By Jeff VanderMeer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; C04
OUR TRAGIC UNIVERSE
By Scarlett Thomas
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
372 pp. $19.95
Mysterious beasts collide with middle-age angst in Scarlett Thomas's ambitious yet frustrating novel "Our Tragic Universe."
Devonshire, England, serves as the backdrop for a slew of vaguely unhappy characters. The narrator, Meg, is a writer and book reviewer trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with down-and-out loser Christopher. Meg's best friend, Libby, is having an affair, and Meg yearns for older, unhappily married Rowan. Professionally, Meg suffers from regret as she publishes science fiction novels under the pen name "Zeb Ross" while continually revising a mainstream manuscript she's convinced will be her masterwork if she can only finish it.
Into this thicket of depressing relationships, Thomas introduces the nonfiction books of a writer named Kelsey Newman. When Meg receives "The Science of Living Forever" for review, it provides the jumping-off point for her intellectual journey. Newman believes the universe is a vast computer that will one day reach an "Omega Point," after which it can simulate a new universe "that will never end and in which everyone can live happily ever after."
The implication is that our world actually exists post-Omega Point and may constitute an unending afterlife, at times penetrated from elsewhere by ghosts, faeries and other folkloric manifestations. Indeed, a friend tells Meg, "You can create monsters, if you're not very careful." One such creature may be the Beast of Dartmoor, sightings of which make the local news. Is the beast real or imaginary? How did it come into our world? Is it on a mission to track down Newman? Answers appear very late in the novel, without sufficient buildup.
Instead, for vast stretches of "Our Tragic Universe," Meg doesn't so much create monsters as coddle fools, exhibiting a patience for Christopher that strains credibility. Why did she ever fall for this jerk in the first place? He's not just unmotivated but boring. (If only the Beast of Dartmoor had devoured him posthaste.) The stasis created by that relationship is reinforced by Meg's excruciatingly awkward conversations with Rowan, each a soap-opera-ish mirror of the last, along the lines of "I want to but I can't."
By the time the characters start lecturing each other about the attributes of the "storyless story," the reader's delight at the initial set pieces about the nature of reality and mysterious books has been blunted by too much rambling discourse and too many poorly paced scenes.
"Anyone can put together a story that has no shape," Meg notes at one point. Sometimes virtuoso writing ability, even pages full of wit and verve, can't save a novel that seems to be about everything and nothing.
VanderMeer's latest novel is "Finch."