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May 3, 2013 / ljbradburn-Smith

Thomas’ Tragic Universe


Scarlett Thomas’s novels make me feel like I’m back at university, sitting in a seminar, discussing books. I love her for being able to recreate this atmosphere, that I was happiest in, so it didn’t surprise me to learn that she teaches creative writing at the University of Kent. I can well imagine her lucky pupils starting at her in awe (don’t tell me if this isn’t actually the case as I like to imagine it is. This may be due to my retrospective, romanticized view of university as the beautiful, fulfilling place that let me read all day long as opposed to my now ‘real’ job that doesn’t). I can imagine that it would be fantastic to be taught by such an innovative author with really interesting ideas about the world.

Thomas has an obvious passion for literature and this shines through in Our Tragic Universe, with her protagonist, Meg, a struggling author, who writes for a newspaper and teaches retreats on ghost writing for a fictional author, Zeb Ross. However, despite her knowledge of typical plot structures and fiction, her own novel has been started and deleted more times than she can remember, as she searches for THE perfect idea. I can certainly identify with this aspect of writing, I have had plenty of ideas but none of them feel good enough and I’m forever waiting for that perfect one to wander along.

In this novel, Meg’s writing habits appear to reflect her life and ideals, or is it her life that reflects her writing habits? – she wants a fresh start so she deletes her book, She chases seemingly unattainable partners just as she chases her illusion of the one perfect idea and she reasons away the supernatural just as her ghost writing focuses on “making sense of things for teenagers”, by normalising the potentially unusual.

Through her theory-heavy novel, Scarlett explores the idea of the storyless story, the story without a ‘moral centre’ or real conclusions, and for a large part this is what Our Tragic Universe is. Scarlett focuses so much on the exploration of theory and literary devices that her plot and characters seem to get lost in a sea of intense discussions and big ideas. At first, the ending of the novel didn’t quite tie everything up as I would have expected. Ironically I found myself nearing the end and wondering when it would all begin, but it never seemed to amount to a climatic event. However, I appreciate the fact that Scarlett can make me feel like this at so many points in one novel, when some novels fail to make me feel like this once. As is Scarlett’s style though, the ending deserved a bit more thought than I had initially given it credit for and I found satisfaction in my realisation that Thomas had created her own storyless story, perfectly demonstrating her point that stories shouldn’t tell us how to live but should reflect how we do.

Her imperfect characters, loose ends, situations that had not moved on and moments of describing the mundane mixed in with thought-provoking discussions and theories about literature, the universe and life after death, highlight the fact that life isn’t always exciting (but sometimes it is), some things can’t be neatly tied up and situations, in real life, sometimes remain unresolved/unexplained. More to the point, does the beast exist only in the form in which you create it and not exist if you don’t believe? And, was Rosa really the victim of domestic abuse or of a poltergeist?

There are elements of the supernatural and mysterious in this novel which Scarlett did not bring to a concrete conclusion but did use to cement the idea that things are supernatural because they can’t be conclusively explained, through our normal experiences, and paradoxically require either belief and acceptance or a scientific mind, that places these things into a reality where our minds and/or our senses may have been tricked in some way, therefore rationalising it.

In terms of characterisation I found Thomas’s character Josh, who has OCD, to be quite interesting. OCD is a condition that is often thought of as belonging to a certain type of regimented personality (most people would associate it with fear of dirt/disorganization) but Josh offers a different perspective, on this condition, of a creative-minded person who struggles because he becomes overwhelmed by worry that something will happen to the people he loves. As usual Scarlett looks beyond the stereotypes and delves deeper in to the reasons behind things rather than just accepting them at face value. She is particularly skilled at looking at the inner workings of the mind and intangible theories that puzzle/fascinate it.

On the subject of characterisation, Thomas’ own personality appears to be evident, not just in Meg, but in her other protagonists, from Popco and The End of Mr Y, who are all of similar age, style, taste and level of passion. I recently read another review which criticises Scarlett for this repetition of character traits but I personally enjoy the idea that Scarlett places herself in her stories. Once again this fits in to the idea of the story that escapes modern western structures and reflects life rather than in an invented version of how things should be. I think it is also very difficult to explore such complex ideas, in such depth, as Thomas does without having strong feelings/opinions about them yourself and I think that, like her protagonists, these journeys, towards discovering the secrets of the Universe are ones Thomas has undertaken herself.

I am always left in awe after reading one of Scarlett’s books. I find that I become absorbed, not only by her intelligent, analytical descriptions of literature but by her style of storytelling that always has a hint of the surreal lingering on the pages, just out of grasp. As usual Scarlett leaves me wishing that i was more intelligent and wanting more. Until the next time Miss Thomas!


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