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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Our Tragic Universe

by
Scarlett Thomas


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Our Tragic Universe



Title: Our Tragic Universe
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 425 pages
Availability: Our Tragic Universe - US
Our Tragic Universe - UK
Our Tragic Universe - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing mix of realism and theory, though rather meandering

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly C 25/8/2010 Keith Staskiewicz
Financial Times . 10/5/2010 Jake Kerridge
The Guardian A 15/5/2010 Patrick Ness
The Independent . 9/7/2010 Nicholas Royle
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/9/2010 Dave Itzkoff
The Observer B 9/5/2010 Alice Fisher
The Scotsman B+ 17/5/2010 Tom Adair
TLS . 23/7/2010 Lucy Dallas


  Review Consensus:

  Quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Thomas has loaded down her talky metaphysical mystery with lengthy regurgitations of literary, existential, and historical theory, but Our Tragic Universe is less a unified whole than a jumbled yard sale of ideas" - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "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. (...) 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." - Jake Kerridge, Financial Times

  • "(H)ow unexpectedly wonderful to read Scarlett Thomas's Our Tragic Universe, a book that brims with compassion and warmth. I agreed with practically none of its arguments, but I was still happy to spend time debating with its characters, who are just like the exasperating, good-hearted real people you'd call your friends. (...) Much of the book is devoted to discussion and debate, in particular Meg's struggle to write a novel outside the confines of traditional narrative. She constantly argues with friends about the purported evil of strict narrative conventions, particularly within genre, versus the primacy of the "storyless story" and the "historyless history", a conflict that Thomas -- a writer of mysteries before the bestselling The End of Mr Y -- has no doubt experienced." - Patrick Ness, The Guardian

  • "If the novel is about anything, other than relationships, knitting socks and an addiction to tangerines, it's about stories, modes and strategies of narrative, the apparent quest for a storyless story." - Nicholas Royle, The Independent

  • "So how is it that this lively and thoughtful book possesses all the requisite elements of the thing it wants to be, and is so self-aware of what its components should be, yet lacks the essential spark that would make it a satisfying work of literature ?" - Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It's an admirable exercise, but it does expose one of Thomas's weaknesses. Because her books address big ideas, her characters tend to sit around and have contrived conversations about theories. Mr Y wore this well as the novel was, at heart, a thriller and readers are used to expositional dialogue in genre fiction. The characters in Our Tragic Universe talk a lot and do little. The insistence that what we are reading is story-less also makes it hard to care, even when Thomas throws in a suicide or a poltergeist. She's already made it clear that nothing will be resolved; at best, there'll a long debate. (...) Our Tragic Universe is an accomplished novel, but how much you enjoy it depends on whether you like a journey or prefer the satisfaction of reaching a destination." - Alice Fisher, The Observer

  • "Our Tragic Universe is underlyingly mocking, satirical, funny and rebellious. It doesn't completely take itself seriously, but it lacks the suspense of The End of Mr Y." - Tom Adair, The Scotsman

  • "Scarlett Thomas sets out her stall early in Our Tragic Universe, and we are in no doubt that big questions will be discussed. One of the successes of the novel is that it does not deal with these issues in a heavy-handed way." - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Our Tragic Universe is narrated by Meg, a budding author who got a contract to write a "groundbreaking, literary, serious debut novel" but has since managed to spend most of the past eleven years churning out genre fiction (thrillers aimed at teenagers, as one of the authors behind 'Zeb Ross', as well as some science fiction under her own name). She's lived with the same hopeless boyfriend, Christopher, -- and her dog, B -- in Dartmouth, Devonshire, for ages now, barely scraping by. Among her other sources of (minimal) income is that she reviews books, but she's just reviewed one that got mixed up with the one her editor actually sent -- i.e. the wrong one -- and so things don't seem to be going particularly well when she starts her account.
       Our Tragic Universe isn't solely about Meg trying to write her novel, but it's one of her constant struggles and preoccupations. She deletes far more than she writes -- she's down to 43 words at one point in this account --; indeed, she often seems to be moving backward:

My novel, my bloody albatross, The Death of the Author, deliberately had no such symmetry, and I was constantly in turmoil because one minute it would have too much narrative: people desperately in love, or waking up from their comas, or lying in ditches contemplating great life changes and so on -- just like a formulaic genre novel -- then I'd fiddle with it and it would die: a species extinct before it has even begun.
       Meg also leads twice-a-year writers' retreats for the ghost writers for her publisher, which provide yet another arena where she can expound her theories on narrative and story-telling, and many of these come up over the course of this account: there's lots of discussion (and thought) about the difficulties of story-telling, especially telling stories in new and effective ways. There are many Zen koans and anecdotes and jokes, and loads of examples; meanwhile, there's also real life, which is just as confounding and difficult to approach. Meg is drawn to another man, and she's not the only one who is having difficulties in a long-term relationship; age-differences are just one of the issues here. Why she's stuck it out with Christopher so long -- he's a needy, overly emotional loser -- is baffling, but at least in this regard she's able to make a move in the right direction.
       Reviewing the wrong book turns out not to have worked out so badly after all. If not a path to success, it does make for more opportunities. Of course, Meg also benefits from the fact that one of her books gets optioned for TV and she finally finds a decent amount of cash in her bank account.
       Our Tragic Universe is a story of moving (or inching) forward and getting new bearings; a new chapter in life, though not nearly as dramatically as genre fiction would plot it. Meg is always so focused on reassessing how she sees and interprets the world that actual change seems to come hard to her. She's certainly in a rut as far as her relationship goes, and her obsessions similarly undermine her efforts to write her serious novel: to say she overthinks it would be a great understatement. On the other hand, she manages quite fine on some levels: she gets her reviews done (usually of the right book ...) and is successful as a genre-author (and retreat-leader). And there's always B to keep her company -- much better (and more attentive and understanding) company than Christopher, certainly.
       Thomas packs a lot in to her novel, which meanders easily along with many of her other favored pre-occupations, from theories of the universe to New Age-ish philosophy, homoeopathy, and knitting. Meg complains: "Sometimes I wish life could be more storyless", but Thomas is never willing to entirely suck the story out of her narratives -- at best Meg is allowed to consider it (and the consequences) in regards to her own book. What's particularly striking is how broad Thomas' aim is: much here is deliberately (almost terribly) mundane, in contrast to the theories-of-the-universe that are also suggested and discussed; similarly, her theories of fiction range from the worth of plain, good narrative (even if there are only seven basic variations to everything) to the entirely abstract (as Meg's book remains -- quite literally, for much of the time -- more figment of her imagination than real).
       Thomas does the pieces well, and many of the bits -- from the thought-experiments to the jokes -- are very clever. The local lives and relationship-issues are interesting enough, for the most part, but in this and all the other regards Our Tragic Universe rather putters along for most of the way. One of Meg's friends observes: "The storyless story is a vagina with teeth"; Our Tragic Universe is far from being entirely storyless, but it could still have used a bit more bite.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2010

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Links:

Our Tragic Universe: Reviews: Scarlett Thomas: Other books by Scarlett Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Scarlett Thomas was born in 1972.

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© 2010 the complete review

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