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Our Tragic Universe [Hardcover]

Scarlett Thomas
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Sept. 1 2010

Can a story save your life?

Meg Carpenter is broke. Her novel is years overdue. Her cell phone is out of minutes. And her moody boyfriend’s only contribution to the household is his sour attitude. So she jumps at the chance to review a pseudoscientific book that promises life everlasting.

But who wants to live forever?

Consulting cosmology and physics, tarot cards, koans (and riddles and jokes), new-age theories of everything, narrative theory, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and knitting patterns, Meg wends her way through Our Tragic Universe, asking this and many other questions. Does she believe in fairies? In magic? Is she a superbeing? Is she living a storyless story? And what’s the connection between her off-hand suggestion to push a car into a river, a ship in a bottle, a mysterious beast loose on the moor, and the controversial author of The Science of Living Forever?

Smart, entrancing, and boiling over with Thomas’s trademark big ideas, Our Tragic Universe is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, how we can rewrite our futures (if not our histories), and how stories just might save our lives.


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Review

"Few writers can mix science, philosophy, and humor as cleverly as Thomas..." —Library Journal

 A "delightfully whimsical novel"...Thomas "dexterously mixes the serious with the humorous..."
Publishers Weekly

A "freewheeling intellectual journey with no destination. ... For the omnivorous reader who, like Meg, can't get enough of the insights and passions and theories and inner lives of others, Thomas's fifth novel should be an addictive delight." —Kirkus Reviews

"Thomas brilliantly reminds us that, despite popular representations, many women are actually staying up half the night talking ideas. One feels alone. And then one reads Our Tragic Universe." —Jincy Willett, author of Winner of the National Book Award

"A delight, not least for the quality of Scarlett Thomas’s writing, which is full of a very enjoyable life and energy." —Philip Pullman

 "Our Tragic Universe surprised me with where it goes, and in such a terrific way. Scarlett Thomas’s prose is so addictive you can’t help but fall deeper and deeper under her spell. How does she do it? She is a genius." —Douglas Coupland

About the Author

SCARLETT THOMAS is the author of PopCo and The End of Mr. Y. She has been nominated for the Orange Prize and named Writer of the Year by Elle UK, one of the twenty best young writers by the Independent, and one of the Telegraph’s 20 best writers under 40.

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3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad Feb. 9 2013
By DNA
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A few moments of insight and humour are not enough to save this rambling "storyless story"; that's part of Thomas's point, I know, but does it need to be made in >300 pages? Scarlett Thomas is smart and well-read, but her prose is mediocre--and she overuses the past perfect, which is surprising in someone who's published so many novels (it's usually one of the tell-tale marks of a rookie writer).
For a much, much better take on the difficulties of writing a novel, read Lydia Davis's *The End of the Story* instead.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  67 reviews
68 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A nod and a wink Aug. 8 2010
By Bob Nolin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
With a tongue-in-cheek title such as "Our Tragic Universe," you know you're in for something off the beaten path. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is a first-person episodic, mainstream novel. Or is it? Perhaps there's more going on here than meets the eye. For instance, think about this: the protagonist of the story, Meg, sounds an AWFUL lot like the book's author, Scarlett Thomas. They're both writers, teachers, British, mid-thirties, have academic chums...and the book is written in first person. So you keep thinking, hmm, is she talking about herself here? Is this autobiographical? And then there's the conversations throughout about philosophies of writing, about books, about writing a "storyless story" (which makes you think, Hey! This book itself seems to qualify for that. What's going on here?) Normally, I don't enjoy metafictions. But what makes this different from, say, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Everyman's Library (Cloth)), is that you don't feel the author is playing headgames at your expense. She seems to be inviting you to play along with her (perhaps a hint is that early on, Meg tells how she loves solving crossword puzzles--the British kind, of course). Suddenly you realize that you are reading--and enjoying--a non-standard, "storyless" novel. Well, it's episodic. So is Deep in the Shade of Paradise: A Novel, which I highly recommend, but wouldn't categorize as breaking the rules, really. It's just a story about a period in these people's lives, told by one of the people, named Meg. If you don't like Meg or her friends, the lack of plot is going to be a problem for you. And if you aren't well-versed in narrative theory, the whole pseudo-metafictional thing may just be a bore for you. But for me, as it happens, I'm reading up on how to write a novel, so I found these conversations very enjoyable. I've read Frank Tippler, and Rupert Sheldrake. I know about the Omega Point (it's the end of the universe), and morphic resonance (it's your dog knowing when you're about to walk in the door, though I have to say my dog doesn't do that.)

