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.

Canongate Books


  1. I’m impressed that you gave an author a third chance – not sure I’d do that!

    I loved The End of Mr Y, but haven’t read any of her other books. I hope to read this one in the next week or two. I hope I enjoy it.

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    21st May 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Hi Jackie, thanks for stopping by!

    To be honest, if I hadn’t won a copy of this book in a competition, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it. Now I find myself warming to the idea of reading Mr Y, which I wasn’t previously.

    I couldn’t say whether you’d be likely to enjoy this one or not — it’s definitely an acquired taste.

  3. Yvonne Johnston

    21st May 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Saw this book was out.I haven’t read any of Scarlett Thomas’ early novels. I loved The End of Mr.Y – except for the actual end which I thought was out of keeping with the rest of the novel. I note you haven’t read Mr.Y. It sounds as though Our Tragic Universe is continuing to examine themes from Mr. Y..I look forward to reading it.

  4. I am currently reading ‘Our Tragic Universe’ and I must admit that I keep carrying on reading waiting for something to happen. I understand of course the whole subject of the universe, existence, story-less stories. But why do we have to spend endless hours walking a dog around in the rain while the subject is discussed? In Mr. Y the concepts were illuminated with amazing action and imagery, so I don’t understand all the wandering and dog walking.

  5. David Hebblethwaite

    19th September 2010 at 10:28 pm

    All I can say from the two previous books of Thomas’s that I’ve read is that she does seem to have quite a lot of expository scenes where nothing much happens.

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