Our Tragic Universe By Scarlett Thomas – 425 Pages Of Storyless Story

If I could have one opportunity to meet with the author Scarlett Thomas, I would like to ask her why with all these wonderful ingredients and potentials in “Our Tragic Universe”, she has chosen to disintegrate them into what appears to me as a storyless story (by her definition and by my observation).  One that makes me feel tragic to even finish reading the book.  If I could meet with Douglas Coupland who wrote that wonderful piece of praise at the back of the book, I would like to ask him specifically how “Our Tragic Universe” manages to surprise him in a terrific way, why he finds it addictive and thinks that the author is a genius.  If I could meet with the one who wrote the synopses of the book, I would like to ask why he or she thinks that “Our Tragic Universe” is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, and how a story might just save our lives.  I have devoured the book slowly, from page one to page 425, and I have found none of the above.

Let’s start from the beginning again.  These days, I have tried to stick to my initial decision and finish a book that I have started reading.  Especially one whose author is not new to me.  You may wonder: Wilfrid, you are compelled to finish reading a book because you have spent a fortune on it, yes?  The reality is that I seldom buy books these days.  I have borrowed “Our Tragic Universe” from the National Library.  But still, I had this hope that “Our Tragic Universe” would live it up to my expectation.  This book is curiously divided into two parts.  In part one, the main character Meg – a book reviewer, a ghost writer, an aspired writer, a lady in her late thirties, a character that at one point I thought Scarlett is Meg – has a rather mundane life that is getting slightly worse.  In part two, Meg has a relatively more hopeful life that is getting slightly better.  If I may deduce what saves her life (as promised by the synopses), it is money.  Or rather the time freed up by not needing to think about making ends meet can be used to do something more interesting.  If I may second guess on what the synopses writer means by “Our Tragic Universe” is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, it merely means that if you stuck or think you stuck in a relationship that is going nowhere, break up and start anew.  However, I doubt that is what Scarlett Thomas has intended this book to be (and I surely hope not).

“Our Tragic Universe”, to me, is an experimental work of writing.  A storyless story as defined in page 388 and 389 (and hinted at the very beginning of the story) is as follows.

[The storyless story] is the subtle rejection of story within its own structure …  It has no moral center.  It is not something from which a reader should strive to learn something, but rather a puzzle or a paradox with no ‘answer’ or ‘solution’, except for false ones.  The readers are not encouraged to ‘get into’ the storyless story but to stay outside.

To illustrate what a storyless story is like, here is an example (page 389).  By and large, I see the similarity of that and to the entire book.

A story about a hermit making jam could be as interesting as a story about a hero overcoming a dragon, except that it would be likely that the writer would make the hermit overcome the jam in the same way the hero overcomes the dragon.  The storyless story shows the hermit making the jam while the hero overcomes the dragon, and then the hermit giving remedies and aid – and jam – to both the hero and the dragon before going to bed with a book.

And so I have subconsciously played along with this storyless story concept while throughout the bulk of the book, I was hoping that “Our Tragic Universe” would be as innovative and engaging as “The End Of Mr. Y“.  “Our Tragic Universe” has all the great ingredients.  A book that Meg needed to review called “The Science of Living Forever” has a great potential to be the metafiction (a story within a story), such as the story by Lumas in “The End Of Mr. Y”.  “The Science of Living Forever” even has a sequel called “Second World” that would have fitted beautifully with this book in two parts.  There is a mysterious wild beast living in town.  There is even a ship in a bottle that mysteriously appeared at the shore when Meg was ‘conversing’ with the Universe.  The magical healing power, the placebo versus nocebo (the opposite of placebo), the conversation with the dead on an astral plane – tragically, none of these have been converted into something intriguing, something that lives up to the basic expectation established between a reader and a writer, something that is remotely close to “The End Of Mr. Y”.  This book may wish to break away from the standard structure of (1)  having a central issue or the ‘ordinary world’ of the problem, (2) the problem itself, (3) the way to set out and resolve the issue, (4) a previously unseen element in the central conflict that could make the problem seems insurmountable, (5) a climax or turning point, and (6) the resolution – as implied using Tarot reading on page 322.  In fact, “Our Tragic Universe” has done it so well that it does not have any of the above.  The fallacy of a storyless story, to me, is in the absence of a climax or a convincing turning point, it is not a very inspiring story.  Having said that, with an open mind and if reading an experiment piece is what you are after, “Our Tragic Universe” is certainly unique.  It is still an easy read with lively conversations filled with truncated ideas and well known stories.  Be prepared that this book has nothing to with tragedy, certainly nothing to do with the Universe.  And neglect the bad and misleading marketing tagline “Could a Story Save Your Life?”.

I do not think I would subscribe to the notions of fictionless fiction, historyless history, romanceless romance, unproven proof, and uncertain certainty (page 390).  I think these are some pointless phases the author has dreamed up with (that anyone could create a dozen more).  I do not think that being a realist writer means that he or she has to produce fictionless fiction (page 390).  To me, the goal of a realist artist is to produce artworks with the goals of truth and accuracy in mind.  That, in the context of writing, is a job belongs to the journalists.  A fiction is not a real story, as repeatedly mentioned in a wonderful book called “How To Read Novels Like A Professor”.  A fiction is simply a work of fiction.  If Scarlett Thomas’s aim in this book is to engage an active dialog with her readers, I think she has achieved just that.


  1. Very in-depth review. You certainly read novels like a professor.

    I strongly urge you to break your book review posts up and start a book blog, that way you may attract international fame and have publishers sent you books for review!! 😀

    1. JoV – Thank you for your suggestion. I did consider that. Like one for my photography, which is getting quite a lot of hits these days. One for my movie reviews. One for my tech gadget and technology reviews like those blogger events written for Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Norton, and etc. Then one for my personal diary. And etc, and etc.

      I did experiment on having one for my band http:www.NoEyeCandy.com. Eventually, I have to host it back to this site because it is hard to maintain different sites – in terms of content and in terms of “marketing” them. So I think hard and have decided to put everything under the marketing tagline of “where good things are meant to be shared”. Hahaha.

      1. It is hard when one finds pleasure in a lot of different things.

        I have one for books, one for personal random thoughts, and another for personal personal thoughts (which are kept private and got no hits), and contemplating one family blog. You know things that you can share with your friends and relatives like “These are the places that I have visited” and “How is our lives away from home”…

        I am just sooo…… torn. So much to blog about, so little time. 🙁

        1. JoV – For personal thoughts, would you consider Facebook? that is what I would recommend. It is hard to keep track of that many websites. I have tried. But once there are higher priorities in life, it is hard to keep up.

          1. I do have a facebook account. I’m amongst the earliest amongst of my technological challenge friends back home to have an account. I prefer to block almost everyone out of my wall, and also I heard so much vandalism and defamation and rotten things happening at this part of the world, I have decided not to use it, or even be active in it. I use it only to contact friends or occasionally write messages to acquaintances.

            Also a great way to know which friend is promoted, making career move, have children or got married without informing me! 🙁

            1. JoV – The newer version of Facebook now provides users with a slightly better way to control who can see what. So for me, I tag my friends into different groups. Some can see my wall posts, some cannot. Some can see my photos, some cannot. Some can tag me in their photo albums, most cannot. And etc. It does has its pros and cons. But somehow, Facebook works for me – as a social networking tool – better than say Twitter and Linkedin.

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