I don’t know what to make of Scarlett Thomas’s writing. I liked, but also felt ambivalent about, but at the same time have fond memories of, her novel PopCo. Our Tragic Universe is evoking much the same response, although I had more doubts as I was reading it than I had while reading her earlier book. I often found myself shaking my head over the awkwardness of the writing and the structure, and I seriously considered putting the book down at around page 50. I’m glad I kept reading (this is why I hesitate to put books down — because I do sometimes change my mind!), but I have to conclude that either Thomas is an awful stylist or she doesn’t care about style and is going for something else. I think the latter is true, but the awkward moments do get painful.
For the first 100 pages or so I got annoyed at the way she would move into lengthy passages of back story without giving you enough of a reason to think the back story matters. I found myself wanting to skim these sections. I don’t know how writers do it, exactly, but somehow it seems that if you want to leave the main narrative to move back in time or to tell someone else’s story or explain something or whatever, you need to make the reader see why it’s important and make the reader willing to go there. Instead I thought, okay, when are we getting back to the main story?! I’m bored, and I don’t get what’s going on here! Starting on page five, which is actually the third page of the book, we get a two-page description of a bizarre science book the main character is reading, and it’s unclear why that description is there. It turns out that the book is important to Thomas’s story, but there’s no way to know that at the time, and when I read it, I had no idea why some kooky author’s bizarre theories about the end of the world mattered to the plot. I know getting information across to the reader in a natural, graceful way is difficult, but surely an established literary novelist could do better than this?
And yet I did end up enjoying the book. I became fond of the main character, and I loved the long conversations the characters have where they talk about crazy scientific ideas or the end of the world or how stories work. I love the fact that the main character is a writer who is struggling to figure out how to make the switch from writing genre fiction, which she can do easily, to writing literary fiction, at which she is stalled. She spends a lot of time thinking about differences between the two and why those differences matter and those ideas are great.
But, my god, the dialogue is so awkward! The characters lecture to each other, going on for pages sometimes in a completely unrealistic way. And I was unsure of Thomas’s use of first person. The main character, Meg, tells the story, and is self-aware to a certain extent, or at least her voice is calm and thoughtful, but the boyfriend with whom she is living is clearly depressed and his behavior toward her is emotionally abusive. I found it frustrating and hard to believe that she hadn’t left him a long time ago. She is depressed herself, but I couldn’t quite reconcile her actions with the intelligence and insight of her voice.
I’ve spent most of this post telling you the problems I saw with the book, but the truth is that it won me over, and once it did, I became interested in the question of why I liked it when it’s obviously so flawed. I guess I’m intrigued by the idea that Thomas isn’t interested in trying to follow what we might think of as the rules of good fiction (realistic dialogue, coherent structure, convincing characters). She’s most interested in the ideas the book explores, and since the book explores the question of what fiction is and what its effects are, it’s fitting that she gets a little experimental.
I’ve hardly told you what the book is about, I see. Perhaps I’ll do that in another post.