Given that I rather disliked the two Scarlett Thomas novels I’d previously read (Bright Young Things and PopCo), you might reasonably wonder why I even contemplated reading a third. Curiosity, I suppose — I just wanted to see if I could find one that I liked. And, well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I particularly liked Our Tragic Universe, but certainly I found it a more worthwhile read than those earlier novels.
Meg Carpenter is a struggling writer, trying (and largely failing) to make ends meet with genre novels and reviews of science books. Her latest book for review outlines a theory of how we might all live (subjectively) forever when the universe ends – or, indeed, might already be doing so without knowing it. All nonsense, thinks Meg, and she’s not keen on the idea of living forever anyway. Events take a strange turn, however, when it transpires that her editor didn’t send Meg this book at all – so where did it come from? Is it coincidence, or a sign of higher purpose in the universe? Does Meg even care? Should we?
In some ways, it’s hard to know what to say to a novel that more or less tells you that it’s not going to play ball. There are repeated mentions of concepts like the ‘storyless story’, and Meg comments that she’d prefer it if the universe didn’t have meaning – one can pretty much see where Our Tragic Universe is (or, rather, isn’t) going. This is resolutely a novel of anti-discovery, where the mysteries of the world will not only not be solved, they’ll hardly be investigated; where characters would rather evade their personal problems than tackle them head on (as an example, near the beginning of the book, one of Meg’s friends takes the extreme step of pushing her car into the river to cover up the fact that she’s having an affair); where life goes on, but doesn’t necessarily progress (Meg is supposedly working on a literary novel, but all she ends up doing over the course of Thomas’s book is scrapping more and more of it). But, fair’s fair, we were warned it’d be like this.
As for me, I see in Our Tragic Universe some of the characteristics that irritated me about PopCo and Bright Young Things, notably quite a lot of awkwardly-inserted exposition. But… somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much this time. I think that’s because the book is so single-minded and open about its intentions (and successful in achieving them) that I’m happy to sit back and let it all unfold. So, I can appreciate that Our Tragic Universe is very good at what it does – as I said earlier, though, liking it is a different matter.