“In all the universe nothing remains permanent and unchanged but the spirit.”

May 25, 2010 § 2 Comments

In the interest of a full disclosure, it’s probably best to say that I’ve had a crush on Scarlett Thomas since I first read PopCo. That sprawling yet compact book on consumerism, branding, cryptography, pirate treasure maps, food politics, and homeopathy struck a chord with me – but more than that, it fascinated me. Very little contemporary fiction does, these days. Most current writers seem soundly encased within a bubble of self-absorption; the kind that echoes their own experience and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with telling a story from your own experience, or based on it, but the reductive perspective of basing a story only on personal experience or “what you know” is like a closed shell. A locked room. A dog chasing after its own tail.

It’s possible to tell of some mundane part of a person’s experience while connecting it to the larger world – the absurd, messy, often irrational world of contradictions and paradoxes.

And indeed, that’s exactly what Thomas tries to do in her most recent book, Our Tragic Universe. Unlike her other books (and I’ve read three of them so far: PopCo, Bright Young Things, and The End of Mr. Y in exactly that order), Our Tragic Universe begins languidly, like taking the long scenic route to a countryside cottage instead of the path carved out by the regulars. It took me awhile to get into it, but it still held me captive. Now that’s some strange narrative magic right there. I warmed to Meg, the main character, immediately. There are days when I’m on Twitter, and everyone’s a “journo” or a “features writer” or “comic artist” or whatever, and I’m like, where are the miserable ghostwriters, slogging away at freelance work, writing blogs that no one reads? Turns out they’re not on Twitter, or if they are, they’re not talking about it – just like me.

And so I found Meg, although Meg is hardly an unsuccessful writer. Yes, she’s ghosting for a YA science-fiction “writer” Zeb Ross (he exists only insofar as his ghostwriters exist), but she also writes reviews for a newspaper, and is rather famous within her community in Devon for what she does. She just isn’t successful in the conventional sense. I’m tired of reading of shiny, bright, successful people. I adore reading about people like Meg, or Ariel in Thomas’ previous The End of Mr. Y, or Claudia Steiner in Kate Christensen’s In the Drink. I like the hazy, blurry, messy stupidity of their lives, shot through with the characters’ undoubted curiosity and keen intelligence, but ripe with the realisation that keen intelligence in this world is a liability more than a blessing.

Even if I was a bright, shiny, successful person, I doubt I’ll enjoy reading about them the way they seem to be portrayed in fiction. Something about their lives just seems so suspiciously tidy. And neat.  But as Thomas tries to show in this book, the need for a narrative arc featuring a hero who overcomes the odds and leaves happily ever after is the essential underpinning of all stories and myths that resonate with the people and become cultural touchstones.

Or does it?

When we meet Meg, she’s just finished reading a book she thinks she’s meant to review for her paper, ‘The Science of Living Forever’ by Kelsey Newman. She’s stuck in this agonisingly painful relationship (from the reader’s perspective, at least) with one beautiful and sexy and completely moronic Christopher. Christopher is the kind of guy who doesn’t participate in life, because all of life is one long-line of consumer bullshit that is beyond the realm of anything meaningful. Hence, he helps out with conserving heritage sites on a voluntary basis, while Meg’s covers their expenses, forcing them to live in a cold, damp house that aggravates her asthma. From the first chapter, I was thinking, “Leave the asshole.” But anyway…

Meg’s constant companion is her lovely dog Bess, or B for short, the most fully-realised dog character I’ve read about in awhile. I’m not sure if dogs are characters, but I believe they are in my little dog-loving heart, so let’s leave it at that.

And it looks incredibly cool, too!

The central idea underlying this book, juxtaposed with Meg’s reading of Newman’s book which propounds the scientific possibility of endless life, is that of narrative. What kind of narrative is central to life and /or imagination, and which type of narrative is authentic? Is narrative willed upon by the person telling the story to give the author and the reader a sense of control, and is this how we approach our lives, as well? (The rise of reality TV shows, for example.)  Meg writes formulaic plot-boilers for a living under someone else’s name, but she’s long been wanting to work on what she and others call her “real novel” – a novel that’s meant to remove itself from the constraints of formulaic narrative, the 3-point arc of beginning, middle, and end. But, at the same time, Meg teaches ‘writing retreats’ for other up-and-coming ghostwriters, and the reader is treated to her meandering and immensely gratifying musings on Aristotle’s Poetics, Baudrillard, and Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s literary theories. But Meg is also increasingly troubled by the “fictionalisation of life.”

