Which piece of Scarlett Thomas’s universe are you looking out from?
Following my previous review in which I noted that Ali Smith reminded me in some ways of Scarlett Thomas, I thought it pertinent to dig up a long ago review of Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, which I was delighted to have received as a review copy, in pre-blog days, from Amazon Vine. I was hugely impressed by Thomas from first encountering her in The End Of Mr Y. I have no idea why I didn’t review that one, as I was burbling enthusiastically about it to anyone who was prepared to listen, and foisting it upon people for birthday presents.
I am minded to go back to my collection of Thomas books and re-read. Though I must apologise for this review, below, which is even more mysterious and not quite telling a prospective reader what they might wish to know than my normal attempts, which tend to eschew even basic plots, so fiercely do I want the reader to make their own journey, without signposts, being as surprised by the view and terrain as possible.
This felt particularly the case with Thomas, a wonderfully fierce, firecracker of a writer, with a brilliant, oddball mind which somehow marries huge rationality and logic (she has an interest in, and knowledge of, arcane and complicated mathematics) whilst at the same time being inventive, playful, metaphysical, eclectic in her interests. It’s not just the plot I can’t reveal, but it’s also, in many ways, the ‘what is this about’ as it is about so much, and to nail it all down somehow diminishes the experience. It’s rather like attempting to dissect a symphony – that might happen, and enrich the listening experience afterwards, but you need to hear and feel it first!
Scarlett Thomas is a thoroughly modern writer, but I found myself being curiously reminded of Virginia Woolf in `Our Tragic Universe’ One of the major themes is writing and the need for narrative, itself. Narrative generally involving a linear series of events making a story. Woolf also examined interior monologues rather than linear stories, at times exploring `stream of consciousness’ so that past present and future exist in a character’s head simultaneously.
Thomas here is also writing about writing. Meg, her writer narrator I assume in some ways reflects Thomas herself.
There are many, many subtle layers within this book. She examines fiction, and the metaphysics of fiction, and the need to tell stories about ourselves, and turn our lives into a linear narration, but in fact that isn’t how we live. The narrative is something observed from the outside. From within our inside we constantly inhabit Woolf’s stream of consciousness, memories (often quite trivial, sometimes momentous) rising up within us as we inhabit the present. Meg is attempting, possibly, to write a storyless book, one without beginning middle or end. And indeed this is something Thomas constructs with the book. Writing about her writer-like-her writing a non narrative book by writing a non-narrative book. Fiction is illusion – but which level of THIS illusion are you reading in this book. There IS an narrative, and a sequence, but the linear progression is quite small and subtle. The image of the labyrinth (another thread in the novel) is the pattern of the book. There are many, sometimes confusing and elusive threads criss-crossing through the book. In some ways, it seems as much of a `spoiler’ to name the threads themselves as it would be to give plot spoilers in a more conventional novel. But there are many, both obvious and subtle. With a more ‘conventional’ assessment of fiction – her style is clear, her characters are interesting. Those things are made safe and accessible for the reader. Because of that she can afford (and does) to be extremely dense and complex in her objectives and super objectives in the book.
I’ve probably succeeded in putting readers OFF the book – the reverse of what I mean to do – its a slightly strange taste this book has – but you will want to take a little bit more, read a few more pages, and just a few more – trying to get to something which is always just a bit out of reach
Be prepared to work at this book, Thomas is easy to read, but forces the reader to grapple with some very complex concepts. Just don’t expect the journey to be along a broad highway, with clear signposting. Or to know exactly where you are going, as it might just be the place you just left!