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Our Tragic Universe


Our Tragic Universe Cover

ISBN13: 9780151013913
ISBN10: 0151013918
All Product Details




I was reading about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby. Her text said, Can you be at the Embankment in fifteen minutes? Big disaster. It was a cold Sunday in early February, and Id spent most of it curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced cottage in Dartmouth. Oscar, the literary editor of the newspaper I wrote for, had sent me The Science of Living Forever by Kelsey Newman to review, along with a compliments slip with a deadline on it. In those days Id review anything, because I needed the money. It wasnt so bad: Id built up some kind of reputation reviewing science books and so Oscar gave me all the best ones. My boyfriend Christopher did unpaid volunteer work on heritage sites, so it was down to me to pay the rent. I never turned down a commission, although I wasnt at all sure what Id say about Kelsey Newmans book and this idea of surviving beyond the end of time. In some ways I was already surviving beyond the end of time: beyond deadlines, overdraft limits and ultimatums from my bank manager. I hit deadlines to get money, but not always to give it away. That winter Id been reduced to cashing all my cheques in a high-commission, no-questions-asked place in Paignton and paying utility bills at the Post Office with cash. Although what did anyone expect? I was hardly a big-time writer, although I was still planning to be. Every time a white envelope came from the bank Christopher added it to the pile of mail on my desk upstairs. I never opened any of these envelopes. I didnt have much credit on my phone, so I didnt text Libby back; but I put the book down and got off the bed and put on some trainers. Id vowed never to go out in Dartmouth on a Sunday evening, for complicated reasons. But I couldnt say no to Libby. The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened woodlouse. I still had fifty pages of The Science of Living Forever to read and the deadline for my review was the next day. Id have to finish the book later and make sure I filed the review on time if I wanted any chance of it being in the paper on Sunday. If it didnt go in until the next week I would miss being paid for a month. Downstairs, Christopher was on the sofa cutting pieces of reclaimed wood to make a toolbox. We didnt have a garden he could work in, just a tiny, completely enclosed and very high-walled concrete yard in which frogs and other small animals sometimes appeared miraculously, as if they had dropped from the sky. As I walked into the sitting room I could see sawdust getting in everything, but I didnt point this out. My guitar was propped up by the fireplace. Every time Christopher moved the saw back or forth the vibration travelled across the room and made the thick E string tremble. The sound was so low and sad and haunting that you could barely hear it. Christopher was sawing hard: his brother Josh had been for lunch yesterday and he still wasnt over it. Josh found it therapeutic talking about their mothers death; Christopher didnt. Josh was happy that their father was dating a 25-year-old waitress; Christopher thought it was disgusting. It had probably been up to me to stop the conversation, but at the time I was worrying that I hadnt even looked to see what book I was supposed to be reviewing, and that the bread was running out and we didnt have any more. Also, I didnt really know how to stop the conversation. Sometimes when I went downstairs Id think about saying something, and then Id imagine how Christopher would be likely to reply and end up saying nothing at all. This time I said, ‘Guess what? and Christopher, still sawing madly, as if into the back of his brothers head, or perhaps Millys head, said, ‘You know I hate it when you start conversations like that, babe. I apologised, but when he asked me to hold a piece of wood for him I said I had to take the dog out. ‘She hasnt been out for ages, I said. ‘And its getting dark. Bess was in the hallway, rolling on a piece of rawhide. ‘I thought you walked her this afternoon, Christopher said. I put on my anorak and my red wool scarf and left without saying anything else; I didnt even turn back when I heard Christophers box of nails fall on the floor, although I knew I should have done. How do you survive the end of time? Its quite simple. By the time the universe is old enough and frail enough to collapse, humans will be able to do whatever they like with it. Theyll have had billions of years to learn, and therell be no matron to stop them, and no liberal broadsheets and no doomy hymns. By then itll 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. I didnt know why Id contemplated trying to explain this to Christopher. Hed once made me cry because he refused to accept spatial dimensions, and wed had a massive row because he wouldnt look at my diagram that proved Pythagorass theorem. According to Christopher the books I reviewed were ‘too cerebral, babe. I didnt know what hed make of this one, which was a complete head-fuck. According to Kelsey Newman, the universe, which always was a computer, will, for one moment   —   not even that   —   be so dense and have so much energy that it will be able to compute anything at all. So why not simply program it to simulate another universe, a new one that will never end, and in which everyone can live happily ever after? This moment will be called the Omega Point, and, because it has the power to contain everything, will be indistinguishable from God. It will be different from God, though, because it will run on a processing power called Energia. As the universe gets ready to collapse, no one will be writing poetry about it or making love for the last time or just bobbing around, stoned and listless, waiting for annihilation, imagining something beautiful and unfathomable on the other side. All hands will be on deck for the ultimate goal: survival. Using only physics and their bare hands, humans will construct the Omega Point, which, with its infinite power, can and for various reasons definitely will, bring everyone back to life   —   yes, even you   —   billions of years after you have died, and it will love everyone and create a perfect heaven. At the end of the universe anything could happen, except for one thing. You cant die, ever again. It wasnt the kind of book Oscar usually sent me. We reviewed popular science, however wacky, but we drew the line at anything New Age. Was this a New Age book? It was hard to tell. According to the blurb, Newman was a well-respected psychoanalyst from New York who had once advised a president, although it didnt say which one. He had been inspired to write his book by reading the work of the equally well-respected physicist Frank Tipler, who had come up with the idea of the Omega Point and done all the necessary equations to prove that you and I   —   and everyone who ever lived, and every possible human who never lived   —   will be resurrected at the end of time, as soon as the power becomes available to do it. Your death will therefore be just a little sleep, and you wont notice any time passing between it and waking up in eternity. Why bother with anything, in that case? Why bother trying to become a famous novelist? Why bother paying bills, shaving your legs, trying to eat enough vegetables? The sensible thing, if this theory were true, would be to shoot yourself now. But then what? I loved the universe, particularly the juicy bits like relativity, gravity, up and down quarks, evolution, and the wave function, which I almost understood; but I didnt love it so much that I wanted to stay beyond its natural end, stuck with everyone else in some sort of coma, wired up to a cosmic life-support machine. I had been told once   —   and reminded of it again recently   —   that I would come to nothing. What on earth would I do with all that heaven? Living for ever would be like marrying yourself, with no possibility of a divorce. There were thirty-one stone steps down to the street. I walked with B past Regs place on the corner and across the market