Book Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

by Ahalya on May 26, 2011

When a writer begins to ask herself ‘what’s the point of writing anything’, you know she may never get back to writing again. There is something inherently so poisonous in the question ‘why’ that it strangulates all creativity, and all desire. Questioning the motive for spending lots of energy and time on putting down words on paper (or on any other activity, come to think of it), is the last stage of writer’s block and is something that can be cured only by the most powerful miracle the universe can summon up.

Meg Carpenter is stuck with bills to pay; a damp house that aggravates her asthma; a boyfriend who is an unpaid volunteer at a heritage site; deadlines for book reviews she must get around to doing; and a novel she wishes to write, but doesn’t know how to begin. In short Meg’s mind is ripe for some philosophising, some desperate plans for making money, and a billion excuses to rationalise why she cannot write anymore.  

Our Tragic Universe was by far the best book I have read in the longest time. The plot was believable, the characters were as real as me, there were interesting snippets of information about physics, immortality, magic, philosophy, literature, and life. But, what I liked best about this book was that it was a no-holds barred look at a real writer’s life. This is exactly how most writers think, criticise, worry, debate, question, and analyse writing and the world they write about! Add to this a healthy dose of supernatural incidents, lost friends, a new house by the beach, a jolly dog, and frequent discussions about the art of writing and characterisation, and this becomes a book that has to be read over and over again.

Let me show you an excerpt. So, here we are — Meg who has to write a novel not just because that’s what she believes is her calling, but also because she needs the money is at her wit’s end because she doesn’t know where to begin, has this conversation with her friend in a pub:

“‘… How cool is this: I’m going to structure the whole thing as a writer’s notebook, just like one of mine. It’s going to be all non-linear and experimental and the reader will have to put together the story for him- or herself. I thought it meant I’d have to start again from the very beginning – again- but I’ve just realised I can use loads of stuff I’ve already written, sort of as “draft material’… In fact, I think I might just make the writer dead. Maybe her notebook has washed up like a message in a bottle or something, and then the reader has to work out what’s happened to her from fragments of her real and fictional narratives…’

“Libby frowned. ‘So there won’t be any story, just notes?’

“‘Yeah, but the notes will come together to make a story, or maybe two stories. I guess it’s hard to describe, but I can see exactly how it will work. I think you can have too much story…’

Could Scarlett Thomas be referring to this book? Did I mention that she teaches creative writing in Kent? This book has the feel of being quite non-linear and experimental, and yes, the frequent diversions into various subjects make this exactly like the book Meg wants to write. That’s a clever way of juggling narratives, characterisation, and reality/fiction.

I must confess that I liked this book so much that I began visualising me as the protagonist. There I was walking the beach with my dog, looking for a mythical beast, wondering how to get out of a stagnant relationship, talking to the Universe and asking for money, and tragically, coming to terms with the fact that maybe I could never write at all, maybe I never had been able to write.

A must-read for those who want to write. Totally recommended!

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