Tuesday September 7th, 2010

The Science of Storytelling

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
Houghton Mifflin, 384 pp., $19.95

Consider the beach-read blockbusters of Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, who spring to mind thanks to their recent co-protest over the reviewing policies of the New York Times. Now imagine the exact opposite type of novel—unformulaic, thought-provoking, challenging to the reader’s intelligence, disruptive to the status quo, brimming with originality, flawlessly written—and you’ll begin to get a sense of British novelist Scarlett Thomas’ unique talent. Reviewers so frequently praise a novel by invoking a more renowned author, especially in the form of an ADHD-generation elevator pitch (Borges meets Dostoyevsky on crack! The twisted offspring of Stieg Larsson and Jane Austen! Etc.), that it strikes me as the highest possible compliment to say how hard it is to compare Thomas to anyone else, living or dead.

Were someone to make a movie of Thomas’ latest, Our Tragic Universe, the last actress on the planet to be cast in the lead would be the tan, blonde, aerobicized star of Weiner and Picoult’s respective Hollywood adaptations, Cameron Diaz. Our Tragic Universe’s Meg Carpenter, a science book critic and author of mystery and sci-fi novels, is pale, unhealthy, and dedicatedly cerebral. As if to emphasize her status as the ultimate anti-chick lit heroine, she has “rejected fashion” and wears the same few items of clothing year-round.

Meg, in her late thirties, lives in Dartmouth—which is mesmerizingly depicted as weather-beaten, isolated, and atmospheric with sea-faring history—and has a lot of reasons to be dissatisfied. Her boyfriend of seven years, Christopher, with whom she shares a freezing damp house, is a whiny depressive who never wants to have sex, while the man she’s helplessly attracted to, a wild-haired history professor named Rowan, is 65 years old and living with someone else. Her various writing projects, including book reviews, barely bring in enough to live on, and she longs to complete her “real” novel, a work of literary fiction for which she received an advance eleven years ago and which she keeps changing, deleting, and re-starting. To make matters worse, she’s fallen out with a close friend, a radical anthropologist named Vi, and doesn’t know how to mend fences. Life, unlike man-made plots, is messy; not just for Meg, but for everyone around her. When her friend Libby, embroiled in a secret love affair, asks for advice on her latest crisis, she points out: “You’re the writer; you know how to plot things . . . What’s the formula here?”

This question is Meg’s, and the book’s, obsession: what’s the formula? Is there one? We know there is for popular novels: Meg teaches it at twice-yearly workshops for her fellow genre writers. But what about for literary fiction? For individual lives, for planet Earth? Or, saliently, for the narrative at hand, which, in one of many slightly dizzying meta moves, is set in motion by a book that claims to offer the formula for existence. The Science of Living Forever by American psychologist Kelsey Newman presents the theory that the universe will eventually collapse into “pure energy” in a moment “called the Omega Point,” when it will be capable of simulating an entirely new universe and resurrecting all beings in an infinite heaven. Meg finds this notion singularly unappealing—life is arduous enough without the prospect of never dying—but she assumes the book was sent by her editor at the newspaper, and she dutifully reviews it.

The book was not sent by her editor, and this misunderstanding reverberates through Meg’s life in possibly supernatural, apparently coincidental, and undeniably practical ways. Whereas ideas about the reversal, or absence, of linear causality in quantum mechanics permeated The End of Mr. Y, Thomas’ previous novel, here she is focused on the apparent ubiquity of Aristotelian narrative structure. Narrative, Meg tells Rowan during one of their chaste but highly charged encounters, “has to have patterns, otherwise it wouldn’t be narrative . . . and while life doesn’t have to have patterns, the minute we express it as narrative it does . . . it has to make sense.” Not quite your typical flirtation, but this is a novel in which every conversation quickly evolves into an intense philosophical debate about theories of narrative, the universe, alternative medicine, knitting, telepathy, morphic resonance, relationships, or Taoism. It’s a testament to how likeable a writer Thomas is, and how lucidly she turns intellectual ruminations into dialogue, that this doesn’t get wearying.

Meg believes that her relationship with Rowan, were they to succumb to their mutual desire, would also be subject to the tyranny of storyline: the one about the shallow older man trading in his partner for a younger version. Vi, though, thinks you can “let go of the plot,” which is why she and Meg aren’t talking. What Vi champions, and eventually writes a manifesto for, is the “storyless story,” with no moral center, no answer or solution.

Thomas’ novel is delightfully ironic in its subversion, scrutiny, and celebration of fiction’s conventions, but the answers to its theoretical questions ultimately don’t matter: Meg is such an emotionally engaging protagonist, and her environment, with its cast of quirky supporting characters, is such an appealing place to be, that I would have followed her anywhere, whether her story became “storyless” or conformed to the strictest demands of plot. Thomas is capable of making even a short description of walking the dog visually arresting, humorous, and poignant:

Slapton Sands was deserted apart from a few fishermen in dark raincoats and a man scrubbing down a small, yellow fishing boat. Out on the misty horizon I could see the blackish shapes of huge ships. I parked at the Torcross end and then walked along with B under the pale grey sky with sea on my right. All the endless hours of dog-walking I did enabled me to contemplate many objects from nature as B peed on them, sniffed them for traces of other dogs’ pee, walked on them, jumped on them, chewed them, ran away from them or brought them for me to throw. I also ended up gazing at other animals, birds and trees in the distance and thinking things my father would find repulsive: Birds must be happy when they fly, or That weird plant must really like growing in sand.

The most surprising achievement in this thoroughly surprising novel is that all its audacious intellectual fun and games don’t come at the expense of a textured world full of wisdom, humility, and physical vitality.

Near the end, Meg comes to a conclusion about her authorial ambitions: “Fictionless fiction . . . was what all realist writers, including me, wanted to create: something super authentic and with so much emotional truth that none of it seems like a story at all.” Authentic emotional truth is just what Our Tragic Universe offers. As for whether it seems like a story—well, it shows us what a complicated question that is.

Emma Garman is a writer living in New York. She can be visited online here.

Mentioned in this review:

Our Tragic Universe
The End of Mr. Y