square, which was completely deserted except for one seagull pecking at a flapping chip wrapper and making the sound they all make: ack, ack, ack, like a lonely machine gun. B hugged the wall under the Butterwalk by Millers Deli, and stopped to pee as soon as we were in the Royal Avenue Gardens. Everything seemed to be closed, broken, dead or in hibernation. The bandstand was empty and the fountain was dry. The palm trees shivered. There was a smell of salt in the wind, and something seaweedy, which became stronger as we approached the river. No one was around. It was getting darker, and the sky above Kingswear was bruising into a mushy green, brown and purple, like the skin of an apple. The wind was coming in from the sea, and all the little boats danced on their moorings as if they were enchanted, making ghostly sounds. I put up the hood on my jacket, while B sniffed things. She liked to visit all the benches on the North Embankment, one by one, then go around the Boat Float and home via Coronation Park. She was always slower and sleepier in winter, and at home I kept finding her balled up in the bedclothes as if she was trying to hibernate. But she still followed her routine when we came out. Every day we stopped to look at the mysterious building site in Coronation Park. The previous autumn Libby had heard from Old Mary at her knitting group that it was going to be a small, stone Labyrinth set on a piece of raised and landscaped lawn with a view of the river. But it was still just a hole. The council was funding the project because a study had said it would help calm everybody down. Dartmouth was a sleepy harbour where people came to retire, die, write novels or quietly open a shop. The only people who needed calming down were the cadets at the Royal Naval College, and they would never come to the Labyrinth. My main worry was that the builders might cut down my favourite tree, and almost every day I went and checked it was still there. The wind tore across the park and I hurried B past the building site with its flapping plastic and temporary fencing, looked at my tree and then went back to the Embankment. This February was cold, cruel and spiteful, and I wanted to be at home in bed, even though it wasnt much warmer than outside and the damp in the house made me wheeze. B obviously wanted to go home too, and I imagined her curled under the covers with me, both of us in hibernation. There was still no one around. Perhaps Id been worrying over nothing all these months. Perhaps he didnt come any more. Perhaps hed never come. Upriver, the Higher Ferry was chugging across the water towards Dartmouth. It had only one car on it, probably Libbys, and its lights danced in the gloom. Things on the river tinkled. I stood there waiting for Libby, looking at all the boats, not looking for him. I listened to the ding-ding-ding sounds and wondered why they seemed ghostly. I reached into the inside pocket of my anorak. I already knew what was there: a scrap of paper with an email address on it that I knew by heart, and a brown medicine bottle with a pipette. The bottle contained the last dregs of the flower remedy my friend Vi had made me several weeks before. Id been up to Scotland for Christmas to stay with Vi and her partner Frank in their holiday cottage while Christopher went to Brighton, but it had all gone wrong and now Vi wasnt speaking to me. Because of this, I was objectively lonelier than I had ever been, but it was OK because I had a house and a boyfriend and B, which was more than enough. I also had this remedy, which helped. Her handwriting was still just legible on the label. Gentian, holly, hornbeam, sweet chestnut, wild oat and wild rose. I put a few drops of the mixture on my tongue and felt warm, just for a second. After a couple more minutes the ferry arrived. There was a thump as the flap came down; then the gate opened and the single car drove off and headed down the Embankment. It was Libbys, so I waved. Libby and her husband Bob had closed down their failing comic shop two years before and now ran Millers Deli, where they sold all sorts of things, including unpasteurised cheeses, goose fat, lemon tart, home-made salads, driftwood sculptures and knitted shawls and blankets made by them or their friends. I made jam and marmalade for Millers Deli to supplement the income I got from my writing projects. My favourite lunch was a tub of pickled garlic, some home-made fish p‰tŽ and a half-baguette, which I often picked up from the shop on winter mornings. Libby was driving slowly, with the window down, her hair going crazy in the wind. When she saw me she stopped the car. She was wearing jeans and a tight T-shirt with a hand-knitted, red shawl tied over the top, as if February was never cruel to her at all, and as if shed never worn thick glasses, or baggy tops screen-printed with characters from horror films. ‘Meg, fuck. Thank God. Christopher isnt here, is he? ‘Of course not, I said. I looked around. ‘No ones here. Why? Are you OK? Arent you cold? ‘No. Too much adrenaline. Im in deep shit. Can I say I was at yours? ‘When? ‘Today. All day. Last night as well. Bob came back early. Can you believe they diverted his flight to Exeter because of a slippery runway at Gatwick? ‘Have you spoken to him yet? ‘No, but hes sent messages. He was supposed to text me when his plane landed at Gatwick, which I thought would give me loads of time to get home and change and make the place look lived-in and stuff. When I heard a text come I just thought it was Bob at Gatwick   —   it was the right sort of time   —   and I was in bed with Mark, so I didnt look at it immediately. I mean, its half an hour to get off the plane and out of the airport, and then another half an hour into Victoria, then twenty minutes across to Paddington, and then three hours to Totnes to pick up his car and then another twenty-five minutes to drive back here. So I wasnt exactly panicking. But by the time I looked there was another text saying See you in half an hour. Then another one came asking where I was and if I was all right. I almost had a heart attack. Libby was having an affair with Mark, a bedraggled guy who had washed up in Churston, a village over the river in Torbay, when hed inherited a beach hut from his grandfather. He lived in the beach hut, ate fish and picked up any casual work he could get in the boatyards and harbours. He was saving to start his own boat-design company, but Libby said he was about a million miles away from that. Libby worked in the deli with Bob most weekdays, and spent the rest of her time knitting increasingly complicated things and writing Mark love letters in dark red ink, while Bob played his electric guitars and did the shop accounts. She had invented a book group at Churston library and told Bob thats where she went on a Friday night. She also saw Mark at her knitting group on a Wednesday, although that was more problematic, because there was always the chance that Bob might drop in with leftover cake from the shop, or that one of the old ladies might see Mark touching Libbys knee. This weekend had been different, though, because Bob had gone to see his great-aunt and -uncle in Germany. Shed been with Mark since Friday. ‘So you came to mine last night? And . . . ? I frowned. We both knew there was no way Libby would ever spend a whole evening at my house. Sometimes, but not so often recently, shed drop by with a bottle of wine from the shop. Then wed sit at the kitchen table, while Christopher simmered on the sofa a few feet away, watching American news or documentaries about dictators on our pirated Sky system and mumbling about the corruption of the world, and the rich, and greed. He did this on purpose because Libby had money and he didnt like it. Mostly when I saw Libby it was at the pub, although Christopher often complained about me going out and leaving him on his own. B had been sniffing the ground, but now put her paws up on the side of Libbys car and whimpered through the window. She wanted to get in. She loved going in cars. Libby patted her head, but didnt look at her. ‘No . . . I must have lost my keys. She started brainstorming. ‘We, er, me and you went out last