Meg is at once fascinated and repulsed by Newman’s book because she can’t fathom the idea of an unending life: “In Newman’s never-ending universe there’d be time to write an infinite amount of novels,  and even finish reading all the books I’d never begun. But who’d care about fiction anymore? We only need fiction because we die.”

Thomas is known as a writer of ideas, which she is, but in this book she’s also honed her art of characterisation. Some characters do sometimes feel like mere mouthpieces for the various thoughts and ideas the author is trying out (Rowan, for example, and Frank and Vi) but some are so fleshed-out that one feels truly in the presence of real people having a conversation (Josh, Libby, and Meg herself). However, most dinners I’ve been to don’t really centre a conversation around the idea of a paradox, with people remembering quotes from Aquinas and Chekhov – which kind of makes Our Tragic Universe a utopia, in a sense. A utopia in Devon, where a one-dimensional, consumerist society is left behind and one is just surrounded by a largely considerate if emotionally fucked-up group of curious thinkers.

There are some utterly snarky and captivating passages on the nature of relationships, as well, so far different from the kind of conversations and thoughts women are forced to read through “chick-lit” books forced down their throats by savvy marketers. In contemplating her relationship with Christopher, where Meg wonders how come every second of their time together is characterised by her need to get away from him, she thinks:

Then I would start coughing, because of the damp in the house, and my lungs would put themselves in Safe Mode until I could go outside again. I’d never directly told Christopher that the damp in the house made my asthma worse, thinking only an idiot wouldn’t be able to see that. This was a bit passive-aggressive, of course, as was the way I hammed up my coughing when we were arguing. Sometimes I dredged up stuff from my lungs that felt as if it had been there since the beginning of time.

From Agatha Christie to Anna Karenina to the Cottingley fairies*, from Fred Hoyle to Tarot and poltergeists and superheroes and the Beast of Dartmoor, there’s no single reason not to turn the page of the book and keep reading, even though it’s clear that one’s not in a traditional story of beginning, middle, and end. Thomas’ gift, and this is particularly true in Our Tragic Universe – is to take what seems airy-fairy, or New-Agey, and turn it into ideas worth thinking about – in fact, it’s clear that as an author she’s always thinking about everything – that the reader can’t help but ponder the meaning of Tarot card reading and its relation to archetypes, or consider for a moment that maybe Feng Shui practitioners, greedy for money as they are, have at their basis the principle of Qi (or energy) that might have some truth to it, especially since no one knows the truth.

It’s her ability to take the simple questions and dig further that makes Thomas such a fascinating writer. She references a lot of stuff – for example, I didn’t know a theory existed of poltergeists being the “manifestation of misery, angst, and childhood uncertainty, and would stop bothering everyone only when the child grew up or became happier” – and whether or not the reader considers this stuff common sense, gospel truth, a revelation, or pure bunkum, one can’t dismiss it entirely without feeling compelled to research it first. (There’s also a quote by Darwin in there from this The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals that I found simply revelatory – because I was wondering about this particular issue and had made no desire to find out the cause of it when lo and behold, this quote popped up while I was reading the book – synchronicity, as those bunkum New-Age books will you.) I was also reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man while reading this, and couldn’t help seeing parallels in Thomas’ arguments for fictionless fiction in our current hyper-consumer society, and Marcuse’s concept of transgressive fiction in a three-dimensional, thinking society.

It may not be everyone’s cup of herbal fair-trade tea, but I’ll try to foist Our Tragic Universe (and by extension, PopCo and The End of Mr. Y) to anyone who attempts to listen to me swoon about it. It’s an eminently white book – there are no characters named Mustafa, Kiran, or Young Lee, and most of the characters are described as being white, which is what you’ll get if you set in Devon, probably – I think it’s important that people are aware that fiction like this exists – fiction that embraces thinking as the default mode of being rather than an elitist exception to the rule.

(A fantastic book on the Cottingley fairies phenomenon from a fictionalised perspective – involving an acerbic Arthur Conan Doyle – is Steve Szilagyi’s Photographing Fairies.)

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