Scarlett Thomas is a fun writer who often manages to weave maths or science into her work. This is no exception; we have forays into thought experiments and the theory of homeopathy.
The basic idea is that a young PhD student, Ariel Manto, finds a copy of a rare work by the subject of her thesis, Thomas Lumas. Not much is known of the book; only one copy is known to exist, stored in a bank vault in Germany, and there is a rumour that anyone who reads the book will die. Her supervisor has suggested she ignore the text in her doctorate, but the supervisor disappeared about a year ago… The book itself – a 19th century work called The End of Mr Y – finds the eponymous Mr Y visiting a circus sideshow and being intrigued by a clairvoyant.
This all sounds like the plot of a very bad self-published work, just waiting for the zombies to appear. Fortunately they don’t, and Thomas is a skilful enough writer to bring this potential implausibility into something coherent. But instead of zombies, we have a chase across international borders by some very dodgy American spooks, refuge being sought in monasteries and mind-reading.
At times the text feels over-long and some of the pseudo-science does get a bit hard to follow at times. But this is balanced by a genuinely intriguing plot whose direction is not always as obvious as it seems. There are multiple timelines and backstories all shepherded well and there are moments of sheer inventive brilliance. By the end, it all gets very surreal in a way that some people are not going to like, but I think it worked.
This is a novel that is a lot of fun. It’s ideal holiday reading; enough to think about and the pages keep turning without the need to take notes.
Have you ever gone into a bookshop and been strangely drawn to a title for no particular reason that you can think of; the next thing you know is that you're on the street outside with it in a bag and missing some money.
This is how Mr. Y came to be in my possession. I was drawn to it though it's cover. I notice artwork, and things as second nature due to my job, I've been known to buy CD's for the great cover and never listen to them. The Hardback book is just a wonderful object without opening the cover.
Once I did open the cover I found that it's presentation could never compare to it's contents.
I know a book is good if I can't put it down, if I can't think about anything else, if I'm compelled to know what happens next. This book is good.
The story covers so many things. Religion, philosophy, faith, science, relationships, learning. One of my favourite aspects of it was the exploration of the idea that you can be connected to a book, or to knowledge itself. That knowledge and language make and define our world.
The author does explore some very heavy scientific philosophy (intentional oxymoron, you'll see), but manages to explain and simplify the ideas effortlessly, so that the you feel entertained and informed.
The characters are all damaged and endearing, interesting, a little grubby, but I found myself caring about each one for different reasons. The story itself is non-stop and never boring.
I'm better off having read this book.
It also demonstrated that magical serendipitous moment when you pick up an unknown book and it turns out to be a real gem.
Novels where discussions take precedent over action can seem laboured. If philosophising and ideas are shoe-horned in, they may seem out of place and the conversations may not ring true. And the conversations need to be truly stimulating and interesting as well as sounding natural - in Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills, Smiley's usual talents as a story-teller were drowned by the incessant tedious babble of ghastly characters exchanging predictable and pedestrian views. Which brings us to characterisation - no novel can succeed on the basis of the ideas it expounds alone - the people need to be believable and the reader needs to care about what happens to them, otherwise they could go off and read a non-fiction book that covers similar ground instead.
So the question in my mind was, would Scarlett Thomas succeed where so many others had failed? I hadn't read any of her previous work but I had heard that The End of Mr Y was brimming with ideas about philosophy and had divided readers. Most seemed to like it very much, but for some, the format was irksome.
My fears were unfounded. As soon as I started reading Our Tragic Universe, I was hooked. I had expected a book packed with ideas to be lofty, pretentious even, but it is nothing of the sort. The characters are very plausible, ordinary people who happen to have interestingly complicated personal lives, and everything progresses in a natural way. In fact, when ideas are mooted, they are done so in a completely unthreatening way; they are just the opinions of one character or another, and nothing is forced down the reader's throat. And the liberal amounts of mordant humour and whip-sharp insights make it a novel that is enjoyable on several different levels.
Meg Carpenter is a thirty eight year-old writer living in Dartmouth with her boyfriend Christopher. Meg has been trying to write a serious novel for around ten years as a result of being offered a contract after winning a short story competition in 1997. But it is now 2008 and Meg has spent the past eleven years writing pulpy genre fiction because it brings in easy money and is formulaic and doesn't require much creative effort. Meg has a knotty past, like most people. Her parents are divorced and she has not spoken to her father for over ten years. Several years ago she had been living in Brighton and had just accepted a marriage proposal from her previous boyfriend, actor Andrew (Drew) Grey, when she met Christopher, fell for him, and ran away with him to Dartmouth. Just to complicate matters further, Christopher is the brother of Drew's brother's wife.
This intriguingly gossipy web is tangled further by the fact that things haven't been going well with Christopher for years and Meg has developed a crush on Rowan, a man twenty or so years older than her. Rowan was previously a university lecturer but has retired from that and taken up a post as director of the local maritime centre. He lives with his partner Lise.
Meg's personal life is a breeze compared with that of her best friend, Libby, who runs the local deli with her husband Bob. Libby left her previous boyfriend for Bob but is now having an affair with Mark, a casual worker who is saving up to start his own boat design business. She is torn between comfy, staid (and wealthy) Bob and passionate, exciting Mark.
If all this sounds like it's panning out to be a trite girlie story about cottonwool romance, think again. Although not very much happens in terms of action, the novel is constantly thought-provoking, with intelligent conversations frequently cropping up between characters. You may not always agree with what is said, but it's never dull. Meg is also good friends with Vi and Frank. Frank used to teach Meg at university. Vi is his wife, an anthropologist who is investigating the tradition of story-telling in other cultures. Some of the conversations therefore focus on the definition of a story and compare the traditional structure of western stories with the 'storyless stories' seen in some other cultures. This is all intriguing stuff, and is fitted naturally into the conversations.
