Our Tragic Universe

Has any truism abetted more falsity—and tedium—than the old admonishment to “write what you know”? Literary performance recapitulates lived experience, says the good sense of most commoners, which is why St. Augustine writes about proto-Catholic guilt and John Grisham about lawyering. Unfortunately for readers, the genre technicians of Hippo and Mississippi are exemplars of the rule that prove the exception, for what writers as profession and caste more generally know is something like the solitary, pinwheeling monotony, the swells of despair chasing points of euphoria, of the I.V. drug user, less all the romance.

Binge. Manic productivity. Expansive confidence and fellow-feeling. Creeping self-doubt, incipient self-loathing. Stor(i)es dwindling. Panic. Paralysis. The ticking away of time and clicking terror of BACKSPACE felt in bones and temporal lobes. Resignation to fate. Rationalization of compromised being. If talent or one’s agent allows, score again. Repeat.

In short, believing that your favorite writer’s work is reducible to, or at all enhanced by, a knowledge of her process is, to hazard another cliché, like insisting on seeing the packing plant before biting into your kielbasa. Scarlett Thomas—who, like her protagonist Meg, moonlights as a book reviewer for several British newspapers—surely knows that a surfeit of lint tends to gunk up even the most innocent authorial navel-gazing. That she fixes her smart, tart gaze belly-ward anyway, for some 430 pages, makes Our Tragic Universe a difficult novel to love and something of an awesome provocation to behold. The fetishist of fiction, Thomas seems to insist, paraphrasing Marx, must face up to its means of production, however grisly or gory or dreary the findings.

Unlike Scarlett Thomas—a name that has appeared, transatlantically, on eight book covers and dust jackets in the last twelve years—Meg Carpenter, a young woman living in the port town of Dartmouth, southwest England, is not a successful novelist. Or rather, she’s a prolific, uncommonly conscientious line-worker in the industrial manufacture of fictions a sector or two below Grishamite pulp: commodity schlock. When we meet her, Meg ghostwrites YA thrillers attributed to one Zeb Ross, a hive-mind pseudonym à la Carolyn Keene or Franklin W. Dixon. For her publishers she also leads retreats and local workshops around Devonshire with, remarkably, aspiring ghostwriters, and occasionally pumps out series science fiction under her own name. These are not lucrative endeavors—at least not with a dog to feed and one’s depressive live-in boyfriend unemployed and perhaps unemployable. Long ago defaulted on an ISP bill, Meg’s personal email account has been disabled; this counts as serious plot point and foreshadow in a Universe fuzzily deterministic at best (or worst). Meanwhile, a decade after getting and spending the £1000 advance, her “real” novel—scare quotes Thomas’s—remains a cruel and constant addiction, indulged daily at the local library.

Master of Zeb Ross formulae, Meg’s craftsmanship fails her spectacularly in the art of “literary” fiction—scare quotes mine. Ever more anxious, with each additional hackery, to set her true aesthetic and intellectual self to paper, her serious novel will balloon to 20,000 or 30,000 words before invariably being shorn to 43. (In an otherwise gutsy almanac of writerly delusion, Thomas whiffs by not giving us the 43 words to judge for ourselves.) When we leave her for good, things have happened to Meg—an unexpected TV deal for the sci-fi series makes her bank account slightly plusher; Christopher, the deadbeat boyfriend, is out of the picture, possibly for good; a ship-in-a-bottle, washed up onshore, portends something metaphysical—but very little’s changed. The arc of relations with her friends, her town, her novel could be said to have swept 360˚. Or, more plausibly, 0˚.

This formlessness is, you may have surmised, by design. Meg and her circle continuously circle back to matters of narrative form: she believes the graphable conventions of buildup and climax and falling action she teaches at Zeb Ross seminars, and rather self-seriously attributes to Aristotle, to be conditioned by the basic logical and psychological structures of the human mind; her friend Vi, an anthropologist, champions the “storyless story” as a clean escape from the Western tradition writ long, all Zen non-sequiturs without beginning, middle, or end and “constructed to help you break away from all drama, and hope, and desire.” Bemused with the paint-by-numbers crudity of her vocation, Meg’s friends in fact draft her to retune the buzzy reality of their lives into something more artificially believable, say, when an affair has to be seamlessly edited out of a husband’s vision. That she’s an instinctive storyteller—a natural hack in the least craven sense—should finally give the amoebic non-structure of her own story, and Thomas’s novel, their tragedy.

Not quite. If high-minded, slightly stoned, literary theoretic conversation is the leitmotif of Thomas’s plotless plot, its would-be McGuffin is The Science of Living Forever by Kelsey Newman, a New Age book about immortal consciousnesses at a supposed “Omega Point” which, Meg tells us in paragraph one, she’s been assigned to review. The mystical mendacity of such volumes—to be found in any real-world pop-sci aisle, even if “Kelsey Newman” is not—rings true in Meg’s initial revulsion, and her compulsion to pen a takedown. What’s never explained even remotely adequately is why Living Forever haunts her and us for the next 400 pages; the bleeding-edge cosmology and particle physics said to give sinister plausibility to the idea that we’re all already (un)dead aren’t, and probably can’t be, given their due in Thomas’s breezy first-person narration. Indeed, there’s a facile quality not just to the science but to the philosophies of literature and language as well—which range, in name-check glosses, from Aristophanes to Baudrillard (whose “Simulation and Simulacra” riff provides the epigraph), Roland Barthes (both Thomas and Carpenter’s books were originally to be called The Death of the Author), and sundry other friendly French poststructuralists. (No rookie provocateur, Thomas’s last novel, The End of Mr. Y, starred a graduate student!)

This gets at the mortal danger and venal sin of writing what you know: the insidious inflation of those things to an unearned universalism. Well, aren’t we all writers in a way, as we construct our stories and long to outlive our lives via the Omega Point of text?  

Ultimately, Our Tragic Universe is saved by those moments when Thomas’s purposefully aimless metafiction is allowed to relax into plain leisurely fiction about a particular community of writers—authors of scholarship and journalism, as well as fiction—in a specific corner of coastal England, with the sensations and circumstances unique to that spot in a dense, and basically indifferent, multiverse. Ferry schedules, past-due bills, gossip at pubs about who’s sleeping with whom; Moleskine notebooks and word counts and pitches to editors: the small stories Thomas lets her characters tell about themselves say a lot more, more profoundly, than all the soliloquies on storytelling and discourses about discourse.