I was puzzled by Meg's relationship with Christopher. She's living for seven years with this loser who treats her with no respect. Abuse, is more like it. And we have no clue until near the end of the book as to why Meg ever took up with this schlmiel (he's angular and sexy, whatever that means). But why does she stay with him? She's a very "together" person, she's making a living as a writer, she's quite an admirable person in some ways. She certainly has a good relationship with her dog. So why does it take her SO LONG to deal with it? Another thing that puzzled me was why everyone in the book was having an affair. Is everyone in Britain morally bankrupt? Or is this just some chicklit convention I'm not aware of? Of relationships and such, Meg is mostly mum. We don't really know, often, what her reaction is to an event, such as her boyfriend saying something abusive. She'll just carry on by taking the dog for a walk, and never mentioning the conversation again, or until later. She withholds her thoughts and feelings at odd times, and tells us the backstories of the other characters in a seemingly haphazard way. But she's such a good writer that I'm sure all of this was done on purpose, and I'm not smart enough to get it. I would've enjoyed the book more had it explored the pseudo-science bits more. It seems to be more than psuedo in the book, and yet in the end, we have a "Zeb Ross" ending, where all is explained rationally away (you'll know what I mean when you read the book) at the end by the scientists.

Thomas makes us think about fiction, and how we wish there were meaning in our lives. That things happen for a reason, and that if you work hard and heroically, you will get the girl and vanquish the dragon. We like to think that the Universe is not just some tragic joke. That all can be fixed and have a happy ending in 22 minutes plus commercials. That there are secret powers we know nothing about, and we're all immortal. That we aren't living the lives we see on television, so we jump from bed to bed looking for the right sitcom to live in. Thomas makes you question the assumptions your life is built upon. There's a lot to think about and enjoy here. I'm glad I got a chance to read this, thanks to the Vine program. Thanks, Amazon!
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for those into philosophy Aug. 21 2010
By Cathe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This was a quirky novel about a woman in a bad relationship writing genre novels when she really wants to write a literary masterpiece. There's a bit of a soap opera with who likes who and who's cheating on who going on with her and her friends, which is kind of fun. I found this novel well-written but didn't really like the way it kept drifting off into philosophical discussions. I'd end up zoning out and then would get back into the book when the actual story continued. I guess I prefer books that keep to story . . . but I liked the writing and characters well enough that I finished the book and found it enjoyable. I think those into philosophy will probably enjoy this book.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected -- not in a bad way Sept. 29 2010
By Scarlett Brontë - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
After reading The End of Mr. Y, I thought this was going to have some science fiction elements and be very plot driven, but it turned out to be something completely different. Odd circumstances were set up, but the story never went where I thought it would.

I was going to describe Our Tragic Universe as a character driven novel, but that doesn't seem right, either. This is something completely different.

The characters in this novel discuss storycrafting quite a bit, and one thing that comes up often is the idea of the storyless story. This sounds like an oxymoron, but it's the best way to describe Our Tragic Universe.

That doesn't mean that nothing happens, but it doesn't follow a regular plot outline. Things do happen in the lives of the characters, but not in the formulaic way that we are accustomed to. The main character doesn't have anything that drives her to act. It's more like things happen and she adapts. When I describe it that way, it sounds really boring, but I wasn't bored. I enjoyed the writing and my curiosity about what was going to happen kept me reading.

I've never read a story like this before. It's worth reading just for its uniqueness. I think this is a book that will be discussed in writing classes, I'm just not sure if it will be received as an example of what to do, or what not to do. Either way, I liked it and feel as though I should read it again now that I know what to expect from this peculiar novel.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars 425 Pages of Storyless Story Sept. 26 2010
By Wilfrid K. F. Wong - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If I could have one opportunity to meet with the author Scarlett Thomas, I would like to ask her why with all these wonderful ingredients and potentials in "Our Tragic Universe", she has chosen to disintegrate them into what appears to me as a storyless story (by her definition and by my observation). One that makes me feel tragic to even finish reading the book. If I could meet with Douglas Coupland who wrote that wonderful piece of praise at the back of the book, I would like to ask him specifically how "Our Tragic Universe" manages to surprise him in a terrific way, why he finds it addictive and thinks that the author is a genius. If I could meet with the one who wrote the synopses of the book, I would like to ask why he or she thinks that "Our Tragic Universe" is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, and how a story might just save our lives. I have devoured the book slowly, from page one to page 425, and I have found none of the above.

Scarlett Thomas is not new to me. I have read some of her previous works before. I had this hope that "Our Tragic Universe" would live it up to my expectation. This book is curiously divided into two parts. In part one, the main character Meg - a book reviewer, a ghost writer, an aspired writer, a lady in her late thirties, a character that at one point I thought Scarlett is Meg - has a rather mundane life that is getting slightly worse. In part two, Meg has a relatively more hopeful life that is getting slightly better. If I may deduce what saves her life (as promised by the synopses), it is money. Or rather the time freed up by not needing to think about making ends meet can be used to do something more interesting. If I may second guess on what the synopses writer means by "Our Tragic Universe" is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, it merely means that if you stuck or think you stuck in a relationship that is going nowhere, break up and start anew. However, I doubt that is what Scarlett Thomas has intended this book to be (and I surely hope not).

"Our Tragic Universe", to me, is an experimental work of writing. A storyless story as defined in page 388 and 389 (and hinted at the very beginning of the story) is as follows.