night and I lost my keys and had to stay at yours. I was drunk, and I didnt worry about bothering Bob because he was in Germany and I thought Id go out and look for my keys today, and in fact thats what I was doing when he sent the messages, but Id left my phone at yours and . . . ‘But youre driving your car. Do you have separate house keys? I thought they were all on the same keyring. Libby looked down. ‘Maybe I found the keys . . . Holy shit. Oh, Christ. Oh, Meg, what am I going to do? Why would I have driven the car to your house anyway? Its only a five-minute walk. Im not sure I can fit this together. She frowned. ‘Come on. Youre the writer; you know how to plot things. I half-laughed. ‘Yeah, right. You read. Im sure you can plot things too. ‘Yeah, but you do it for a living. And teach it. ‘Yeah, but . . . ‘Whats the formula here? Formula, like the stuff you feed to babies. This was my speciality; she was right. After winning a short story competition in 1997 Id been offered a contract to write a groundbreaking, literary, serious debut novel: the kind of thing that would win more prizes and be displayed in the windows of bookshops. But Id actually filled most of the last eleven years writing genre fiction, because it was easy money and I always needed to pay rent and bills and buy food. Id been given a £1,000 advance for my literary novel, and instead of using it to clear my debts Id bought a laptop, a nice pen and some notebooks. Just as Id begun to write the plan for it, Claudia from Orb Books rang and offered me two grand if I could knock out a thriller for teenagers in six weeks. The official author of this book, Zeb Ross, needed to publish four novels a year but didnt in fact exist, and Claudia was recruiting new ghostwriters. It was a no-brainer: double my money and then write the real novel. But I was only a couple of chapters into the real novel when I realised I needed to write another Zeb Ross book, and then another one. A couple of years later I branched out and wrote four SF books in a series under my own name, all set in a place called Newtopia. I kept meaning to finish my ‘proper novel but it seemed as if this would never happen, even if I stuck around until the end of time. If Kelsey Newman was right and all possible humans were resurrected by the Omega Point at the end of the universe, then Zeb Ross would have to be one of them and then he could write his own books. But Id probably still have rent to pay. I sighed. ‘The thing is, when you plot a book you can go back and change things that dont work and make everything add up neatly. You can delete paragraphs, pages, whole manuscripts. I cant go back in time and put you on a bus to Marks, which would probably be the best thing. ‘How would that work? I shrugged. ‘I dont know. Then you could have walked round to mine and lost your keys and your phone like you said. ‘But why would I have a weekend bag with me? ‘Yeah. I dont know. ‘There must be a way. Lets go back to basics. How do you tell a really good story? I mean, in a nutshell. I looked at my watch. Christopher would be wondering where I was. ‘Isnt Bob expecting you? I said. ‘I need to get this right, or therell be no Bob any more. ‘OK. Just keep it simple. Base the story on cause and effect. Have three acts. ‘Three acts? ‘A beginning, a middle and an end. A problem, a climax and a solution. You link them. Put someone on the wrong ship. Then make it sink. Then rescue them. Not literally, obviously. You have to have a problem and make it get worse and then solve it. Unless its a tragedy. ‘What if this is a tragedy? ‘Lib . . . ‘All right. So I was out with you and I lost my keys. Thats bad. Then to make it worse I got gang-raped while I was looking for them, and now Ive lost my memory and the kidnappers took you away because you were a witness, and only Bess knows where you are, and shes trying to tell Christopher, but . . . ‘Too complicated. You need something simpler. You only need to explain the car. The story here is that we went out and you lost your keys, which was a bummer. Then maybe because you lost your keys you lost your car too, which is obviously a bigger bummer. Maybe someone found your keys and stole your car. Who knows? All you know is you lost your keys. The only glitch is you still have your car. Yadda, yadda. I seemed to have become a plot-o-matic machine programmed to churn out this kind of thing. But when I was dispensing advice like this to the more junior Orb Books ghostwriters I always said they should believe in their project and not just follow a set of rules. Then again, if they got lost in the wilderness of originality I gently guided them back to the happy path of formula again. ‘OK. So how do me and Bob live happily ever after? I thought about it for a second. ‘Well, obviously youll have to push your car in the river, I said, and laughed. Libby sat there for about ten seconds, her hands becoming paler and paler as she gripped the steering wheel. Then she got out of the car and looked around. The North Embankment still seemed deserted. There were no kids trying to steal boats, no tourists, no other dog-walkers. No men looking for me. Libby made a noise a little like the one B had made before. ‘Youre right, she said. ‘Its the only thing to do. ‘Lib, I said. ‘I was joking. She got back into her car, did a haphazard three-point turn until it was facing the river and, finally, drove it up on the Embankment. For a moment it looked as if she was going to drive her car into the river. I stood there, not knowing if she was messing around, not knowing whether to laugh or try to stop her. Then she got out and walked around to the back of the car. Libby was small but as her biceps tightened I realised how strong her arms were. The car moved; she must have left the handbrake off. She pushed it again, and then the front wheels were over the edge of the Embankment. ‘Lib, I said again. ‘I must be mad. What am I doing? she said. ‘Nothing, I said. ‘Come on, dont do this. Its going to be very hard to explain. Then she pushed her car into the river and threw the keys in after it. ‘Ill say kids must have done it, she said, over the splashing, sucking sound. ‘They must have stolen my keys. Even if it does sound crazy, no one will think I was desperate enough to push my own car in the river, will they? Nothing would motivate me to do something as stupid as that. Holy shit. Thank you, Meg. That was a brilliant idea. Ill call you tomorrow if Im still alive. She looked at her watch and then walked away down the Embankment towards Lemon Cottage, her red shawl moving like a flag in the wind. I remembered a Zen story about a flag in the wind. Does the wind move, or does the flag move? Two monks are arguing about this when a wise man turns up and says, ‘The wind is not moving, the flag is not moving. Mind is moving. I walked on slowly, with B re-sniffing benches as if nothing had happened. Libby didnt look behind her, and I saw her get smaller and smaller until she reached the corner and went off towards Bayards Cove. Of course, as any scientist would tell you, she didnt really get smaller and smaller; she simply got further away. The wind breathed heavily down the river, and I half-looked at the little ripples and wakes in the blackish, greenish water as I tried to hurry B home. There was no sign of Libbys car. I was watching the river, not the benches, so when someone said ‘Hello, I jumped. It was a man, half hidden in the gloom. B was already sniffing his ancient walking boots, and he was stroking her between her ears. He was wearing jeans and a duffel coat, and his messy black and grey hair was falling over his face. Had he seen what had happened? He must have done. Did he hear me suggest the whole thing? He looked up. I already knew it was Rowan. So he had come. Had he been coming every Sunday for all this time? ‘Hi, I said. ‘Youre . . . ‘Hello, he said. ‘Chilly, isnt it? ‘Freezing. ‘You OK? ‘Yeah. I think so. How are you? ‘Cold. Depressed. Needed to get some fresh air. Ive been at the Centre all day working on my Titanic chapter. Can you believe Im still at it? I should be grateful Im still alive, I suppose. Everyone said retiring would kill me. Rowan