CategoryThomas Scarlett

Scarlett Thomas, Monkeys with Typewriters (2012)

The infinite monkey theorem says that, given enough time, a monkey with a typewriter will almost certainly produce the complete works of Shakespeare just from tapping the keys at random. As Scarlett Thomas points out in the introduction to this creative writing book, though, writers don’t work that way – they write with purpose (though of course that’s not the be-all and end-all of a finished work), and don’t have unlimited time. This is one of the recurring themes of Monkeys with Typewriters: that writing is more than a technical exercise, even if you can see some of its workings.

It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have chosen to read this book had the publisher not sent me a copy on spec, because I’ve no ambitions to write fiction. But Thomas has such a distinctive style of writing fiction that I was intrigued to see what she had to say. It turns out that Monkeys with Typewriters is interesting for readers as well as aspiring writers. Thomas is less concerned with telling her readers ‘how to write’ as encouraging to think more deeply about how what they read and write works.

The first half of the book is devoted to ‘Theory’, and especially to examining the mechanics of plots. Thomas goes from Plato, through Aristotle and Nietzsche, to Northrop Frye and Christopher Booker, examining (and sometimes criticising) the different ways plots have been analysed and classified. There’s plenty of food for thought here, even for a non-writer – I like Thomas’s distinction between story (the chronological events that happen) and plot (how those events are arranged by the writer), which I hadn’t thought of in the way before. It’s also fascinating to see the connections Thomas makes, such as when she highlights the similar basic narrative arcs of Toy Story, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and an episode of Supernanny. Underneath it all is an enthusiasm for writers to find and do their own thing; after presenting her idea of ‘the eight basic plots’, Thomas invites her readers to devise their own taxonomy.

After ‘Theory’ comes ‘Practice’. Some of the material in this section (such as the chapters on having ideas and the practicalities of writing) is inevitably going to be of more specialised interest – but, even then, it’s not unengaging. The rest will surely get any reader thinking anew about characterisation, narration, and how sentences work. Thomas is an excellent guide through her examples, drawing on classic and contemporary texts alike (from Anna Karenina and Middlemarch to The God of Small Things and number9dream). For her, it’s not about one size fitting all, but about whatever works in context. And this section might well cause you to add one or two books to your to-read list; it only took Thomas to quote one short sentence (‘The lawn was white with doctors’) to convince me I ought to read The Bell Jar.

Whether you want to write or not, Monkeys with Typewriters is the kind of book that renews your enthusiasm for reading in general, a book that believes – and encourages its readers to believe – that great fiction matters. Thomas ends her book with a checklist of key questions for writers. The last one is: ‘If the only copy of my novel was stranded on the top of a mountain, would I go up to rescue it?’ Perhaps the key message of Monkeys with Typewriters is that the only fiction worth writing – and reading – is the sort for which you would head up that mountain. And I’d say a book which argues that is one worth reading.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe (2010)

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.

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