Saturday, November 26, 2011

Our Tragic Universe

Continuing my fascination with author Scarlett Thomas, I downloaded her latest sci-fi and chick lit blend, Our Tragic Universe.

This time our protagonist is Meg, an author of paperback novels and book reviews, who lives with an awful boyfriend and a dog named Bess (affectionately known as "B"). I've noticed that Thomas often has a claustrophobic quality in the setting of her novels. In PopCo, the protagonist is at a retreat with her coworkers she can't get away from. In The End of Mr. Y, it's a world inside your head that you have to make your way out of. In Our Tragic Universe, it's a foggy little seaside town, the relationship Meg seems to be stuck in, and a set of financial circumstances that prevent her ever getting around to doing what she really wants, which is to write her "real" novel (and find true love, of course).

Early on, Thomas sets up one of the central ideas of the novel in a (fictitious) book Meg reviews, The Science of Living Forever:

According to Kelsey Newman, the universe, which always was a computer, will, for one moment-- not even that -- be so dense and have so much energy that it will be able to compute anything at all. So why not simply program it to simulate another universe, a new one that will never end, and in which everyone can live happily ever after? This moment will be called the Omega Point, and, because it has the power to contain everything, will be indistinguishable from God.
The consequences of the Omega Point being that every human will be resurrected and never die again. But Newman gives an out of the Second World (the current universe we're living in) with the Road to Perfection, a sort of blueprint to get to heaven, attained only by "becoming truly yourself, and overcoming all your personal obstacles."

Hmm, it's all very New Age-y (and sketchy). Funny enough, it's based on a real theory by physicist Frank Tipler. The theory seems meant more as a jumping off point than anything else. No, Meg doesn't really buy into it. But how does she explain the seemingly supernatural occurrences in her life, which, it seems, are many?

Thomas also uses the "Omega Point" theory for winding discussion of story that continues throughout the book -- the "storyless story" versus the simplistic formula story of a paperback sci-fi novel, and the "storylines" that occur in real life.

And in this novel. Several times I wondered if this novel was a storyless story. It's not, but it is close to that. It has a dense, winding, talky, inconclusive way about it. It is frustrating for a reader not to get that emotional payoff at the end but I respect Thomas is trying to do something different from a conventional novel and not just forgetting to give it a true conclusion. There's less "happily ever after" here than in her other novels, which brings it closer to real life. Good if you like realism, bad if you're looking for an escape.

I liked Our Tragic Universe as a book of ideas. In that respect it matches the smartness of her other novels. Really an interesting discussion of the supernatural and fate and the idea of the story. And Thomas can't go wrong with writing a likable female lead who I wish was my best friend. But even for a close to storyless story I wished there was more of a sense of it being finished. Call me unsophisticated, but I wanted something *amazing* at the end, and I was left disappointed.

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