and his partner Lise had relocated to Dartmouth just over a year before to help look after Lises mother. They lived in a renovated old boathouse near the castle, with spectacular views of the mouth of the harbour. Everything inside it was tasteful and minimal: nothing was old or shabby, although it must have been once. Rowan had not yet retired when I went there for a dinner party. Lise wore too much make-up and spoke to Rowan as if he was a child. She told stories about him getting lost for three hours in a shopping mall, wearing jeans to her companys black-tie Christmas party and breaking the new dishwasher just by touching it. Id pictured him alone in an airy office at Greenwich University, with an open window and freshly cut grass outside, surrounded by books and drinking a cup of good coffee, secretly dreading these dinner parties. Id wondered then why he was retiring at all. ‘Most people retire and then take up gardening or DIY, dont they? I said. ‘They dont go and get another job as director of a maritime centre. I dont think you really are retired, by most normal definitions of the word. He sighed. ‘Pottering about with model ships all day. Wind machines. Collections of rocks and barnacles. Interactive tide tables. Its not rocket science. Still, Ive had time to take up yoga. So he wasnt going to mention Libby and her car. We were going to have a ‘normal conversation, slightly gloomy, slightly flirty, like the ones we used to have when he came to Torquay library every day before the Maritime Centre opened   —   to do paperwork   —   and we ended up going for lunch and coffee all the time. Would we kiss at the end of this conversation, as we had done at the end of the last one? ‘Hows your writing going? he asked me. ‘OK, I said. ‘Well, sort of. Im back on chapter one of my ÒproperÓ novel yet again, re-writing. The other day I worked out that Ive deleted something like a million words of this novel in the last ten years. Youd think that would make it really good, but it hasnt. Its a bit of a mess now, but never mind. ‘Are you still using the ghost ships? ‘No. Well, sort of. They might come back. ‘And how was Greece? I frowned. ‘I didnt go in the end. Had too much other work on here. ‘Oh. Thats a shame. ‘Anyway, how about you? Hows the chapter? ‘Oh, I keep having to read new things. I just read a hundred-page poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger about the sinking of the Titanic. ‘Was it good? ‘Ill lend it to you. Its about some other stuff as well as the sinking of the Titanic. Theres a bit where members of a religious cult are waiting on a hill for the end of the world, which is supposed to take place that afternoon. When the world doesnt end, they all have to go out and buy new toothbrushes. I laughed, although I was remembering that Rowan had already lent me a book that I hadnt read, even though Id meant to. It was an Agatha Christie novel called The Sittaford Mystery, and I had no idea why Rowan had given it to me. Hed worked on a short local project on Agatha Christies house on the River Dart, which was how hed come to read the books. But I couldnt imagine hed found anything that would interest me. I spent enough time messing around with genre fiction anyway. ‘Sounds great, I said. ‘Sounds a bit like a book Im reviewing, except the book Im reviewing isnt great. ‘What is it? ‘Its all about how the universe will never end, and how we all get to live for ever. I hate it, and I dont know why. ‘I dont want to live for ever. ‘No. Me neither. ‘Whats the point of living for ever? Living now is bad enough. ‘Thats what I thought. ‘Are you OK? he asked me again. ‘Yeah. Did you just say youre doing yoga, or did I imagine it? ‘No, you didnt imagine it. I am doing yoga. ‘Why? He shrugged. ‘Bad knees. Getting old. Were not long back from a yoga holiday in India, actually. Missed Christmas, which was good. Saw some kingfishers too. Rowan stroked Bs head again while I looked away. I knew that his casual ‘we meant he and Lise. Long-term couples often did that, Id noticed: referred to themselves as ‘we all the time. Whenever I phoned my mother and asked, ‘How are you? she replied, ‘Were fine. I never talked about Christopher and me in that way. Maybe it would come in time. Not that Id know how to use it, since we hardly ever did anything together. And we were never fine. We were even less fine since Id kissed Rowan, because I knew that if I could kiss someone else, then I could never kiss Christopher again. In the last five months he hadnt really noticed this. ‘Hows Lise? I asked. ‘Is she still working on her book? I ran retreats twice a year for Orb Books ghostwriters in a clapped-out hotel in Torquay. These were supposed to teach already talented writers the finer points of plotting and structure and the Orb Books ‘method. Orb Books didnt mind if I charged a few local people to come too, so whenever a retreat was scheduled I put up posters in the Harbour Bookshop and usually got three or four takers. Lise had come to one the previous year. She had been planning to use some of her retirement to write a fictionalised account of her parents experiences in the war, but as far as I knew she hadnt retired yet. She still took the train to London twice a week and worked at home the rest of the time. Rowan shrugged. ‘I dont think so. ‘Oh. He reached down and played with one of Bs ears, making it stand up and then flop down again. ‘Your dogs quite lovely, he said. ‘I know. Thanks. Shes being quite patient while you abuse her ears. ‘I think she likes it. ‘Yeah, she probably does. ‘I meant to say . . . Ive been looking at some of the cultural premonitions connected with the Titanic recently, Rowan said. ‘And I thought of you. He looked down at the ground, then at one of Bs ears and then up at me. ‘I mean, I thought youd be interested. I wondered if I should get in touch with you. ‘Get in touch with me any time. I blushed. ‘Just email me. Whats a cultural premonition? ‘Writing about the disaster before it happened, or painting pictures of it. Lots of people did. ‘Seriously? ‘Yeah. ‘So its paranormal in some way? I could feel myself wrinkling my nose. ‘No. Cultural. The premonitions are cultural rather than supernatural. ‘How? ‘Its like . . . Have you heard of the Cottingley Fairies? I shook my head. ‘No. ‘Remind me to tell you about them sometime. Its quite an interesting case-study in how people decide to believe in things, and what people want to believe. Id guess that there are usually cultural explanations for supernatural things if you look hard enough. ‘They werent on the Titanic as well? ‘Huh? ‘These fairies. ‘No. They were in my old home town. ‘I thought your old home town was in the Pacific. ‘After I left San Cristobal I was in Cottingley before I went to Cambridge. My mother came from Cottingley, although she was dead by the time I left San Cristobal. Mind you, the fairies were long before that. He frowned. ‘Ill tell you the whole story sometime, but its too complicated now. I thought you might have heard of them. Silly, really, bringing them up. ‘Oh. Well, I know a good joke about sheep thats all about how people decide to believe things, if thats of any interest. He smiled in the gloom. ‘What is it? ‘OK. A biologist, a mathematician, a physicist and a philosopher are on a train in Scotland. They see a black sheep from a train window. The biologist says, ÒAll sheep in Scotland are black!Ó The physicist says, ÒYou cant generalise like that. But we know at least one sheep in Scotland is black.Ó The mathematician strokes his beard and says, ÒAll we can really say for sure is that one side of one sheep in Scotland is black.Ó The philosopher looks out of the window, thinks about it all for a while and says, ÒI dont believe in sheep.