- [The storyless story] is the subtle rejection of story within its own structure ... It has no moral center. It is not something from which a reader should strive to learn something, but rather a puzzle or a paradox with no `answer' or `solution', except for false ones. The readers are not encouraged to `get into' the storyless story but to stay outside.

To illustrate what a storyless story is like, here is an example (page 389). By and large, I see the similarity of that and to the entire book.

- A story about a hermit making jam could be as interesting as a story about a hero overcoming a dragon, except that it would be likely that the writer would make the hermit overcome the jam in the same way the hero overcomes the dragon. The storyless story shows the hermit making the jam while the hero overcomes the dragon, and then the hermit giving remedies and aid - and jam - to both the hero and the dragon before going to bed with a book.

And so I have subconsciously played along with this storyless story concept while throughout the bulk of the book, I was hoping that "Our Tragic Universe" would be as innovative and engaging as "The End Of Mr. Y". "Our Tragic Universe" has all the great ingredients. A book that Meg needed to review called "The Science of Living Forever" has a great potential to be the metafiction (a story within a story), such as the story by Lumas in "The End Of Mr. Y". "The Science of Living Forever" even has a sequel called "Second World" that would have fitted beautifully with this book in two parts. There is a mysterious wild beast living in town. There is even a ship in a bottle that mysteriously appeared at the shore when Meg was `conversing' with the Universe. The magical healing power, the placebo versus nocebo (the opposite of placebo), the conversation with the dead on an astral plane - tragically, none of these have been converted into something intriguing, something that lives up to the basic expectation established between a reader and a writer, something that is remotely close to "The End Of Mr. Y". This book may wish to break away from the standard structure of (1) having a central issue or the `ordinary world' of the problem, (2) the problem itself, (3) the way to set out and resolve the issue, (4) a previously unseen element in the central conflict that could make the problem seems insurmountable, (5) a climax or turning point, and (6) the resolution - as implied using Tarot reading on page 322. In fact, "Our Tragic Universe" has done it so well that it does not have any of the above. The fallacy of a storyless story, to me, is in the absence of a climax or a convincing turning point, it is not a very inspiring story. Having said that, with an open mind and if reading an experiment piece is what you are after, "Our Tragic Universe" is certainly unique. It is still an easy read with lively conversations filled with truncated ideas and well known stories. Be prepared that this book has nothing to with tragedy, certainly nothing to do with the Universe. And neglect the bad and misleading marketing tagline "Could a Story Save Your Life?".

I do not think I would subscribe to the notions of fictionless fiction, historyless history, romanceless romance, unproven proof, and uncertain certainty (page 390). I think these are some pointless phases the author has dreamed up with (that anyone could create a dozen more). I do not think that being a realist writer means that he or she has to produce fictionless fiction (page 390). To me, the goal of a realist artist is to produce artworks with the goals of truth and accuracy in mind. That, in the context of writing, is a job belongs to the journalists. A fiction is not a real story, as repeatedly mentioned in a wonderful book called "How To Read Novels Like A Professor". A fiction is simply a work of fiction.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tangerine Sept. 22 2010
By Sam - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you've read Scarlett Thomas's work before and are ready to dive into her newest book, I suggest you take a few minuets and think about it. If you loved her previous ability to build up action and suspense while adding conversations about what words really mean, and ideas of NoCO more than the conversations and philosophical discussions, you may not enjoy this book.
Thats not to say that her new book is bad in any way, I enjoyed it a lot, but it takes a certain kind of person to fully enjoy it. Unlike her last books, which though intellectual and extremely thought provoking still had really good and well paced plots, this one doesn't. Its part and parcel with the idea of a non-story, which is constantly talked about within the book itself.
This story without a story though is an interesting one in that it takes a look at relationships, how they grow and crumble, what causes them to start, and then to falter. Whether friendships or love, this book takes a hard look at them, while discussing new age ideas, the afterlife, monsters on the moore, dog psychology, how to write book candy, publishing industry, maritime history, ghosts, "energy", magic, and holidays; all combined with lots of tangerines.
Tangerines in this book take the place of cigarettes in Thomas's past books, and I feel its quiet fitting. The book can be broken up and eaten in parts, and still taste good, it can be consumed all at once, there are even sometimes "little tangerine babies at the top", and millions of ways you can peel a tangerine. I don't think this was on purpose, its probably more likely that the author quit smoking while writing the book and needed something for her protagonist to do while drinking tea, reading books, and pondering the great expanse of the universe.
But like a Tangerine also, this book will not be for everyones taste. Its not a normal story, which will upset many. Its not a "psychological thriller" like the Amazon coding suggests, its not even a novel in the sense that most in the west think of a novel with heros, but it is a way to sneak the authors thoughts into writing, without everyone coming at her with pitchforks and torches. And for those who like the first 20 pages, you'll like it till the end (mostly), but if you dont like the first 20 pages, put down this book and wait for her next one (which I hear she's going back to University to get a degree to write).
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