Scarlett Thomas’ novel Our Tragic Universe features a struggling writer coping with the realization that real life isn’t like fiction. She’s a skeptic constantly expecting to have her last flame of hope snuffed out, and her quest to right her life in the face of this discovery develops into a surprising, unstable work of fiction constantly eating away at itself.
Meg Carpenter pieces together a living ghostwriting mass-market books for a publisher whose exacting standards demand that nothing in her modern-world series be inexplicable. She and her boyfriend Christopher, once hard-partying club kids, have settled down in a cheap cottage where he picks up carpentry jobs and she works in near-seclusion, venturing out only to help her best friend decide between two lovers, and to idly contemplate having her own affair with a semi-retired scientist. While she can trace the path that led to this career—it starts with a quick paycheck while she’s working on her still-unfinished serious novel—she can’t account for the stasis of her relationship with Christopher, or the perpetual emptiness of their joint bank account. When a review copy of a new book on immortality finds its way to her review pile, Meg approaches the concept of an infinite lifespan with her typical dark humor, but the stinging pan she administers can’t keep the author’s premise out of her mind.
Our Tragic Universe belongs to a dismal world where every day is grayer and gloomier than the last, but Meg doesn’t pay much attention to the weather. Her perpetually dim view of her surroundings is a comfortable constant, much more satisfying than some of the more colorless minor characters (Christopher, in particular, is best seen in flashback), but it can’t save some of her early musings about the state of her life from repetition.
Negotiating Meg’s choices from a point of safety would become monotonous without her struggle with infinity, embodied by her unending work-in-progress—at one point, she estimates that she’s written negative-18,000 words of her book. The unexcerpted, unseen book adds the turn that makes Our Tragic Universe stranger and less mordant. Thomas alternately mines Meg’s permanent writer’s block for humor and terror, leading the larger book to mimic her decisions about the manuscript she can’t just let go. Meg’s endgame comes into view too soon, but Our Tragic Universe’s discomfort with its own plot makes even its digressions into her reading list and her mundane fears curiously mesmerizing.