So, what is Our Tragic Universe about? (By the way, I first wrote about this book here.) It tells the story of Meg, a thirty-something writer living in a small English town in Devonshire. She makes a living, or sort of makes a living, writing reviews and formulaic young adult science fiction novels. Based on some early successes, she got an advance a long time ago to write a literary novel, but she hasn’t been able to produce it. She writes and then she deletes, writes and deletes, and gets nowhere. Her boyfriend is looking for a job, although he is extremely picky and not actually looking all that hard. He is so wrapped up in his unhappiness that he has no time to think much about Meg and hers. They live in a damp cottage that makes it difficult for Meg to breathe, but her boyfriend never notices.
What gets the action going is Meg accidentally reviewing the wrong book; it’s a silly mix-up, but it leads in interesting directions: the wrong book turns out to be the kooky science (or “science”) book I mentioned in my last post, which leads Meg, once she submits her review of the wrong book, to an assignment reviewing a whole bunch of kooky science, health, and self-help books, which gives her interesting fodder for a whole series of conversations with friends. And that accounts for much of what takes place in the book: there are a lot of scenes where people are sitting around having interesting conversations about all sorts of things: end-of-the-world theories, how placebos work, local legends of dangerous but elusive monsters, how to write novels, how and whether to get out of bad relationships, and the relationship of stories to real life. There’s action in the book, too, but it’s pretty desultory and not really the point.
The best part for me, and the aspect of the book that most made me like it (in addition to liking Meg very much), was the conversations about stories and the debates about genre vs. literary fiction, debates that are so serious they almost cost Meg a friendship. Meg’s friend Vi is an anthropologist who has been developing a theory of the “storyless story,” a narrative that resists the typical form of stories: a beginning, middle, and end that add up to some kind of coherent meaning. Storyless stories don’t add up to anything; they might possibly just wander on, going no place in particular, or they might have an ending that seems to come out of nowhere. Zen stories are examples of storyless stories, as Vi explains; they are:
… are constructed to help you break away from drama, and hope and desire. Some of them are funny. All of them are unpredictable. They’re not tragedies, comedies or epics. they’re not even Modernist anti-hero stories, or experimental narratives or metafiction. I lost count of the times someone would say, “I’ll tell you a story,” and then recite something like an absurdist poem with no conflict and no resolution. One of these “stories” was about a Zen monk who, on the day he was going to die, sent postcards saying, “I am departing from this world. This is my last announcement.” Then he died.
Meg feels ambivalently about Vi’s theory, since it threatens the work she does, writing those young adult sci-fi books:
I didn’t pay too much attention to this stuff any longer, considering that my entire existence now depended on me being able to take a good but unhappy character from bad fortune to good fortune in a credible way, and give them a bottle of oil — if that was what they wanted — as a prize at the end. 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 would be ‘shit happens’.
In a way, this forms the fundamental tension of the novel: how will Meg reconcile her success at genre fiction with her desire to write something “less formulaic”? What is at stake when pursuing one form of writing versus the other? What would it be like to have as one’s only narrative strategy, “shit happens”? When Meg and Vi get into a dispute over the value of Meg’s writing, it’s not just an argument; it’s an attack on Meg’s livelihood. She teaches classes in writing genre fiction, after all, covering the “rules” for good narrative arcs and the most fundamental types of plots: the hero overcoming an obstacle, the quest narrative, etc. It takes her much of the book to work through exactly what she thinks of Vi’s ideas about narrative, and this isn’t just a cerebral exercise because her thinking about narrative involves thinking about the relationship between stories and life, her life specifically, and the difficult choices she needs to make.
I still think this is a deeply flawed book — too much going on in it, too much awkwardness as I wrote about last time — but it turned out to be a very enjoyable flawed book, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to read more of her work.