The Designer’s Drugs: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Anno: 2010


There’s a point toward the end of Our Tragic Universe where the protagonist, a disappointed author of genre fiction, advises a peer to cloak his nonfiction research in a fictional clothes.  The reason behind this proposed deception is that while most people approach nonfiction with a critical eye and aims to disprove its theories, people tend to approach fiction in the opposite direction, ready to put all the pieces together in the way that most makes sense.  It’s clear that this attitude colored the entirety of Our Tragic Universe, which is ostensibly fiction but also brings to bear many philosophical asides.  It’s in many ways a mixture of Scarlett Thomas’ previous works, mixing the crippled and frustrated storytelling of Going Out with the metaphysical and sexual End of Mr. Y. Sometimes the mixing gets a bit jarring, the narrative and human lives suddenly getting usurped by discussions on the nature of reality.

To be honest, it took me the better part of the first hundred pages of Our Tragic Universe to get behind the story.  In this opening, the author in question, a late thirties DIY chick named Meg, tromps around her small town, poking her head in and out of the local dramas of her friends and fellow esoterics.  Most of these people are a combination of frustration and insanity, usually attempting to screw, scream, or bullshit their way to a state of distraction.  It’s kind of a depressing slog at first, but as I was trying to work my way through I came to a realization.  It’s about failure. After my change in perspective, Our Tragic Universe became rather wonderful.

I should have picked up on this point earlier, when Meg recalls a vacation in which she as a child met a pair of magical – possibly mythical – people out in the middle of nowhere.  At the end of her vacation, the man of the duo tells her that she would come to nothing.  And really, this sets the tone for the remainder of the book, in that Meg’s purpose here is to discover what nothing really is and how that doesn’t have to be a negative concept.  Slowly and with the assistance of some events that may be either simple fortune or supernatural intervention – an ambiguity which is purposely unanswered – Meg begins to dispel her life’s inertia.  It’s likely that in my accepting that this book was about failure, I set myself up to be satisfied when the main character outgrows her nothingness and gives evidence that it’s never too late.

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