If you’ve been following this blog from its infancy (I just realised that my hello world post was just over a year ago) you might remember that I decided I had a girl crush on Scarlett Thomas having read The End of Mr Y and PopCo.
What I’ve always liked about Scarlett Thomas’ books is that they mix obscure academic topics with cultural criticism and a good dash of popular science to come up with pacy and engaging novels. This formula worked well for homeopathy and philosophy in The End of Mr Y which paled in comparison to the brilliant PopCo which put branding under the microscope with a healthy dose of mathematical theory thrown in, but when it was applied to my own particular interests (literature and folklore) in Our Tragic Universe it left me a little bit cold.
Meg, an author who was once set to write the great modern literary novel, is rotting in a miserable relationship in Devon where she writes formulaic teen fiction and reviews books for a living while writing and deleting her literary novel which has been sidelined by a variety of non events in her everyday life. That is pretty much the story.
Oh the blurb would have you believe that more than this is going on, suggesting that a connection between wild beasts, knitting patterns of the universe and ships in bottles will help Meg escape the fate of living forever, but in practice this is mostly a lie. What actually happens is that the author witters on for 425 pages about meta fiction and “storyless stories”, apparently trying to write the same. The result is a bland lack of story which left me questioning the authors intent.
Was she trying to test her readers? Perhaps it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Can you see that she’s writing a storyless story? Don’t you think it’s clever? No, not really, if anything it’s pretty insulting. Thomas uses the book to critique modern publishing and frown upon expectations of genre. It doesn’t work like that in Chekov and Tolstoy, you see. She seems to forget that her reader has not picked up her book expecting Chekov or Tolstoy.
This book left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth, and not just because I wasted my money being patronised having my high expectations dashed… I realised in this that Thomas’ books have a distinctly elitist bent. Her books are populated by academics and thinkers- characters who don’t hold PhDs are in the minority. This is no great problem in itself, except that when you get a character who doesn’t fit into the liberal intellectual type or the quirky other mould they are set up to be condemned by the reader. Christopher and Lise, the non reader without a degree and the career driven business woman are criticised both openly and by implication. Characters such as Georges receive a similar treatment in her other books. It’s not a massive issue, but suggests an intellectual snobbery which is beginning to grate on me.
On the whole a disappointment. But don’t blame the author, blame the cultural fact of loud voices shouting the hero myth at the expense of the storyless story so that when something really zen comes along proles like me don’t get it.