Ó My father used to tell it as if it said something about the perils of philosophy, although I wondered whether it said something else about the perils of science. My father is a physicist. Rowan laughed. ‘I like that. I like sheep. I believe in them. ‘Did you know they can remember human faces for ten years, and recognise photographs of individual people? ‘So when they fix you with that stupid look theyre actually memorising you? ‘I guess so. ‘Like those machines at Heathrow. But why? ‘Who knows? Maybe sheep will take over the world. Maybe thats their plan. Another plot for Zeb Ross, perhaps. Ill have to tell Orb Books. I wasnt really supposed to talk to anyone about Zeb Ross, and everyone who worked on the series signed NDAs. But in reality you cant pretend not to be writing a novel when you are, and pretty much everyone knew that those kinds of books were ghosted   —   except, perhaps, for their readers, particularly the ones who sent Zeb fan mail asking what colour his eyes were, and whether he was married. B was now trying to get on Rowans lap. I pulled her off, wondering what I smelled of as I leaned over him. And I didnt mean to look into his eyes, but when I did I saw that they were shining with tears. ‘Hay fever is what people usually say when they are crying; its what I say, but not in February. I imagined Christopher walking along the river and finding me looking into Rowans eyes, and then seeing my eyes suddenly full of tears, because when someone I care about cries I always want to cry too. He never knew about the lunches, or the kiss. Suddenly, joking about sheep didnt seem quite right, even though Rowan was still smiling. I didnt say anything for a moment. ‘Why did she do it? he asked. ‘Who? ‘Libby Miller. Why did she push her car in the river? ‘Shes the one I told you about ages ago. Shes having a tragic love affair. Didnt you hear what we were saying? ‘No. I only got here just as she pushed it in. ‘Oh. Well. ‘I wont say anything. ‘Thanks. ‘Funny how things just go, isnt it? he said. ‘Sorry? ‘The car in the river. Its just gone. ‘Its for the best, Im sure, I said. Rowan got up to leave, and I felt like a melting iceberg as I said goodbye and walked away from him. I didnt know what was wrong with me. I could have emailed him any time Id wanted to. I could have got in touch to tell him Id read the book hed lent me, but I hadnt. I could have emailed him to write off the kiss as a mistake and tell him how much I missed our friendship. As I walked away, I imagined going back and asking him if he had come out tonight because of me, and then him looking puzzled and saying it was all just a coincidence. Was it a coincidence that wed ended up at the library together? It must have been. I didnt usually tell people that I worked in the library every weekday. It was such a weird thing to do when I had a perfectly good house to work in, and if I ever mentioned my asthma and the damp people didnt understand why I just didnt simply move. I recognised Rowan the first day he came to work at the library. He seemed to recognise me, too. After wed spent a day or so just nodding and smiling at one another I showed him how to get his emails on his laptop rather than the library computers and then he took me to Luckys for lunch to say thanks. Over lunch we realised we had friends   —   Frank and Vi   —   in common. Frank had been my lecturer almost twenty years before, and he and Vi had been something like a second set of parents for me since then. Rowan had been at Goldsmiths before he got his chair in history at Greenwich, and had met Frank there. Vi was an anthropologist, and she and Rowan had really hit it off and ended up working together on re-enactment projects. Theyd wanted to reconstruct the voyage of the Beagle, but could never secure any funding. But they did once spend a successful couple of weeks in Norfolk re-enacting Captain Cooks death on Hawaii with their postgraduate students. Cook had been killed by his previously generous hosts when he came back to the island to fix his broken boat. (‘It would be like having your parents come to stay, Vi explained to me once, ‘and just after youve settled down to eat with your put-upon partner and vowed never to have them back again, their car breaks down and they return to stay for another week while your local garage sources the part to mend their car.) Was he killed because he demanded too much generosity? Or was it because hed inadvertently become a character in a ritual, and this character wasnt supposed to return? Vi, Rowan and the students decided to act out a situation as close as possible to the one in which Cook and the islanders had found themselves. Theyd hired an old beachfront hotel to function as ‘Hawaii   —   a closed community into which Cook came, went and came again. Rowan played Cook, and Vi played the Hawaiian King and chiefs. The students played islanders, and after the project had to write up how theyd felt about having to bow and scrape to Cook, and wait on him hand and foot. Could this have led one of them to want to kill him, or was there more to it? How much did they believe in the ritual? Rowan wrote about how interesting it was to find yourself allowing and accepting huge amounts of deference and generosity, and, after a while, becoming upset if people dont give you everything you want. An edited version of the experiment was published in Granta magazine. When Id asked Vi about Rowan, not long after Id met him, she had told me how fastidious he was about always taking a good map and a pair of walking boots anywhere he went. I couldnt bear to admit to myself that I was interested in him, but I lapped up everything Vi said. I would have found out his shoe size if I could have done. When I discovered that he and Vi shared a birthday I even looked up his astrological chart, despite not believing in astrological charts. From Rowan I heard things about Vi that I mostly knew already. Vis projects always involved what she provocatively called ‘going native. Over the years she had picked up several colloquial languages, five complicated tattoos, three ‘lost herbarium specimen collections, a drum kit, a dress made from leaves, and malaria. After her long period of Pacific studies, she took more study leave from the university, got a job as a care assistant and embarked on an ethnography of a nursing home in Brighton, which became her bestselling book I Want to Die, Please. Now she was working on a project about subculture and style in late-middle-aged people in the UK. Rowan made lots of jokes about that, mainly at his own expense. Vi never used maps, but relied on a strange kind of ‘luck to find her way around. If she found a tree that had been cut down she apologised to it on behalf of humans. She talked to inanimate objects as if they too were alive, although since working at the nursing home her conversations with these objects often began with ‘How the fuck are you, then? She used tea tree oil as an antiseptic, and ginger to settle a bad stomach. For everything else she used 25+ manuka honey. One time in Scotland Id gone on a hike with Frank and Vi and she had fixed his sprained ankle with a bottle of vinegar and some daisies. I told Rowan about this in some detail and then felt Id betrayed Vi by laughing at her. Then again, we laughed at a lot of things. We found all sorts of excuses to have coffee or lunch at Luckys and continue the long, rambling conversations wed started. These included our thoughts on playing guitar, whether it was immoral to use a dictionary when doing cryptic crosswords, why neither of us could sit at a messy table, why we hated shopping and how many ferry disasters thered ever been on the River Dart. We discovered that we both disliked email: me because I had a psychological problem with replying to them, and Rowan because he got too many of them and preferred pen and paper. We joked about reading each others minds, and tried to guess each others lunch order every day. Bizarrely, wed bumped into each other in a one-off flea market in the hall next to the library, both looking for an antique fountain pen to give to the other as a thank-you present. He was   —   still   —   thanking me for helping with his email. I cant remember what I was thanking him for. And we kept parking our cars next to each other in the library car park. Once when there wasnt a space free next to his car I drove round the car park until one did become free, because I didnt want to break the symmetry. A few days later I arrived first, and when I left the library that afternoon and saw his car several rows away from mine I felt like crying. When Rowans