Book Review – Our Tragic Universe

Our Tragic Universe:  Scarlett Thomas

Canongate Books

The book begins with the brilliant opening line,

‘I was reading about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby’.

This is our introduction to the central character and narrator of the novel, Meg.  Meg is one of a team of ghost writers behind a popular science fiction book series for teenagers and is a regular reviewer of modern books on science.  Outside of that, she’s not so much struggling but floundering in and out of a swamp of inertia.  She lives with a deadbeat boyfriend, Christopher, in a damp cottage and can’t earn enough to support both of them and his anti-capitalist principles.  A simple mistake – or slice of synchronicity – leads her to review a book by a US psychoanalyst named Kelsey Newman called The Science of Living Forever.  This fictional book is based on the very real – although controversial – theory from physicists Frank Tipler that the universe could be programmed at a moment called the Omega Point to simulate another never ending universe where everyone could live happily for all eternity in virtual reality, which is something that might already have happened and could be where we’re all heading or already are but are unaware of our own power!

This possibility of a perfect, never ending life in paradise haunts Meg as it is in such sharp contrast to the mess and muddle of her own existence – hence perhaps the book’s title.

As she becomes increasingly captivated by the idea of a perfect second life, her current one begins to change.  Alongside that, the request to review a batch of New Age books gives her the idea of trying out some of their principles, so she places a few Cosmic Orders and the first half of the book ends when one arrives.

I’m not going to spoil the plot because I really hope that you will read it for yourself.  Enough to say, this is a book about bizarre coincidences that for me contained many bizarre coincidences – some, which were a mirror of my own life, made me laugh out loud and made this quite a peculiar read for me. A lot of what happens in the book takes place in Totnes.  Various scenes are set in the The Barrell House pub there.  Christopher’s brother is called Josh and has a fear of certain numbers.  He lives in Totnes, in an attic room in a flat above a vegetarian cafe.  Three years ago, at the start of my relationship with Margi, we lived in a house exactly opposite the Barrell house in Totnes and her son Josh lived in the attic bedroom whilst studying for his entrance exams in Maths.   (He just got a First Class Honours Degree!)

Scarlett/Meg is pretty unequivocal in her condemnation of psychics who write inspirational books or TV celebrities who write books on Cosmic Ordering – but I’ll take that on the chin!  It’s also a book about post-modernism and the storyless story that is itself post modern; mixing fact and fiction and diverting itself along many looping stories of the stories she might tell, but doesn’t.

The fictional narrative is threaded through with fact (such as the book on the very real Omega Point theory) and a dizzying intimacy with real life locations so close to where I live I almost felt like I might bump into Meg one day – if I haven’t already!

It’s hard to touch upon all of the captivating, brilliant and fascinating things that she covers without making the book sound like nothing more than a tick list in pursuit of academic credibility, which it definitely isn’t.  But just to give you a taste, along the way, she manages to cover off Aristotle’s ideas on literature, Baudrillard’s notion that simulations take on all of the characteristics of what is real to the point where they themselves become real, poltergeists, what Chekhov ‘really meant’, Tarot readings and Bach Flower remedies without actually coming to any hard and fast conclusions and making it clear that she can’t as life, for her, just Isn’t Like That.

Our Tragic Universe is one of the best novels I’ve ever read and it manages to magically combine all of its diverse elements into a weighty, fabulous page turner.   Scarlett Thomas might want to keep her theoretical options open, but even through novel form and her fictional Meg, she’s open minded enough to trash a theory such as Cosmic Ordering whilst still acknowledging the possibility that it might have worked. Many of the themes and ideas in her books are subjects close to my heart and ones which I have studied since University in the 90’s when my passion for tying spirituality with science began in earnest.  It turns out we also went to the same University at the same time and, even though we come from totally different directions, it’s inspiring to read her magnificent novels and exploration of the Universe.

I adore books that make me think and this one had me racing to buy the rest of her novels.  Theories of science, the nature of existence and what any of them might mean for us as we try and live our day to day lives is a recurrent theme throughout Scarlett’s books and I have a hunch her next book will include a chunk about Memetics – my passion.  If you start with this, it’s bound to make you want to read more. I’ve bought Tiplar’s book on the Omega point and will write a review of that soon as you probably already know about my love of this kind of scientific thought. In the meantime, we have three copies of ‘My Tragic Universe’ to give away – so send your name and address via the feedback form on the right for a chance to win!

If you have a favourite spiritual book that you would like to review, let us know.

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