Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
HMH • $19.95 • September 1, 2010
I have been eager to read Scarlett Thomas’ latest since I first heard about it back in March. As predicted, it’s another book full of big ideas. This time Thomas’ main focus is narrative—its limitations, restrictions and role in our lives—which she explores through the story of Meg, a would-be literary author who works as one of many ghostwriters for the Zeb Ross series of adventure novels.
Then again, perhaps it’s wrong to call this a story, exactly. One of the many notions batted around in this philosophical novel is the idea of the “storyless story,” a tale that refuses to follow the traditional narrative structure, and Our Tragic Universe can definitely be read as such. It’s difficult to pull an excerpt from a book with so many threads—but in the one below, Meg is thinking about the ways in which tragedy is different from genre fiction.
Oedipus is an almost perfect example of the deterministic, cause-and-effect-based plot, where Y can only happen because I has happened first. . . . But every time I re-read it I marvelled at how a narrative could do so much more than just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle and an end, which was basically what I was always teaching the people on the retreat to do, and what I’d always done myself. Somehow, Oedipus seemed to dramatise a fundamental puzzle of human existence. Anna Karenina did this as well. So did Hamlet. . . . I could see that most narrative was an equation that balance, a zero-sum game, and that tragedy was special because you got more out of the equation that you put in, but I had no idea how to write like that. The mechanics of Oedipus were simple enough to grasp, but where did one get all that feeling from?
I’d once speculated about what would have happened if Zeb Ross had written Hamlet. There’d be no ghost, for a start. Or at least, the ghost would be reduced to a troubled teenager’s hallucination, and Hamlet, with the help of his plucky love interest, Ophelia, would come to realise that his new stepfather didn’t really do something as improbably and stupid as pour poison in his father’s ear, and had in fact tried to save his life! Hamlet would start seeing a counsellor—perhaps Polonius, who dabbles in the self-help industry himself, would recommend someone—and come to terms with his bereavement and realise that it’s OK for his mother to have sex with her new husband (although there’d be no ‘rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ or anything icky like that) and he’d go back to university happy, having now accepted the change in his family circumstances, with Ophelia in tow. Then I realised that if I’d written Hamlet it probably would have been like that too.