. Her work has been translated into 24 languages, longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize and shortlisted for the South African Boeke Prize.’

She’s written 10 novels in total, the other 9 I haven’t read but from the reviews I’ve seen it seems she does focus on ideas and discourse though this book divided opinion on whether it sacrificed characterization and others not liking the lack of obvious direction.

A BOOK IN HALVES – WHAT NOT TO DO AND FIXING IT

I was initially very underwhelmed and disappointed after the hype but the second half changed that.

The hardback is 448 pages so not massive and the print isn’t squint inducing but it is heavy going. I could of written copious notes on how ‘wrong’ things seemed; contradictions, inaccuracies and close-or-too-open-mindedness, and generally why I didn’t like it but it’s like Scarlet anticipated that and answered all those potential trappings! She knew what she was doing, dare I say all along? The assumptions/questions/attitudes of the characters and narrative did a 180deg turnaround as if from one page to another (in the grand scheme of things) yet they were the same characters and the events flowed well… There was just now an added wisdom and it made the difference in readability. That said perhaps Scarlet overcompensated later or didn’t know how to finish without turning it into a series so let her themes have small or no endings and having characters do/say things I couldn’t quite believe they would. That was really my only bugbear.

Is there a target audience?

I think it would be helpful to have background knowledge in Literature, Psychology and Philosophy (Mathematics unnecessary for that one here) because there are a lot of names and theories mentioned. The lengthy debates and internal monologues are integral to the aims of the story so it’d be difficult to sidestep them whilst trying to develop or maintain character sympathy and interest.

That doesn’t mean it’s only for select people, go ahead and give it a go if it sounds appealing, it’s certainly educational and/or a refresher in those subjects, gives a fulsome example of practicalities, pitfalls and pointers for those interested in creative writing; it just takes patience or it did for me anyway and perhaps looking things up here and there.

Did it manage to be a ‘storyless story’?

I think it tried very hard and certainly gave a realistic or semi-believable image of an author trying to write something original yet real whilst juggling both relatable and unrelatable dilemmas but at the same time I think it still conforms to having narratives (temporal or seemingly disjointed or not) and a timeline even if those acts are different in length and pace but then so does life and if she was really trying to get away from that the originally intended title would have been more apt aka ‘Death of an Author’. She may have tried to manoeuvre out of that one by giving it a non-ending but the last scenes and summing up were too contrived for me, she could of just said ‘we don’t know the meaning of anything really let alone life and that’s ok in some ways and not in others’.

The ‘funny’ thing about this book is that it constantly gives examples of how a ‘storyless story’ isn’t possible, that there is no such thing as coincidence, that fate or at least laws of attraction or cause and effect negate ‘true’ randomness. Nothingness without potential would theoretically be the ‘storyless story’ but you wouldn’t be aware of it because you wouldn’t exist as an individual or wider sentience. So a ‘storyless story’ is a pointless non-story, the bathtub that doesn’t fill when you leave it. Existence is necessary for a story – it is a point/purpose in itself before any purpose/narrative/meaning we then ascribe to it. It isn’t needed because of Death, it just is and is complex even if the sentience is ‘at peace’. It doesn’t stop at Death, it stops when everything and everyone ceases to exist completely.

Where her characters compromise saying at least make it a good story, it wasn’t achieved. Where they say don’t fear life/the maze, don’t worry about the beginning and end it’s the journey that counts regardless of the direction you’re going in (towards the centre of the maze or outwards) and that it continues as part of one endless journey (strangely agreeing with Kelsey Newman and going against the beast) – they admit a fear of Death/an Ending and perhaps the true path to the ‘storyless story’. I agree that for the existing it is the existence that counts but it would take someone truly uninterested in longevity to reach the ‘storyless story’.

Why not just pursue works in the subjects mentioned? This just seems a culmination of the author’s knowledge and she wanted to put it down on paper before learning something else and then writing about that? In that sense more action and less striving for the ‘storyless story’ would have been better as it could easily lose 100-150 pages but as a diary style project I think it works and helpful for those who can’t make that investment. I wonder what grade she would of given had one of her students written it.

`One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you’re writing non-fiction everyone tries to prove you’re wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it.’

She doesn’t reinvent the wheel but she tries to roll with it, luckily for her characters the road isn’t that bumpy.

Our Tragic Universe Scarlett Thomas Book Review

Photo credit – rarebookceller.com to illustrate the details.

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Comments on: "Our Tragic Universe – An attempt at writing the perfect novel…" (3)

  1. What an interesting book!! I haven’t touched a novel in ages, you’re inspiring me to do so this weekend! xx

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