two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-OurTragicUniverseScarlett Thomas is the author of Bright Young Things (2001), Going Out (2002), PopCo (2004), and The End of Mr. Y. (2006). Born in London, she was named by the Independent as one of the the United Kingdom's 20 best young writers.

The Story: Meg Carpenter dreams of completing her literary novel, but after years of writing and rewriting, the end of her book is nowhere in sight. In the meantime, she cobbles together a living reviewing books and cranking out formulaic science fiction under the pen name Zeb Ross. Her personal life, one that includes sharing a mildewed cottage with her loser boyfriend Christopher and mooning over the local museum curator Rowan, is even more depressing. When a mysterious book lands in her "to review" pile--The Science of Living Forever, which posits the existence of an afterlife--Meg begins to ask big questions about love, mysticism, and the seemingly real possibility of living forever.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 384 pages. $19.95. ISBN: 9780151013913

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[H]ow unexpectedly wonderful to read Scarlett Thomas's Our Tragic Universe, a book that brims with compassion and warmth. I agreed with practically none of its arguments, but I was still happy to spend time debating with its characters, who are just like the exasperating, good-hearted real people you'd call your friends." Patrick Ness

Observer (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Because her books address big ideas, her characters tend to sit around and have contrived conversations about theories. ... Our Tragic Universe is an accomplished novel, but how much you enjoy it depends on whether you like a journey or prefer the satisfaction of reaching a destination." Alice Fisher

Entertainment Weekly 2 of 5 Stars
"Thomas has loaded down her talky metaphysical mystery with lengthy regurgitations of literary, existential, and historical theory, but Our Tragic Universe is less a unified whole than a jumbled yard sale of ideas." Keith Staskiewicz

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"[H]ow is it that this lively and thoughtful book possesses all the requisite elements of the thing it wants to be, and is so self-aware of what its components should be, yet lacks the essential spark that would make it a satisfying work of literature?" Dave Itzkoff

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"[A]mbitious yet frustrating. ... By the time the characters start lecturing each other about the attributes of the ‘storyless story,' the reader's delight at the initial set pieces about the nature of reality and mysterious books has been blunted by too much rambling discourse and too many poorly paced scenes." Jeff VanderMeer

Critical Summary

Philosophical fiction is always a tricky undertaking. Even though the novel held an intriguing premise, critics were largely dissatisfied with Scarlet Thomas's self-described "storyless story." There is no question that Thomas writes beautifully, but her lack of plot and her tendency to vacillate left critics frustrated and perplexed. One exception came from the Guardian, which found the characters engaging in spite of, or maybe because of, the novel's "untidiness." Perhaps the Washington Post critic sums up the majority reaction best: "Sometimes virtuoso writing ability, even pages full of wit and verve, can't save a novel that seems to be about everything and nothing."