I am reading a lot at the moment. Scarlett Thomas' latest novel fell into my lap at the local library and I was happy to take it home with me. I am equally happy to take it back not having spent any money on it. Let us recap what happened last time I read one of Ms Thomas' books:
I do not know why I’ve read three Scarlett Thomas novels because if you take away the colourful packaging of a) metafiction (“The End of Mr Y”), b) anti-consumerism (“PopCo”) and c) popculture (“Going Out”) you get pretty much the same novel. New Age health solutions? Check. Schrödinger’s cat? Check. Main protagonist being into her math puzzles? Check. Slightly deviant sexual orientation painted in a fairly vague way? Check. C-category drug use? Check. Vegetarianism or some variant upon it? Check. Internet featuring heavily? Check.
But I still like her novels (..) even if they feel like a Linda McCartney meal. You know, easily digested vegetarian fare with a touch of celebrity to it?
Our Tragic Universe? It reads like a diluted version of the above padded with Narratology for Dummies, Tarot cards, jam-making and pages about how difficult it is to, er, knit socks. Everything falls into place once Scarle Meg figures out how to knit socks on double-pointed needles. I wish I were making this up.
Okay, a more sophisticated approach:
Clearly Our Tragic Universe wants to have a plotless plot or even be that paradoxical beast: an approachable antinovel. Whatever plot it has, it revolves around our protagonist attempting to write a hip, Zeitgeisty novel without a plot. Ah, funnily enough the novel itself mirrors the non-existing novel within. So far, so refreshingly clever (or depressingly metafictional, depending upon your mood). Sadly, Scarlett Thomas knows how to do this intellectually (we know this because the books bangs on and on about the theories) but her novelistic chops let her down.
Our Tragic Universe is a mess, and not even an entertaining mess.
Scarlett Thomas thanks Andrew Crumey in her notes. Crumey writes the sort of novel that Thomas thinks (or wishes or pretends because her books are all about pretending) she is writing. Go seek them out. I'm currently thirty pages into David Mitchell's number9dream - he is that rare beast: an author who is a chameleon but also is constantly himself. Mitchell does marvellous things with narrative structure and is essentially a storyteller at heart. Another author I would recommend you read instead of spending time/money on Our Tragic Universe.
(Our Tragic Universe is actually worse than my other recent read, Julia Quinn's Splendid, which is terribly sad because Splendid is set in Regency London and has characters slipping in and out of 1990s Valley-speak.)