Scarlett Thomas wrote PopCo, a fascinating book that I loved and have given to loads of people as a gift. It is full of intricate dialogue and detail, but a mystery at the heart of the story constantly drives the plot forward. However, her follow-up book, The End of Mr. Y, felt like chore to read. It consisted of page after page of characters talking about possibilities and consciousness and reality. I kept losing interest and skimming over huge sections of philosophical musings in an effort to figure out when something would actually happen. So I was dubious when a friend loaned me Thomas’s latest, Our Tragic Universe to read while at the beach this summer. I can handle some musings on the nature of the universe when it’s cold and gray outside, but not when I’m relaxing in a beach chair. But I really enjoyed Our Tragic Universe, not because Thomas returned to a more plot-driven format, but because she fully committed to “the storyless story.”
The plot of the book, such as it is, centers on a young woman living with her (completely useless and aggravating) boyfriend in a small town on the English coast. She spends her time writing genre books, avoiding working on the serious novel she wants to write, and thinking about various New Age-y, self help-y concepts. Things meander along for a while, with various characters having conversations and eating meals and occasionally making decisions about where to live or what job to take or whether to have lunch with someone or not.
There’s no grand dramatic arc. There’s no great rise and fall of action. I was at least 200 pages in before I realized that the tragedy or accident or other major incident I was bracing myself for was never coming. Reading the book was remarkably like listening in on the day-to-day activities of some very smart, thoughtful people who occasionally make some dumb decisions. And while this is not typically the kind of thing I would enjoy—in general, I say that if you can make things up you should go ahead and make up some excitement and some closure—Thomas writes about her characters with such detail and such care that I was completely drawn in. Our Tragic Universe treats the minutia of its characters’ lives with the same respect that we treat the details of our own lives.