office in the Maritime Centre was completed we went for our last lunch. On the way there wed been talking about the Titanic, and Id recited Thomas Hardys ‘The Convergence of the Twain and told Rowan my theory that it is a tragic love story as well as a disaster poem. After that he looked at me, and his eyes held mine for a second longer than they should have. Over lunch he told me that he was planning to write a completely different book after the one on shipwrecks, something that would involve going back to the Gal‡pagos Islands for at least a year, but not as Darwin or anyone else: just as himself. I could tell he wouldnt hang around in Devon for long. Once Lises mother was dead and Rowans book was finished they were bound to sell the converted boathouse and move on. If I was the iceberg and he was the ship, wed never converge, because he would change course before it was too late. I wouldnt sink him, and he wouldnt destroy me either. There would be no jarring of ‘two hemispheres. We stayed in Luckys until gone four, talking about Rowans plans for exhibitions and conferences, and ways in which I could get involved. We laughed a lot as these collaborations became more and more absurd. We never explicitly said we wanted to see one another again, but we planned thousands of ways it could happen. Our eyes touched again, for longer. I breathed out as he breathed in and the molecules of air between us danced back and forth in a frenzied tango that no one else could see or feel. But we didnt physically touch: we never had. We walked back to our cars together as if we were walking through a force-field. Rowan said quietly, ‘I often go for a walk in Dartmouth on a Sunday evening. Maybe well bump into one another sometime. Then, even though Im sure we meant to just say goodbye by shaking hands or kissing on the cheek, we ended up taking each others hands and then kissing properly, deeply, gently stroking each others hair. Afterwards, as I drove home panicking and sweating and moaning his name, I realised that I hadnt kissed anyone like that for almost seven years. We didnt have each others phone numbers, but we had exchanged email addresses. I felt that an affair was inevitable, even though I didnt want to have one. Id had plenty of complicated break-ups but never an affair. Who would email the other first, Id wondered? Who would fashion the iceberg? Neither of us did. ‘Where have you been? I looked at the clock on the oven. It was half past seven. It was dark outside, and there was a cold smell in the house. Christopher had turned off the central heating as usual. Nothing was cooking, no washing was drying, my peace lily was slowly dying on the sunless windowsill; if it wasnt for the sawdust and Christopher it would be as if no one had lived here for ages: as if whoever had lived here had died. ‘Walking Bess, I said. ‘You knew that. ‘For an hour? He shook his head. ‘And after storming off in such a mood. I dont know why you cant just stay and talk if theres a problem. Im not a monster. Theres nothing for dinner, by the way. Ive looked in all the cupboards. And your mother phoned. ‘I really dont know what youre talking about. I didnt storm off. ‘Dont use that tone of voice with me. Its not helpful. ‘What tone of voice? ‘That one. ‘Oh, for Gods sake. I started going through the cupboards and found some whole-wheat penne and a jar of murky-looking tomato sauce. Our few kitchen cupboards were always full of things that couldnt be thrown away but couldnt be eaten either. I didnt mean to slam all the doors, and thump the jar of sauce down on the table, but I did. ‘So you are in a mood. I always know . . . ‘If thats what you want to call being angry, then yes, I am now. I wasnt before. I walked out of the house completely normally, came back after a normal amount of time, and found you shouting at me. As I said this, I was filling the kettle with my back to Christopher. He didnt say anything until I turned to face him again. ‘Im not shouting, he said. ‘No. But you know what I mean. He looked at the floor. ‘You always say Im shouting. I looked at the floor too, but a different spot. ‘Im sorry. Youre right. I do. My mind was like a fishing net with too many thoughts wriggling around in it. My stupid suggestion. Splash. The tears in Rowans eyes. Splash. Libbys shawl. Splash. Immortality in an artificial heaven. My eyes were filling with tears again, and I was developing a headache. I imagined an eternity with Christopher. Id been waiting for the last seven years for him to make sense to me, to fall into place; perhaps in an eternity it would happen. Perhaps in an eternity everything would fall into place, but then it wouldnt stay like that, because thats not the point of eternity. Even in a finite universe, a rock doesnt keep being a rock. Things are always disintegrating and becoming other things. In fact, I was quite looking forward to becoming a rock, or perhaps some sand, once I was long dead and decomposed. It would be a lot simpler than being resurrected and having to go through all this again. In an eternity, though, Id get one night with Rowan, something Id never get in this life. But like everything else in eternity it would be meaningless. The kettle had boiled, and I put the penne on. ‘Im sorry, I said again. ‘Youre right, I do feel a bit unsettled this evening. I think Im coming down with a headache. The pieces of pasta bobbed about in the pan like little tubes of brown cardboard, the empties from a dolls-house toilet, perhaps, although not even dolls-house people would put little tubes of cardboard in a pan and cook them. I blinked and looked at Christopher. He was looking at the pasta too. ‘Whats wrong? he said. ‘Has something happened? ‘No. I dont think so. Itll be OK. Ill take some painkillers. What did my mum say? ‘She said shed ring back tomorrow. Then, as usual, she put the phone down. ‘Oh. Without catching his eye I picked up the newspaper from the table and opened it to the cryptic crossword that I did every Sunday. Id done all of it the previous week except for one answer, which Id written in the margin but not entered because although I thought it was right I didnt know why. Now I could see the correct answers for last week, and I had been right. I still didnt know why. Rowan and I once finished the crossword together on a rainy Monday morning in the library, after using a big, musty atlas to look up a lake in Australia and the capital of Corsica. That morning had ended oddly, I remembered. Wed planned to go for lunch as usual, but Lise had texted Rowan to say she had a migraine, and hed gone home instead. His hands had been shaking as hed packed up his decrepit, cotton knapsack, and hed rushed off without really saying goodbye. Now I picked up a mechanical pencil from the kitchen work surface and sat down on the sofa. It was hard to concentrate, and I realised Christopher hadnt moved. ‘Any news from Josh? Was he OK after yesterday? Christopher rolled his eyes. ‘Who knows? ‘Any news from your dad? Is Becca any better? ‘No, Christopher said. ‘I dont know. I was going to ring him after dinner. We ate in front of the TV, with me still looking at my crossword, and Christopher occasionally looking at my crossword too as if it was my lover and hed become resigned to discovering us together. But mostly he was watching a programme about haunted houses. I hated programmes about haunted houses and Christopher knew this. I ate so fast I half-choked on a piece of penne. Once Id finished coughing I put my plate in the sink and headed for the stairs, still carrying my crossword. ‘What are you doing now? Christopher said. ‘Im going to have a bath. Give you some space to talk to your dad. ‘I dont need space, he said. I went anyway. ‘Itll help clear my chest, I said, coughing again. I lay there for an hour, until long after Christopher had put the phone back in its cradle and started sawing again. There was always something in the crossword that made me think it could have been written just for me, and I always wanted to tell Rowan about it. Today the clue was ‘Cosmos in a single poem (8 letters). After a while I put down the crossword on the damp bathroom floor, made myself stop thinking