BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Scarlett Thomas
2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Filed under: Literary
Scarlett Thomas’s latest novel comes in a jacketless hardcover, emblazoned with gold detailing halfway between runes and a Labyrinth (the latter makes an appearance in the story), and centered around a lupine creature (which also makes an appearance, but may not actually exist). The sides of the book’s pages are colored black, and the flap copy describes a “labyrinthine journey that takes [Meg, the heroine,] from mysterious beasts of the moor to forest fairies …” Universe is designed, in other words, to look like a bizarre adventure novel in which a swashbuckling Aquarian fights Bigfoot the wolf in a magical fantasy world.
That’s all lies. Not only is Our Tragic Universe not an adventure, or even a journey, it is specifically the antithesis of motion. It’s a novel of ideas, and the central ideas are all about the strictures of dramatic formulas, and breaking out of them—which means the opposite of a narrative arc, which basically means a small narrative circle whirring endlessly, creating energy but going nowhere.
At the center of this gearless flywheel is Meg Carpenter, who writes hacky generic formula books under the pseudonym Zeb Ross. She’s also been writing her own novel for the past decade—it’s an unformulaic “storyless story” that even she finds a bit ridiculous.
Universe is likewise a storyless story, and when the plot sags under its own weight, you feel like Thomas should’ve known better. But, as a string or a cluster of ideas, meant to be formless but pretty, it succeeds.
I picked up this book because I liked Thomas’s taut, sharply written review of the latest William Gibson novel. Unfortunately, her prose in Universe never sustains the same pitch, partly because Universe has so many tiny stories inside of itself. Meg and the other characters are forever pausing to tell each other jokes, or anecdotes, or parables; too often that means awkwardly calling a halt to the actual goings on of the novel. Like this passage, in which Meg’s best friend Libby is trying to figure out whether she should leave her husband (she debates it all novel, but never decides):
“Do you think I should have left Bob?” Libby said.
“I can’t answer that,” I said.
“Mark said I should have. Rather than…”
“Yeah.” She frowned. “What was that story you told me about the horses?”
“Horses? Oh the one about blessing and disaster.”
“Yeah. Exactly. Tell it to me again. I think it might help, but I can’t remember it.”
“OK, so this is the story of a Chinese father and son…”
And then Meg tells a little parable that does not actually help anybody do anything. One problem I have with this conceit is that the little stories—there are dozens of them sprinkled throughout the novel—are often clichés, or old jokes, or otherwise recycled tidbits. The other problem is that they are far too tangential to the narrative, and from the wrong angle they’re meaningless.
If I had my druthers, this set-up would play out in the world implied by the cover, where the fantastic is possible, where Englishwomen swashbuckle, and where stories literally have powers. That’s where the recycling of old stories would really become compelling: if they were spells, or tools, or anything more than recycled old stories.
Instead, Meg, Libby, and the rest of the gang toil in the desert of the real, as Baudrillard (a Thomas muse) wrote. They live in a sleepy English village, they have unhappy relationships, and they ponder the importance of sex. They have dinner parties and knit. They take ferries and budget out their expenditures. And they discuss ideas.
The ideas they discuss, to be sure, often interconnect in interesting ways. Meg’s comments on dramatic structure and formula fit into other, weirder theories (like a theory of the universe in which a “hero” is only a person who’s allowed to kill) in quite creative ways. This would be a good book group book, and it would work stupendously as the subject of an English paper.
In fact, as long as you know what you’re getting into, Universe could be a pleasant experience: a slow meander through a sleepy town full of ideas that interact well, even if they never add up to anything monumental, and even if they never really affect the characters who think them up. But don’t be fooled by the adventure-wannabe cover, and don’t expect Universe to keep you up late, because storyless stories don’t make great page-turners.