Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas, Canongate £14.99 428 pages, FT Bookshop price: £11.99
A storyless story: it’s a concept that will sound as unappetising to red-blooded fiction-lovers as a beefless burger. But there is a character in Scarlett Thomas’s new novel, an anthropologist called Vi, who quotes endlessly the examples she has picked up on her eastern travels.
In the western literary tradition, she says, our stories all follow the tired formula of the hero overcoming an obstacle; as Aristophanes said of Euripides’ plays, they might just as well be about somebody losing and then finding a bottle of oil. Their simplistic concepts of heroes and villains are invoked by western governments to justify colonial ambition. Better the freshness and mystery of Zen stories, each “like an absurdist poem with no conflict and no resolution” containing “the subtle rejection of story within its own structure”.
Our Tragic Universe is a novel whose characters spend a lot of time theorising at each other. But although it is episodic and discursive, it is not itself a storyless story; many bottles of oil are lost, even if they are not all recovered.
Meg, the narrator, is a prolific churner-out of pseudonymous genre potboilers – sci-fi and crime. She longs to break free of the confines of literary convention and decides to devote her time to writing a novel which will be her own take on the storyless story. She goes from Stephen King-like levels of productivity to agonising Beckett-like slowness: “My word-count for the novel was now 43, and I felt like I’d just had an enema.”
Meg lives in a decrepit house in Dartmouth in Devon with a dog who eats the books she’s sent to review and a moody boyfriend, Christopher. When he wants to make love to her she feels like somebody is “offering me sand to eat, or sea to drink”; she really wants Rowan, a well-preserved sexagenarian historian she meets regularly at the library. The problem is that life, like her novels, is not storyless enough; she knows that if they got together people would cast him in the familiar narrative as the old perv who trades his wife in for a younger model, so for his sake she doesn’t pursue him.
It is hard not to see part of Thomas’s own career reflected in Meg’s attempts to do something different. Her own first three novels, published in the late 1990s, were crime stories featuring a sleuthing Eng Lit lecturer. Though they were hardly conventional, she now dismisses them as “inauthentic claptrap”. She found her voice with PopCo (2004), which audaciously combined anti-capitalist satire with an adventure story about missing pirate treasure.
Her biggest success has been The End of Mr. Y (2007) in which a PhD student finds a formula in an old book that enables her to enter into the minds of other people and even animals. A literary novel that included imaginative flights of fantasy and uncompromising disquisitions on theoretical physics, it probably induced an apoplectic fit in the editor who had once prescribed “rules” for Thomas to follow when she started to write fiction.
There are fantastic elements in Our Tragic Universe, although in comparison with Mr. Y they are low-key and ambiguous. Meg has a go at cosmic ordering for the purpose of writing a debunking article and is amazed to find that it apparently brings her good fortune, including a cash windfall. (She celebrates by using two teabags instead of the usual one to make tea for herself and Christopher; the unromanticness of writerly poverty is one of Thomas’s regular themes). But before Noel Edmonds rushes to endorse the novel, I should add that cosmic ordering turns out to have its downside, as Meg accidentally conjures up a mysterious “Beast of Dartmoor” that terrorises the locals.
But this is primarily a realistic novel with convincing insights into the complexities of human relations, threaded with scientific and philosophical speculation that is always riveting. Thomas can cite pop culture as ingeniously as she can Einstein. What other serious British novelist would underline a point about the essential inadequacy of human beings’ understanding of the concept of time with a reference to the giant-clock-bedecked rapper Flavor Flav?
Thomas writes pellucid prose and she evokes Dartmouth beautifully. Her use of metaphor does not seem quite as fresh and startling as in previous books (as when the narrator of Mr. Y says that her arms are so tired that she feels “like I’d been wanking off a giant for a hundred years”) but she shows no real sign of lapsing into predictability in this move to an apparently more conventional type of novel. Thomas has the mesmerising power of a great storyteller – even if you’re not always sure whether what she’s telling you is exactly a story.