by Scarlett Thomas
To hold this book is a delight. Its black edging and gold embossing made me feel like I was opening a box of treats. And the joy of the novel’s novel appearance never wore off.
The content is just as sparkling. Thomas’ first person narrator, Meg, is witty, intelligent, engaging and ‘real’ (in a Bridget Jones sense). Her voice is strong and consistent throughout the novel, which is refreshing, and I think largely to do with the similarities that seem to exist between Meg and Thomas herself. When basing a fictional character on so much of your own experience, how can the narrative voice fail to be strong and consistent?
Our Tragic Universe is a glimpse into Meg’s life; her relationships, her career, her interests and decisions, her conversations and interactions. Meg isn’t special; her life is fairly ‘run of the mill’. And yet she makes compelling reading because she’s questioning the things around her – her eyes are open and she sees the things around her clearly; the subtleties and nuances in people’s relationships, the existential questions that puzzle us all, and she finds humour in unlikely places. She is seeking out the meaning of life, which is no small challenge, and she finds some intriguing answers.
Our Tragic Universe contains dialogues around narrative, storytelling and meta fiction; a discussion which really appeals to me. Thomas references some of literatures greatest storytellers and philosophers, as well as lesser-known and fictional theorists. The concept of the storyless story is explored in fascinating detail along with the pros and cons of narrative formulae. Thomas tackles the big topics, and intelligently so. I particularly enjoyed the conversations Meg has with her friends on and around these big topics. The sections of the novel where the topics are explored in paragraphs felt a bit draining, and seemed devoid of Meg’s usual wit and spark – as if the novel had turned into a text book.
These more long-winded sections are thankfully drowned out by loads of fun and quirky zen stories and commentaries on the art of storytelling. These stories within stories run parallel with the paths of the characters who are trying to figure out the art of living, loving and succeeding. Thomas therefore manages to weave together an insightful literary commentary and an engaging fictional text with convincing characters and plot.
Our Tragic Universe also features some magic, some mystery and some puzzling philosophy. The novel’s greatest strength is that it appeals to the reader’s intellect, emotion and sense of humour. Thomas has displayed great genre-merging talent, which makes Our Tragic Universe hard to describe but great to read.