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Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas*

*If you think publishing talk is boring and awful, please skip the first paragraph.

You know what I find unfair, as I become increasingly more aware of the effects of packaging and marketing on book buying patterns? That the most beautifully tricked out books are often the most disappointing. I reserved Our Tragic Universe at my local Borders, so I hadn't seen it yet when I went up to the counter to pay for it. Turns out, it's totally gorgeous. First of all, it's hardcover; I might be wrong about this, but I think this is the first time that Thomas has been published in hardcover here. Second of all, it's got a totally bizarre trim size: 9.2 x 5.7, which is dork talk for tall and skinny (usually, hardcovers are 9.2-ish x 6.5-ish). Third of all, it's shiny--what we in the industry call "foiled"--and, also, what we in the industry call "paper over board", meaning that the cover is printed on glossy paper stock which is then wrapped around the hardcover; basically, there is no jacket. AND, the paper edges are black! It's like the Lamborghini of book packages--really nice, very expensive.

So, obviously Thomas' US publisher is finally showing a little faith, which is great. I mean, you know how much I loved The End of Mr. Y. It's a completely brilliant novel. And Our Tragic Universe is...good. It's okay. It's not great, and here's why: There's no story. I've recently tried to write my reviews as if I know the author is going to see it, because very often authors do see reviews (Google Alerts are very addictive) and I try to read the review again before posting through the author's eyes and guess what they're going to say in response to it. This is a long way of saying, I'm sure Scarlett Thomas, if she's reading this, is like, "DUH THAT IS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE BOOK." And I know I'm getting ahead of myself here, believe me. And, sorry about that.

Let's back up. The protagonist of Our Tragic Universe, Meg Carpenter, is a writer. Ostensibly. Or at least that's what she seems to think. She publishes crass, commercial fiction for teens under the collective pseudonym Zeb Ross, and used to have a series of sci-fi novels called Newtopia, about people who live second lives in the collective unconscious (a nod to Mr. Y, I'm sure). But her literary novel, her life's great work, has gone through so many drafts and versions and titles that it's less a novel and more a perpetual vanity project of infinite variation.

Meg has a couple of problems besides her writer's block: her boyfriend, Christopher, is THE WORST, a whiny, lazy, practically neutered male who Meg obviously hates but with whom she stays despite the fact that he contributes nothing to her life except excessive amounts of unnecessary guilt; she's basically in love with this guy, Rowan, who is much much older than her and married (in essence); her friend, Libby, is cheating on her husband; and her other friend, Vi, isn't speaking to her. And I guess all of these situations do come to logical, satisfactory conclusions by the end of the book, so to say that there's no change is incorrect.

But the novel is, in essence, a series of long, philosophical conversations about a variety of topics ranging from religion to physics to the end of the world to mortality to knitting to writing and storytelling. There's a lot of discussion of zen koans; a koan, according to Wikipedia, is "a story, dialogue, question, or statement, the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition." Or, as Vi puts it, a "storyless story."

Now, I know that koans are useful and important philosophically and in many cases religiously or metaphysically for many people, and I don't want to bag on anyone's thing, but "storyless story" has got to be the worst phrase in the universe to me, and Our Tragic Universe is one big storyless story experiment. It's a testament to Thomas' pitch-perfect, always engaging, intellectually stimulating but not over-rigorous writing that I was able to finish the book in only a few days despite not being overly invested in what happened to any of her characters. But I wanted so much more from the book.

Because yes, I know, life is not a Zeb Ross novel. And if Thomas wanted to accurately depict a period of time in the life of a small group of people in a small geographical area, she did a great job. It all seemed very real and very familiar. But it wasn't compelling in the way Mr. Y or PopCo--which were not without their philosophical discussions and intellectual debates, by a long shot--are compelling. I didn't latch on to any of it. Truthfully, the parts I thought were the most interesting were the parts where Meg was talking about her career part of the Zeb Ross machine, because I have Opinions about packaged books and that was something I could really engage with. Otherwise, I was like, yeah. Okay. Sure. But so what?

OMG I just blew my own mind right there. It wasn't until I typed the words "But so what?" that I realized that that is my real problem with it. SO WHAT? Sure, life is like that, but SO FUCKING WHAT? I knew that already. I always expect Thomas to teach me something, and this time the only thing I learned is that lives like my own are boring and probably not ripe material for a novel of any kind. I wanted so badly to love Our Tragic Universe, and I fully accept that Scarlett Thomas is crazy smart, way smarter than I am, and the book is probably doing multiple levels of work that I didn't even pick up on, and that's all great. But at the end of the day, a novel is a storytelling vehicle; that is its purpose, its reason for being. And a novel that is, in essence, an attempt to write "a storyless story" is not doing its job.

But seriously, read PopCo, or The End of Mr. Y. Totally brilliant, the both of them.

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  1. Blogger qualler | 10:57 AM |  

    Nice review, OHD. I would like to check out those two other books. Sounds like Thomas got a little self-indulgent with this one.

    I do really like slightly-different-than-usually packaged books though, at least how they feel. Like, one that I read called "The Tenth Justice" that was like a "cooler" John Grisham, with a totally edgy cover featuring young people in business suits set to some dark, L&O:SVU lighting, and those page edges that look like they're all ripped. Totally badass. Too bad I don't remember anything that happened in the book!

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