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Friday, November 16, 2012

Our Tragic Universe

Like a lot of modern fiction (or at least the modern fiction I tend to read), Scarlet Thomas's Our Tragic Universe is about storytelling, albeit more explicitly than usual.  Meg is a writer of formulaic young adult books, a science fiction series, and book reviews for a local paper; she also teaches writing workshops and helps other writers learn how to create various genre works.  On top of all that, she is determined to finish her big “literary” novel, a work she has written and deleted and rewritten for over ten years.  Thomas’s novel is loosely structured around Meg’s life as she comes to terms with her career, various relationships, and her understanding of the universe. Meg is a talented storyteller, something that is readily apparent despite her own self-deprecating attitudes towards her work, and throughout the book she recounts folktales, plots of potential novels, jokes, alibis for her friends, excuses for herself, memories, paradoxes, thought exercises, dreams, experiments, and archetypes.

In addition, a good chunk of the novel is spent on arguments and discussions various characters have on the nature of life and storytelling.  I suspect such digressions will turn off many readers, but for me it was like attending a fascinating graduate seminar, or better yet, hanging out at a bar with a bunch of really smart people.

The debate the characters have about storytelling mirrors in some ways the debate between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” I wrote about earlier.  Meg’s friend Vi, in particular, has no patience with genre, with anything that tells a story, follows rules, or is conventional in any way.  She keeps pushing Meg to write “flabby, plotless stories” because that would be true writing, and (like Meg herself), can’t acknowledge that Meg’s facility with genre fiction is in fact a real talent.  Some of it comes from Vi’s own political and social leanings -- she is an ethnographer who studies marginalized or overlooked cultures, and so is suspicious of anything “conventional” because it reminds her of the western culture that has so dominated history, literature, and discourse.  In the process, however, she can fall victim to fetishizing that which she is trying to respect.

Vi also relies on restrictive, highly specific definitions of stories, which don’t track with what many modern readers understand to be stories.  Moreover, she ignores the storytelling that is part of the marginalized cultures she studies, instead calling it “storyless” storytelling, despite it having in some cases its own conventions, patterns and, well, story-ness.  In fact, late in the book she lays out the structure for storyless stories, which turns out to be just as rigid as the structure for conventional stories.

Interestingly, Vi goes on to posit a different take on storyless stories, where characters don’t worry about what they said or did, they just act.  These stories’ value lies in helping people realize that they should spend less time trying to fit their own lives into a particular narrative they feel they should live, and more time living; this echoes a point Meg makes earlier about doing real things for the enjoyment of it rather than obsessing about perfecting oneself.  A storyless story, then, is not so much a different kind of story as it is just life, in all its messy, incoherent glory.  Life, or storylessness, is figuring out what questions to ask, rather than trying to cram something into neat little answers.

So what does this have to do with the story of Our Tragic Universe itself? The New York Times review was critical of the book, arguing that Thomas incorporates too many elements and events without resolving them in a satisfactory way.  Meg’s financial woes, and a troubled relationship, are resolved in a conventional, deus-ex-machina way, but fairly early on with a good chunk of the book to go.  The mystery of how she acquired a particular book seems critical at first, but then becomes irrelevant.  A storyline involving a childhood friend is never resolved, or even really made clear.  But I think that’s the point -- these things are not flaws in Thomas’s work, they illustrate the “storyless story.”  The narrative does not conform to western conventions of storytelling, where every element is relevant and every plotpoint is resolved neatly; what happens in the book is much more akin to real life.  Some mysteries really are never solved.  Some things seem freighted with importance at first, but ultimately don’t matter.  Relationships are messy, and don’t always end neatly or quickly.  We live and then we die, and our efforts come to nothing and we don’t know what happens after. “You will never finish what you start . . . . You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing.” But that’s ok, because the value is in the journey, in the questions asked rather than answered.

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