Review: Our Tragic Universe

Sometimes – rarely – I read a book, and all I want to say about it is “This was a good book,” because the book itself has already said everything.

That, as you may have gathered, is how I felt about Our Tragic Universe. I loved it.

Partly that’s because it’s the kind of book I’m predisposed to love. It’s centred on Meg, a writer living in Dartmouth who’s trapped in a hopeless relationship with the feckless and selfish Christopher. She reviews popular science books; churns out formulaic, ghostwritten science fiction novels; and wrestles with writing her second “proper” novel, which she’s been working on for years. In short: a bookish female protagonist who thinks a lot about stuff and has this general sense of aimlessness and isolation, a sense that something’s just a little off with life. It reminds me quite a lot of Marisha Pessl’s work, especially Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as well as of Thomas’ first novel, The End of Mr Y.

Like those books, it plays with some hefty concepts – the final ingredient in the formula for My Perfect Book. A central event in the novel is when Meg receives, apparently from the newspaper she reviews for, a book called The Science of Living Forever, by a Kelsey Newman. It postulates an “Omega Point” at which computing power becomes infinite, and at which, therefore, an infinitely long simulation will be run of an infinite number of universes. (Astonishingly, this is a real-world theory by a real-world physicist, although opinion seems to differ on whether it’s worth anything.) Newman thinks we’re vastly more likely to be living in that simulation than not; and his upcoming book Second World, he says, will provide a guide as to how to live in this simulation. Broadly:

…you can learn everything you need to know about what it means to be a true hero from classic myths, stories and fairy tales.

Meg’s disturbed by this idea, that life is given meaning by how story-shaped it is, all through the novel. Because Our Tragic Universe is really about the trap of story, the way that making ourselves into stories – and particularly into singular, formulaic stories like those SF novels Meg writes – closes down the complexity of lived experience. Stories proliferate in Our Tragic Universe: I’ve dipped into it a couple times in the course of writing this, and I’ve found a new connection to make on almost every page. There’s the pub owner who’s writing a book about the ghosts he thinks he’s heard on nearby beaches. (Are the ghosts real? Are they “real” in a metaphorical sense? Is the pub owner delusional? None of these possibilities seem quite right.) There’s the ship in a bottle that appears at Meg’s feet from the ocean one day, apparently straight out of a formative scene from her past. Where did it come from? Why? Is it coincidence, or the universe trying to tell her something? There’s the Beast of Dartmoor, which may or may not attack a key character at one point. And none of these stories come to any real conclusion. The point being that not only does life offer neat closure – which is not, after all, a particularly revolutionary concept – but also that its lack of closure offers so much more potential for meaning and variety. Something can be both rationally true and personally true, so to speak. The ship in a bottle can be both astonishing coincidence and a sign from the universe. And a third thing, too.

Of course, Our Tragic Universe is a novel, so it remains trapped by narrative. In particular, Meg’s um-ing and ah-ing between Christopher and Rowan, an older professor she’s half-fallen for, feels quite – well, “soapy” is how Adam Roberts puts it, which seems right. But I also think the novel’s sitting with an awareness of its own narrative constraints. After all, there’s no explosive conclusion to this love triangle (line, really. And “love” is perhaps not quite accurate): Meg’s relationship ends with them both moving out of their shared house, more or less unbeknownst to each other, and there’s no real closure to her relationship with Rowan. She ends the book with her own life, with prospects, with friends, with a new home: that’s enough.

Our Tragic Universe is clever; but it’s also warm, and full of heart (as literary fiction can fail to be), and nice. It’s a place I wanted to inhabit for ever and ever. I loved it.

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