about Rowan and wondered what on earth I could do about my relationship with Christopher. Was there something I could say to him? I still dreamed about Becca sometimes, even after all these years: her freckled, laughing face freezing at the sight of me. Becca was Christophers sister. She lived in Brighton with her husband Ant. Theyd just had a third daughter and thered been some complications that meant Becca had temporarily closed the shop where she sold her hand-made jewellery. Ants brother Drew was an actor, and had been my fiancŽ in the late nineties when I first met Christopher. For a couple of years wed all hung around together having silly tea parties and ‘happenings in Becca and Ants huge house. Just after my first Zeb Ross book had been published Drew had shot his first major drama series, in which he was the young parochial sidekick of a literature-loving detective. A couple of years later there was a Millennium party, where everyone except Christopher and me dressed as bugs. But Brighton soon became very complicated, which was why I had run away to Devon with Christopher, home for him and exotic for me, at least at the beginning. Becca had hardly spoken to either of us since wed left Brighton, although Christopher had gone there at Christmas to try to patch things up. Drew had blamed Becca somehow, and left the area too. She and Ant ‘almost split up because of it. I vaguely remembered the first synopsis Id written for my literary novel, which was at that time called Sandworld. It was going to be all about a bunch of youngish, long-haired, thin people living in Brighton. They would take cool drugs and listen to cool music and fuck each other for about 80,000 words and then the novel would end. It fitted with what my agent called the ‘ Zeitgeist , but seemed to lack substance, so Id added a dangerous love-interest for the main character. I also added a philosophy course about hedonism, and made the characters students rather than townies. I wrote lots of pointless sections about nihilism and then deleted them. Then I decided to end the novel with the end of the world, but that didnt work, so I made it so that the end of the world could just be a fireworks display on Sark, or one of the other Channel Islands   —   but the reader doesnt know for sure. Then I put it aside and wrote another Zeb Ross novel and then another Newtopia novel, because I needed the money. When I came back to Sandworld I deleted most of it, changed the title to Footprints, decided to relocate the characters to Devon and started researching some themes about the environment. I made the main character a scientist, and then, perhaps more authentically, a writer who wanted to be a scientist. Recently Id been trying to make the novel into a great tragedy, but that wasnt 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 didnt know what to do about it. Id invented a writer character from New York who deletes a whole book until its a haiku and then deletes that, but then I deleted him too. Blammo. Lock and load. In the past few years Id invented a couple of sisters, called Io and Xanthe, who have lost everything in their lives, a building site with yellow cranes, a run-down B&B owned by a chewed-up old woman called Sylvia, an inconsiderate boyfriend, a married lover, a girl in a coma telling her life story from the beginning in real-time, a life-support machine wired up to the Internet, a charismatic A-level physics teacher called Dylan, a psychic game-show, an extended game of ‘Dare that goes wrong, some people trapped in a sauna, a car accident, a meaningful tattoo, dreams of a post-oil world full of flickering candles, a plane crash, an imposter, a character with OCD who follows any written instructions she sees, some creepy junk mail, a sweet teenage boy on a skateboard and various other things, all of which had now been deleted as well. Ducks in a row, then bang, bang, bang. I heard Christopher come up the stairs, walk across the small landing to the bathroom door and sigh loudly before walking up the next flight of stairs to the bedroom. Was he going to bed already? He went to bed earlier than me, because on weekdays he took the 6 a.m. bus to Totnes to work as a volunteer on a wall-rebuilding project. But it wasnt even nine oclock yet. He came down the stairs again and tried the bathroom door, which Id locked. ‘I wont be a minute, I said. ‘Can I come in? I need to piss. ‘Im just about to get out. Can you hang on? ‘Im desperate. And I want to get ready for bed. Why have you locked the door anyway? Why have you been in there for so long? ‘Im going to be like one minute. Just hang on. He sighed again. ‘Dont worry. Ill go and piss in the kitchen sink. ‘Fine, I said. ‘But I will only be a minute if you want to wait. I heard him muttering something like ‘I dont believe this, as he went down the stairs again. I wished I knew what to say to him, but I didnt. I didnt know what to say about us, or about his father and Milly, or about Josh and his episodes, or about Becca and her bitterness about everything, or indeed about Christophers lack of paid work. Could I plot one single thing to say that would make everything better? A Zen koan, maybe fifty words long, could change your whole life; it could, apparently, bring you enlightenment. I knew all about this because the Zeb Ross editorial board had recently rejected a novel where some survivors of a plane crash find a utopian island populated by wise people who tell each other Zen stories all the time. The Zen stories, and indeed the novel itself, had no obviously conventional narrative structure. In one of the stories, a woman gains enlightenment after the reflection of the moon falls out of a bucket of water she is carrying. Another told of a woman Zen master who owns a teashop. People who come to her teashop for tea are well treated, but those who come looking for Zen are beaten with a red-hot poker. In the novel, which I had quite liked but pretended not to, each of the main characters is given a koan, kind of a Zen riddle, to work on, and their lives start to change. But their enlightenment is all about cheering up, doing simple things well, not being too high and mighty, and accepting the unfathomable nature of the universe. Christopher, like most people, didnt like his universe being unfathomable, so I doubted that a Zen koan would help him. Mind you, he did like doing simple things well. He spent every day rebuilding sections of dry-stone wall, after all. He was broken when I met him, and beautiful. Wed gone to bed together for the first time not long after Id split up with Drew. Everyone wanted to talk to me about the split, or blame me because Drew had been hospitalised, even though it wasnt my fault. I just wanted to talk to Christopher; although he didnt say much in those days, we seemed to have a special connection. We both recycled everything we could, and both moaned about Becca and Ant leaving all the lights on in their huge house. He said he liked me because I was an ‘old-fashioned gal who used a fountain pen and played an acoustic guitar. That day wed met in some greasy spoon that no one else liked, and talked half-seriously about running away from Brighton and getting working passages on a ship Christopher had heard of. We wouldnt escape on a plane, of course, because of the environment. Then we drank all day. Christopher had lived in a shared house near the police station. His bedroom walls were painted magnolia and there was a mattress on the floor, and nothing else. I was wearing a new pair of blue knickers with white lace on the edges, and he laughed at them. ‘What are you wearing those for? hed said. And I thought that meant he wanted me naked, right then, and I threw them in the corner and got under the lumpy duvet and put the spliff he passed me into an ashtray and waited. In some ways I was still waiting. Nothing happened that night except for his long, brown hair spreading out on the pillow, and him stroking my arm until we both fell into a stoned sleep. It didnt seem to matter much. Back then, life felt like something that would happen in the future, not now; and it felt as if you could easily fit the cosmos into a single poem.