Less easy to take are the unfounded theories expounded by a (fictional) writer called Kelsey Newman who, in the story, has written a book about his theory of the universe. This is a load of unscientific twaddle that takes advantage of gullible readers' fear of death to put forward a totally flawed idea that people live forever because the universe will, at the end of time, have so much energy that it 'will be able to compute anything', and thus will simulate another universe where everyone lives forever. To give Thomas her due, Meg and her friends don't buy into this crazy theory, but the fact that someone as intelligent as Meg would actually dedicate much time to considering something based on nonsense seems implausible. Thomas engineers a way by which Meg accidently reads the book because she thinks the books editor of her local paper, for whom she writes, has sent it to her to review. But even if Meg did read the book by mistake, the central tenet of Newman's theory is so devoid of reason and unfounded in fact that it seems bizarre that Meg and her friends would devote any time to seriously discussing it.
The important thing for books crammed with theory, philosophy and other facts is that they don't become dry or pompous and self important. This could never happen with Thomas because, despite the very real factual stuff thrown in - comparisons of two of the greats of Russian literature, Chekhov and Tolstoy for example - she has a refreshingly unstuffy outlook and the novel is scattered with funny incidents and insights. Sometimes the delight is in throwaway comments like 'Our few kitchen cupboards were always full of things that couldn't be thrown away but couldn't be eaten either', or 'the pieces of pasta bobbed about in the pan like little tubes of brown cardboard, the empties from a doll's house toilet, perhaps, although not even doll's house people would put little tubes of cardboard in a pan and cook them.' At others, it's warmly humorous observations about human or canine habits or characteristics ('As the house filled with the concentrated smell of rancid dog...'), or a quirky view of what might in other hands be mundane. What could be a boring meal by the telly is expressed as 'We ate in front of the TV with me still looking at my crossword and Christopher occasionally looking at my crossword too as if it was my lover and he'd become resigned to discovering us together...' Thomas's - and thus Meg's - eye for detail is acute and her descriptions are therefore never ordinary. Here is Meg musing on the atmosphere at Frank and Vi's holiday home in Scotland:
'In the evenings the dogs laid by the fire and Sebastian [their talking bird] hopped around in his huge cage on top of the piano just as he would at home, interspersing phrases he'd been taught from Shakespeare or picked up from the cricket with words and phrases he'd taught himself, like 'Banana!' and, regardless of whom he was addressing: 'You're a very hairy man, Frank.' Frank was indeed very hairy. He was in his early fifties and had a scruffy beard, bushy hair, ragged fingernails and sharp green eyes, like some creature living in the mountains. Vi resembled one of those mountains: tall, jagged and permanent, with the possibility of a dangerous fall if you took the wrong path.'
It is apt that many of the conversations between Meg, Vi and Frank are about storyless stories because, although the definition of 'storyless' in the book is different, some may argue that a novel without many events is itself storyless. This is an intentional paradox. With Thomas the joy is all in the incidentals around the story - the characters, the conversations, the emotions, the opinions. They *are* the story. Anyone who needs wild action for stimulation is missing out on the pleasures to be derived from human interaction. This is not to say there aren't momentous events - the kind that occur in people's lives. Thomas sparkles on the stubborn foibles of human behaviour ('I had decided I would apologise...if he apologised first...') and the neurotic extremes people go to on a whim (Libby pushes her car into the sea as part of an elaborate lie to explain her absence from home when she's been at her boyfriend Mark's.)
Our Tragic Universe works both as a wickedly funny novel about lost oddball figures finding their way in life and, in a wholly unheavy way, as a deeper treatise on literary theory, philosophy and other subjects: what constitutes a novel, whether all kinds of story are as valid, whether there is a place for trashy genre fiction, whether someone writing about their life is meaningful, what the definition of a paradox is. Inevitably, not all of the topics dissected in the conversations will appeal to all readers, but I didn't find any unbearable apart from the Kelsey Newman gibberish and Christopher's brother Josh's extension of it, a long-winded section which I skipped. Apart from those, though, the only thing that mildly irked me about this novel was the unfeasible number of coincidences - Rowan's girlfriend turns out to be related to Bob, Kelsey Newman comes to speak in nearby Totnes, a ship in a bottle Meg finds is identical to one she saw as a child and ends up belonging in Rowan's museum, Rowan is friends with Frank and Vi, Meg's childhood friend Rosa, an actress, ends up playing Anna in Anna Karenina - coincidentally Meg's favourite book - and the actor chosen to play opposite her is Drew, Meg's ex. This tying up of ends which weren't noticeably loose in the first place is simply unrequired in a novel of this calibre. It's a shame for such a brilliant read to be marred by this kind of formulaic and unnatural neatness.
In the end, much is left unresolved, as is the case in life. Several strange events occur for which there is no obvious explanation, but the reader is, thankfully, always given the chance to go for the rational option rather than anything supernatural.
For the most part, the feeling I had when reading this book was the one I experienced when reading Darkmans, by Nicola Barker. That novel was similarly populated with colourful misfits in dysfunctional relationships and had the same intelligence coupled with outrageous, irreverent humour as this one. Subsequently, I read the rest of Barker's oeuvre and decided Darkmans was my favourite and that Barker seemed to bleed the quirky vein repeatedly until the vein had collapsed, dry, and the concept died of overuse . I have high hopes of Thomas's other work based on the enjoyment I gained from this novel, and hope that her other novels are sufficiently different to keep my attention. I have a feeling they will be.