Our Tragic Universe

I don’t know what to make of Scarlett Thomas’s writing. I liked, but also felt ambivalent about, but at the same time have fond memories of, her novel PopCo. Our Tragic Universe is evoking much the same response, although I had more doubts as I was reading it than I had while reading her earlier book. I often found myself shaking my head over the awkwardness of the writing and the structure, and I seriously considered putting the book down at around page 50. I’m glad I kept reading (this is why I hesitate to put books down — because I do sometimes change my mind!), but I have to conclude that either Thomas is an awful stylist or she doesn’t care about style and is going for something else. I think the latter is true, but the awkward moments do get painful.

For the first 100 pages or so I got annoyed at the way she would move into lengthy passages of back story without giving you enough of a reason to think the back story matters. I found myself wanting to skim these sections. I don’t know how writers do it, exactly, but somehow it seems that if you want to leave the main narrative to move back in time or to tell someone else’s story or explain something or whatever, you need to make the reader see why it’s important and make the reader willing to go there. Instead I thought, okay, when are we getting back to the main story?! I’m bored, and I don’t get what’s going on here! Starting on page five, which is actually the third page of the book, we get a two-page description of a bizarre science book the main character is reading, and it’s unclear why that description is there. It turns out that the book is important to Thomas’s story, but there’s no way to know that at the time, and when I read it, I had no idea why some kooky author’s bizarre theories about the end of the world mattered to the plot. I know getting information across to the reader in a natural, graceful way is difficult, but surely an established literary novelist could do better than this?

And yet I did end up enjoying the book. I became fond of the main character, and I loved the long conversations the characters have where they talk about crazy scientific ideas or the end of the world or how stories work. I love the fact that the main character is a writer who is struggling to figure out how to make the switch from writing genre fiction, which she can do easily, to writing literary fiction, at which she is stalled. She spends a lot of time thinking about differences between the two and why those differences matter and those ideas are great.

But, my god, the dialogue is so awkward! The characters lecture to each other, going on for pages sometimes in a completely unrealistic way. And I was unsure of Thomas’s use of first person. The main character, Meg, tells the story, and is self-aware to a certain extent, or at least her voice is calm and thoughtful, but the boyfriend with whom she is living is clearly depressed and his behavior toward her is emotionally abusive. I found it frustrating and hard to believe that she hadn’t left him a long time ago. She is depressed herself, but I couldn’t quite reconcile her actions with the intelligence and insight of her voice.

I’ve spent most of this post telling you the problems I saw with the book, but the truth is that it won me over, and once it did, I became interested in the question of why I liked it when it’s obviously so flawed. I guess I’m intrigued by the idea that Thomas isn’t interested in trying to follow what we might think of as the rules of good fiction (realistic dialogue, coherent structure, convincing characters). She’s most interested in the ideas the book explores, and since the book explores the question of what fiction is and what its effects are, it’s fitting that she gets a little experimental.

I’ve hardly told you what the book is about, I see. Perhaps I’ll do that in another post.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “Our Tragic Universe

  1. Ha, that description of the wacky science book actually went a long way to getting me intrigued about this book! Cortázar’s Rayuela and Bolaño’s 2666 both involve compulsively lengthy discussions of crackpot faux-textbooks that are not obviously relevant to the plot, and both were high points of those novels…maybe this would be the same for me. Although, hopefully not I suppose, because that would mean the high point was over at page 5. In any case, I’ll definitely pick this up and read a few pages if I see it in a bookstore—your post has made me so curious about this combination of compelling yet extremely awkward!

  2. Matthew

    I found The End of Mr. Y the most readable of her work. I found that the others–even the mystery novels–delve into abstractions in detail so as to overwhelm the reader. Your point about her not first showing the readers why we should invest is the key to the challenge I have. My sense is that she cares about ideas, and that the novel exists to share those ideas–and that plot and character are subservient to, rather than informed by, the guiding ideas of a given novel.

