Our Tragic Universe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Just like the real thing, Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe contains multitudes. Its heroine, Meg Carpenter, is struggling with writer’s block, broke, no longer in love with her boyfriend and enamored of an older man who lives with someone else, and generally at the mercy of a whole lot of big ideas that threaten to wear her down faster than they inspire her.
On the earthly plane, Meg’s life is depressing but utterly familiar. She lives with her dog, Bess, and the handsome, depressed Christopher in a damp flat in Dartmouth, earning a precarious income from popular science book reviews, ghostwritten YA thrillers and a formulaic science fiction series. Grappling with her “real” book, she writes and deletes endlessly.
Part of Meg’s problem is that her putative main character is as glum as she is. She contemplates a project that “would enable my protagonist to do things she wouldn’t normally do, which would be good. Lately I couldn’t motivate her to even go out of the house.” But even more, Meg is mired in possibility. In a way, she exemplifies the dilemma of the Google age: too much information about too much stuff. For one thing, a mysterious galley has appeared in her pile of review books: The Science of Living Forever, by one Kelsey Newman. According to Newman, when the finite universe ends we will all be resurrected as immortal beings into a man-made state called the Omega Point. In the meantime, Newman says, we are all living in a sort of staging area called the Second World, where there are quests we cycle through endlessly in order to prove our worth.
Along with long walks with the dog pondering the potentialities of the Omega Point, Meg’s life is loaded with late night discussions about Zen koans, Baudrillard, Plato, cultural premonitions, Chekhov vs. Tolstoy, the placebo effect, cosmic ordering, and the elusive theory of the “storyless story”—a new, unfettered kind of antiformulaic narrative—and I’m just cherrypicking here. There’s an awful lot of data bouncing around her universe, tragic or not.
If, as Meg asserts, “We only need fiction because we die,” then what is the point of writing a novel if we’re all actually immortal? “In Newman’s never-ending universe there’d be time to write an infinite amount of novels, and even finish reading all the books I’d ever begun, and all the books I’d never begun. But who’d care about fiction any more?”
It’s a bit of a dangerous question for a book to ask. If this one were as compelling as its individual ideas, it could take on the challenge. But as a novel—for as hard as it flirts with metafiction, this is at heart a very storied story—it has trouble holding together. And the fault, unfortunately, is with all these great notions. They overflow the confines of the narrative, and the reader finds herself not just talked to, but talked at. Thomas launches into Newman’s Omega Point theories in the first few pages, before we’ve had a chance to orient ourselves, and this happens throughout the book: Someone or other goes off on a discourse about something that’s usually quite fascinating and erudite, but it slows the metabolism of the story to a grinding creep. Christopher’s brother, Josh, has a wonderful theory of how personality types are like the periodic table of the elements, but to stop and listen to it is like having to spend half an hour listening to a friend’s stoned roommate.
There are also random characters and story lines that go nowhere sprinkled liberally throughout: poltergeists, a mysterious fortune-telling man who lives in the woods, a ship in a bottle, an enormous beast haunting the moors. Thomas is careful to point out their reflexivity:
Aristotle said that using a random object to motivate action or force a recognition was lazy plotting, and I agreed. My plotting was definitely not lazy, just ineffective. I wondered if everything that everyone wanted was a MacGuffin, but the thought was so depressing I abandoned it.
But conscious or not, all this overthinking weighs down what is otherwise a good story. Meg is likable, and we want to see her pick her feet out of the muck of ideas and move. In fact, she does just this. While researching an article on New Age self-help books, she takes a page from a The Secret-like tract and makes a pitch to the universe for herself:
“Money.” I breathed in deeply and felt an asthmatic crackle in my lungs. “You know what?” I said, and coughed. “I also want to move out of this damp, crappy house, and I want Christopher to start taking an interest in me, and I want some passion in my life. I want to know how to write my novel. Oh, and I’d quite like the ability to knit socks.”
We are, of course, in on the irony when she does get what she wants. But we were rooting for her already.
One of my favorite things in Our Tragic Universe was, oddly enough, Meg’s relationship with her dog. It’s not as common as you would think, a novelist who can write a dog as an actual character, neither anthropomorphized nor romanticized, and not the hero—which exponentially increases its chances of not dying at the book’s end. Obviously this is a dog lover’s issue, and not of importance to everyone. Still, inclusiveness is always good. And I say that with all seriousness—a skilled writer should be able to convince us of all sorts of love. Ultimately that was what won me over to the book: the genuine affection Scarlett Thomas has for Meg and that Meg has for her circle of friends. She goes out of her way to rescue the hapless OCD-suffering Josh from a gift shop where he’s trapped by a rack of birthday cards displaying “bad numbers,” quarrels and gratefully makes up with her friend and mentor Vi, and carries an intense but sweetly understated flame for the scientist Rowan. The novel is shot through with threads of real emotion that belie its hyper-cerebral nature. And in the end, more than all the cosmic theories and crazy science and philosophy, that was what persisted. With all the overload we suffer these days, maybe that’s the echo of our tragic universe we most need to take away.