Canongate £14.99 425pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Our Tragic Universe, By Scarlett Thomas
Friday 09 July 2010
This is Scarlett Thomas's eighth novel, but the first I have read. I feel like someone who's only just been invited to the latest in a series of dinner parties that people have been raving about for years. Will I fit in? Will I join the chorus of enthusiasm? Will I – like narrator, novelist and book reviewer Meg – get away with writing a first-person review?
Meg lives in Dartmouth and writes formulaic genre novels as Zeb Ross, a multi-author byline. She runs retreats for other writers hoping to contribute to the franchise, but is stuck on her mainstream novel. She is equally stuck in a failing relationship with grumpy Christopher, who nags and moans and occasionally acknowledges he's being a dick and begs for forgiveness.
Meg is forgiving, up to a point, but also has a bit of a secret thing for Rowan, older and unavailable. Her most rewarding relationships are with Bess, whom she walks on Slapton Sands, and friend Libby. She also gets on well with the literary editor of a broadsheet who sends her books to review, among them a self-help/popular science title by Kelsey Newman.
Newman's book describes a post-universe in which mortals have a crack at resurrection. The "science" is beyond me – with its baffling Omega Point – but Meg seems to get it and files her chatty piece only to discover that the book was not the one she was supposed to review. But, still, her editor commissions a big feature on the strength of it, which in turn leads to a column.
Meg describes her mind as being like "a fishing net with too many thoughts wriggling around in it". The first 100 pages or so feel like that to me. There are too many thoughts, too many characters, too many long anecdotes and transcribed jokes and philosophical discussions. To be fair, I think this is deliberate. 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.
The reader gets a sense of eddies of intense activity in a slowly flowing river. For there is a story that emerges more clearly as you become accustomed to the ambitious narrative approach. A minor character's quest for the elusive Beast of Dartmoor is quietly erected as scaffolding for the plot, while the mythical animal remains a MacGuffin, playfully signalled by the pints of Beast that Meg drinks through a straw. But the real story is Meg's. Will she get it together with Rowan? Will she ever write her novel?
There are some wonderful observations. Nine fish lie on a worktop: "Their eyes bulged, and they each looked as if they'd been just about to say something important when they were caught." And the way Thomas catches the nuances in the escalation of a row is second to none. If the incidental detail seems overwhelming, I'm tempted to put it down to verisimilitude. Late on we meet a character called Conrad, "Lise's brother... Had I known that and forgotten it? I didn't think so." Had I known that and forgotten it? Quite possibly.
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