  3. I read Thomas’s The End of Mr Y a few years ago and had the same sort of reaction that you’ve had to her other books – I loved it, but at the same time I could see its flaws very clearly. Mr Y also contains some amazing ideas, and Thomas goes off on lots of tangents. I have PopCo and Our Tragic Universe on my shelves waiting to be read. I’m looking forward to them.

  4. I know this isn’t a novel I would rush to pick up (I’ve considered her novels in book stores before and alway moved away in the end), but I’m very interested indeed in your thoughts about the way it hooked you, despite the ropiness of the writing. I do love the idea of a novel discussing the differences between genre and literary fiction – how cool! But poor dialogue would definitely get me down. What we need is a well-written book that considered the ideas of this one!

  5. I’m with Emily, your description of the science book intrigued me! I just may have to read this sometime. I am curious to know more about what made you decide to like the book in spite of all that you didn’t like.

  6. I’ll be honest… I don’t really care what the book is about. I know it’s my own weird insanity, but I rather prefer knowing that the dialogue in the book is really awkward or that Thomas doesn’t know how to style novels very well. Even though it seems like Thomas’ novels are enjoyable, those two points may be reason enough for me to avoid them… regardless the stories they may tell. Then again, the concepts of originality and idea are also pretty good reasons to take a stab at a book. Either way, though, it won’t be the story itself that will decide whether or not I read the book, but rather the factors mentioned here…

  7. Pingback: Our Tragic Universe, continued | Of Books and Bicycles

  8. Emily — I’d love to know what you think! The wacky science book is important to the entire novel, so the fun wouldn’t be over just at page 5 :) I’m intrigued by the Cortazar and Bolano now!

    Matthew — she wrote mystery novels? I’ll have to look into that. Fundamentally I agree with you about the problem with her books. But at the same time I’m a little stubbornly fond of them! Maybe I just like idea-driven novels so much that I’m willing to cut a lot of slack to someone who is so obvious about it.

    Karen — Mr. Y is definitely next on my list. I’m intrigued to see what she will do next! I’ll expect much the same thing in Mr. Y — it’s good to know this seems to be her standard procedure.

    Litlove — yes, a good with more natural dialogue that explores this book’s ideas would be great. I think you would like the discussions of stories very much, but I’m not sure if the dialogue and other problems would be too much of a problem. This isn’t exactly a book I’d recommend (although I have recommended PopCo).

    Stefanie — I tried to write more today about what made me like it. And if the science book intrigues you, I’d definitely suggest you check out the novel because there’s lots of wacky stuff in it!

    Biblibio — I tried to write about the ideas more in today’s post. But if awkward dialogue and structure are deal-breakers, then this isn’t the book for you! To really enjoy this one, I think you need to be willing to let some things slide.

  9. This was my first introduction to Scarlett Thomas, and at first I really didn’t know what to do with it. I really liked the ideas that she posed in her book, but I agree that as a novel, Our Tragic Universe just isn’t fully successful. That said, this is one of those books that grew on me after I finished it, and I found myself thinking about it A LOT, and I know I will need to re-read it. I did read The End of Mr. Y, which is definitely more conventional in its format, though perhaps still has the issue of people speaking in a way that is not exactly organic/realistic.

  10. I tend to get fidgity in books when I’m not sure where an author is taking a story, so I’m not surprised you felt like setting it aside. I’m still very curious about her and PopCo was one of the three books that remained in my pile this morning as I returned almost all my library books (am feeling overwhelmed and need to stop requesting everything that sounds good…).

  11. Steph — The End of Mr. Y is definitely on my list to read. I agree with you about how the book stays with you and makes you think a lot about it. Obviously it stuck with me enough to write two posts! I’m not sure about rereading it, but perhaps …

    Danielle — I think PopCo doesn’t have the same problem of wandering around in its subject; it’s longish, but it’s more focused than Our Tragic Universe. I agree about the fidgitiness — I get impatient too when it takes a while to settle into a book.

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