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Jack Rems, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by Jack Rems)
A bit like China Mieville's KRAKEN but neater.
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FNORDinc, July 19, 2010 (view all comments by FNORDinc)
Review: Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas

Forewarning, this is a positive review though I can see where it might not appear that way. It was just a very hard book to write about!

Our Tragic Universe (originally to be titled ‘Death of the Author’) is a nonstandard plot. Part time writer Meg is living in a small town England. She is living unhappily with her long term boyfriend and her dog, barely scraping by. Meg is continually trying to write her “Real Novel”, editing and paring down her words, never able to solidify where she wants to take it. In the meantime, she takes on the grunt work of the literary world, reviews of trash novels for a newspaper, and ghost writing teen fiction using formulaic methods.

Meg is caught in an interesting kludge of personal issues. Her best friend is having an affair that is messy. long time friends have stopped speaking to her. Her boyfriend is spiraling into depression and taking her on a manic roller coaster as he falls. She feels trapped and unaccomplished. Her only real bonus is a love interest in a man nearly twice her age, married, who she doesn’t dare see anymore since they accidentally kissed. Early in the book, Meg inadvertently takes on a review for some kind of new age “how the afterlife works by bob-know-it-all” book and the flavor of the story really begins to ripen. Oh yeah, and I should mention there is a mysterious beast prowling the neighboring townships scaring the hell out of the residents…

The story is vibrant but many readers may be confused by the cluttered nature of the novel. it is cluttered just as life itself is, so it is fitting, though as a result, difficult to read. At some points, OTU read like a reality TV show for a person who has absolutely nothing interesting going on in their life, detailing minutia like knitting. At other points, it is a technical reading manual for obsessive compulsive literature majors. This could have been toned down and approached less lecture like, but in the end, was an important part of the novel’s structure. .

Previously mentioned, the plot of Tragic Universe is nonstandard in the fact that it really doesn’t have a core/central plot. Items that you think are key plot points are proven to be red-herrings, no more important to life than the number of concurrent green lights you drove through on the way to work today. Interestingly though, it highlights how many things we notice daily which have no importance, but to which we add false importance.

Regardless, all of the characters are interesting and well thought out. it was these that kept me coming back for more. I nearly stopped reading this book 7-8 times. Each time I prepped to give up on it, some small detail would catch my attention again and I was drawn back in for another 30-40 pages.

Ultimately, I believe this waxing/waning of interest may have been part of Scarlett’s intent as she wrote this “storyless-story”. Really, it is nothing more than a sign of the abilities of the author, in that she wrote something so realistic/painful, that giving up and utter enthrallment are with in breaths of each other. Reading OTU was like a broken ceiling fan on a very hot day, I kept fiddling with it- trying to make it work. Frustrated, at times felt like a pointless endeavor, but in the end, when the gears moved and the air flowed over my sweat beaded forehead, the effort was worth it, a welcome cool breeze to mellow the experience.

I would not suggest this book for people who are easily frustrated, trust me here. Also, if you prefer your books garnished, placed on a plate, and then fed to you in bite size portions, you may not enjoy this and should perhaps look toward other reading material.

To quote the novel (referencing everyday life having less “story”), “You just have to let go of the plot when it gets too much. Do something else”. Though there were many times I wanted to stop reading, I instead just took breaks from it and am glad I completed it. Our Tragic Universe was a literary vacation, a trip away from the normal methodologies employed by authors, memorable in both it’s genius, complexity, and bearable frustration.

-- FNORDinc.com
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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
Thomas, Scarlett
Psychological fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Paper Over Board
Publication Date:
8 x 5.31 in 0.78 lb

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z

Our Tragic Universe
0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 384 pages Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) - English 9780151013913 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A delight, not least for the quality of Scarlett Thomas's writing, which is full of a very enjoyable life and energy."
"Review" by , "Freewheeling intellectual journey with no destination....For the omnivorous reader who, like Meg, can't get enough of the insights and passions and theories and inner lives of others, Thomas's fifth novel should be an addictive delight."
"Review" by , "Thomas alternately mines Meg's permanent writer's block for humor and terror, leading the larger book to mimic her decisions about the manuscript she can't just let go. Meg's endgame comes into view too soon, but Our Tragic Universe's discomfort with its own plot makes even its digressions into her reading list and her mundane fears curiously mesmerizing. (Grade: B+)"
"Review" by , "Few writers can mix science, philosophy, and humor as cleverly as Thomas, but [her] quirky stream of consciousness can be off-putting at first. Persistent readers will be charmed by Meg's outlook on life and rooting for her finally to discover her own unique voice. Best for readers who appreciate something out of the ordinary."
"Review" by , "Our Tragic Universe surprised me with where it goes, and in such a terrific way. Scarlett Thomas's prose is so addictive you can't help but fall deeper and deeper under her spell. How does she do it? She is a genius."
"Synopsis" by ,
The newest novel by Scarlett Thomas, this time centering on the end of the universe, the possibilty of superbeings, a mysterious beast of the moor, and the nature of storytelling.
"Synopsis" by , Can a story save your life?

Meg Carpenter is broke. Her novel is years overdue. So when a book called The Science of Living Forever lands on her desk, she jumps at the chance to review it, starting on a labyrinthine journey that takes her from mysterious beasts of the moor to forest fairies to ships-in-bottles, New Age theories of everything to physics to narrative theory, and forces her to ask: Does anyone really want to live forever? Our Tragic Universe finds connections where we didn't know they existed, breaks down conventions that keep us from our destinies, and shows how we just might be able to rewrite our futures.

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