Book Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas likes to write about big ideas. She doesn’t deviate from that in her latest novel, Our Tragic Universe. In fact, the novel is built around portentous issues like immortality and whether we are all living in a simulated universe — and the storyless story.

That’s right, the storyless story. Essentially, it’s a story whose entire point “is the subtle rejection of story within its own structure.” It is, says the main character, almost metafiction “but more delicate.” So, is fiction involving metafiction itself metafictional? I’m enough of an illiterati that I may find it easier to wrap my mind around living in a simulated universe.

Thomas’ last novel, The End of Mr. Y, was predicated on a supposedly cursed 19th Century book but explored concepts like consciousness, quantum physics and parallel realities. Although an analogous approach and similar ideas percolate through Our Tragic Universe, it often seems the true focus of the book is personal relationships and the nature of storytelling. And, to some extent, it is its own storyless story.

The novel is built around Meg Carpenter, who is still trying to write the “groundbreaking, literary, serious debut novel” for which she received an advance 11 years ago. Carpenter, whose novel is down to 43 words at one point in the book, has spent the years writing and ghostwriting genre fiction and holding workshops and retreats to teach others how to write it. As she also writes book reviews for some income, she reads a book called The Science of Living Forever. It proposes we have passed the Omega Point, where science has created a “Second World” in which we live as we head toward immortality. As Thomas notes both in the story and the acknowledgments, this is based on physicist Frank Tipler’s 1994 book The Physics of Immortality, where Tipler argued there would be a future “omega point” at which an infinite amount of information processing power would result in computer simulations of all intelligent life that has ever lived. Carpenter’s almost infatuation-like interest in the ideas of The Science of Living Forever and its follow-up is one of the frameworks upon which Thomas builds the story.

As the fact she is still working on her novel suggests, Carpenter’s life has not quite gone as she might have expected. Her relationship with her live-in, increasingly moody boyfriend is growing distant, at best. She thinks she’s falling for a much older, married man. While her boyfriends works full-time at a non-paying position, they live on the occasional payments she gets from her reviews or genre book sales. Her friends all seem to be confronting their own issues. All the while, Carpenter tells us how she is working on and thinking of her big novel — metafiction within the story itself — and how there was “always something there to delete.” As she ponders the concept of the Omega Point and the changes in her life, The Tragic Universe suggests there is a commonality between how we view the universe and the storyless story.

As one of Carpenter’s friends says in a “manifesto” about the storyless story, it has no moral center, presents a paradox with no answers or solutions except false ones, and a “reader is not encouraged to ‘get into’ the storyless story but to stay outside.” Perhaps oversimplifying it, in layman’s terms it is an almost Zen-like approach to the journey, not the destination or conclusion, that is important. Carpenter begins to think that modern life is similar, that people are becoming “little more than character arcs, with nothing in our lives apart from getting to act two, and then act three and then dying.” We are focused on the destination and what is immediately useful, rather than the journey and whatever direction it may take us. She comes to believe that moving inexorably to definitive resolution is what is wrong. She wants “a tragic universe, not a nice rounded-off universe with a moral at the end.”

The Tragic Universe seems to reflect this thought process. It isn’t a book that provides answers or solutions, or much, if any, resolution. It might even suggest that if you’re finding answers in it, they’re not the right ones. Ultimately, then, if you want a book with a fixed or final meaning, Thomas isn’t giving you one. If, however, you want to accompany a character who seems to place as much value on meandering toward the destinations in her life than where she might ultimately end up, The Tragic Universe might be your storyless story.

I don’t want to live in a universe with a fixed meaning, and the end of mystery. The universe should be unfathomable.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe

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