Sunday July 25, 2010
The pull of life
Review by SUBASHINI NAVARATNAM
OUR TRAGIC UNIVERSE
By Scarlett Thomas
Publisher: Canongate, 425 pages
IN the interest of a full disclosure, it’s probably best to say that I’ve had a crush on Scarlett Thomas since I first read PopCo.
That sprawling book on consumerism, branding, cryptography, pirate treasure maps, food politics and homeopathy struck a chord with me – but more than that, it fascinated me. Very little contemporary fiction does, these days. Yet it’s utterly possible to tell of some mundane part of a person’s experience while connecting it to the larger world – the absurd, messy, often irrational world of contradictions and paradoxes.
And that’s exactly what Thomas tries to do in her most recent book. Unlike her other books, Our Tragic Universe begins languidly; reading it is a little like taking the long scenic route to a countryside cottage instead of the path carved out by the regulars.
Despite that, the narrative tone – set largely by Meg, an underachieving and personally-floundering ghost-writer and book reviewer – is subtly magnetic. There’s always a current of throbbing energy underlying even Meg’s most blasé observations.
When we meet her, she’s perplexed about life and stuck in an agonisingly painful relationship with the beautiful, sexy and completely moronic Christopher. This is the kind of guy who doesn’t participate in life, because to him all of life is one long line of consumer horse-crap that is beyond the realm of anything meaningful.
The central idea underlying this book is that of narrative. What kind of narrative is central to life and/or imagination, and which type of narrative is authentic? Is narrative willed by the person telling the story to give the author and the reader a sense of control, and is this how we approach our lives?
Meg writes formulaic potboilers for a living under someone else’s name, but she longs to work on what she, and others, call her “real novel”. At the same time, she teaches “writing retreats” for other up-and-coming ghostwriters, and through this device, the reader is treated to her meandering and immensely gratifying musings on Aristotle’s Poetics, Baudrillard, and Chekhov and Tolstoy’s literary theories.
In contemplating her relationship with Christopher, Meg wonders why every second of their time together is characterised by her need to get away from him. She thinks: “Then I would start coughing, because of the damp in the house, and my lungs would put themselves in Safe Mode until I could go outside again. I’d never directly told Christopher that the damp in the house made my asthma worse, thinking only an idiot wouldn’t be able to see that.
“This was a bit passive-aggressive, of course, as was the way I hammed up my coughing when we were arguing. Sometimes I dredged up stuff from my lungs that felt as if it had been there since the beginning of time.”
From Agatha Christie to Anna Karenina to the Cottingley fairies, from Fred Hoyle to tarot and poltergeists and superheroes and the Beast of Dartmoor, there’s no single reason not to turn the page of the book and keep reading, even though it’s clear that one’s not in a traditional story of beginning, middle, and end. Thomas’ gift, and this is particularly true in Our Tragic Universe – is to take what seems airy-fairy or New-Agey and turn it into ideas worth thinking about.
As an author she’s always thinking about everything and the reader can’t help but ponder along with her the meaning of tarot-card reading and its relationship to archetypes, or consider for a moment that maybe feng shui practitioners, even those greedy for money, have as their basis the principle of qi (energy) that might have some truth to it, especially since no one knows the truth.
It may not be everyone’s cup of herbal fair-trade tea, but I’ll try to foist Our Tragic Universe (and by extension, her previous two “idea” books, PopCo and The End of Mr. Y) on anyone who sits still long enough to listen to me gush about it. It’s important that people are aware that fiction like this exists – fiction that embraces thinking as the default mode of being rather than an elitist exception to the rule.