:: Article

Death of the Novelist


Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas, Canongate 2010

“I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.”
– Samuel Beckett, The Expelled

“All the characters that we create are but copies of ourselves. It may be of course also that they really are nobler, more disinterested, virtuous and spiritual.”
– W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale

Regular readers will know that Scarlett Thomas is not afraid of ideas: PopCo chaffed codes and mathematics against Big Business; The End of Mr Y, a mystery (get it?), a fantasy and a critique of 19th-century philosophy was a perfect novel, a compelling free-association on Derrida, phenomenology, the interrelation of science, faith and language. In her eight novel, the author tackles the mechanics of storytelling, Aristotle’s rules of drama, the seven basic plotlines and Zen koans. It’s good to be back in Scarlett Thomas’ universe.

Meg Carpenter, reminiscent of The End of Mr Y‘s Ariel Manto, is up against a wealth of frustrations. She is ghostwriter of the Zeb Ross young adult novels (“all the plots, however puzzling, had to have neat resolutions”) and author of four SF Newtopia novels is contracted (not unlike Thomas herself) for a “groundbreaking, literary, serious debut novel: the kind of thing that would win more prizes and be displayed in the windows of bookshops,” a zeitgeist-y novel about a “bunch of youngish long-haired thin people living in Brighton [who] would take cool drugs and listen to cool music and fuck each other for about 80,000 words and then the novel would end,” provisionally called Sandworld, perhaps Footprints or Notebooking or possibly The Death of the Author (the working title for Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe), except,

“..recently I’d been trying to make the novel into a great tragedy, but that wasn’t working either. I had realised a while ago that I was always trying to make the novel catch up with my life, and then deleting the bits that got too close, wiping them out like videogame aliens in a space-station corridor. I still didn’t know what to do about it. I’d invented a writer character from New York who deletes a whole book until it’s a haiku and then deletes that, but then I deleted him, too.”

To make ends meet Meg (again, like Thomas) reviews books, which is how she happens upon, and how we are introduced to, Kelsey Newman’s The Science of Living Forever. And how do you survive the end of time? Simple, as Meg, through Newman, tells us:

“By the time the universe is old enough and frail enough to collapse, humans will be able to do whatever they like with it. They’ll have billion of years to learn, and there’ll be no matron to stop them, and no liberal broadsheets and no doomy hymns. By then it’ll just be a case of wheeling one decrepit planet to one side of the universe while another one pisses itself sadly in another galaxy. And all this while waiting for the final crunch, as everything becomes everything else as the universe begins its beautiful collapse, panting and sweating until all life arcs out of it and all matter in existence is crushed into a single point and then disappears. In the barely audible last gasp of the collapsing universe, its last orgasmic sigh, all its mucus and pus and rancid jus will become pure energy, capable of everything imaginable, just for a moment.”

Not far removed from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point theory. But, as Thomas ambitiously tells us, a novel is “never one storyline, but many layers of storylines…an ethnography”. So, despite itself, Our Tragic Universe is more than ”faint outlines in the hazy spaces between the notes in the notebook,” more than a “flat-pack novel.”

Meg is in a decaying relationship with her hopelessly unemployable boyfriend, has fallen out with best friend and anthropologist Vi and is falling head-over-heels for an unobtainable older man. Add to that, a MacGuffin (a ship in a bottle), false leads (the Beast of Dartmoor, the creepy man in the forest who tells her: “You will never finish what you start … You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing.”), random chance and coincidence, so what if it’s a book that in the end nothing ultimately happens?

Yes, the characters spend a lot of time theorising at each other, and yes, Thomas deliberately attempts to divorce the reader from engaging with these characters (via her breaking from Aristophanian formulaic storytelling – a story consisting simply of someone losing a bottle of oil and then finding it again). As a novel on boundaries and the nuts and bolts of storytelling, a “storyless story” (“I wanted to make my ‘real’ novel less formulaic and more literary, of course, but if I listened to Vi’s theories then my only narrative strategy wold be ‘shit happens’”), formulae versus messy randomness, Our Tragic Universe is mesmerising.


Susan Tomaselli is a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine and lives in Dublin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 11th, 2010.