Our Tragic Universe

By Scarlett Thomas
Publisher:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, (9/1/2010)

Average Rating:
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3.50 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

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Can a story save your life?
Meg Carpenter is broke. Her novel is years overdue. Her cell phone is out of minutes. And her moody boyfriend’s only contribution to the household is his sour attitude. So she jumps at the chance to review a pseudoscientific book that promises life everlasting.
But who wants to live forever?
Consulting cosmology and physics, tarot cards, koans (and riddles and jokes), new-age theories of everything, narrative theory, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and knitting patterns, Meg wends her way through Our Tragic Universe, asking this and many other questions. Does she believe in fairies? In magic? Is she a superbeing? Is she living a storyless story? And what’s the connection between her off-hand suggestion to push a car into a river, a ship in a bottle, a mysterious beast loose on the moor, and the controversial author of The Science of Living Forever?
Smart, entrancing, and boiling over with Thomas’s trademark big ideas, Our Tragic Universe is a book about how relationships are created and destroyed, how we can rewrite our futures (if not our histories), and how stories just might save our lives.
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Steph's thoughts on "Our Tragic Universe"
updated on:12/3/2010

Other than a common gender and generation, I would not liken myself to Meg Carpenter (the central character of Our Tragic Universe). 
I don't suspect we would occupy the same social circles.  She's artistic and a bit of an intellectual.  She has the kind of schedule that
allows you to have a leisurely lunch in the middle of the week.  I'm not saying I would not aspire to such an existence, yet despite
these surface disparities, I found myself identifying with her in some ways, if not rooting for her.  I've even found the motivation to
take up knitting (which I have been intending to do for the better part of a decade), due to Meg's delight and enthusiasm for the pursuit.  
And Meg is not the only agreeable character in the book.  Scarlett Thomas has a way of presenting even seemingly dispicable creatures
in a sympathetic light.  The story is compelling and smart, both in content and the varied way it is told.  Even the book itself is original
with the pages attractively edged in black when the book is closed and its intriguing cover in black and gold to compliment the pages. 
I imagined that my fellow commuters looked at me and would surmise that I was a fascinating person for reading such a book!  
Something about Thomas's writing, perhaps the strong female characters and the adept handling of complicated topics reminded me of
my beloved Margaret Atwood.  I will definitely seek out more works by this author.

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Nick's thoughts on "Our Tragic Universe"
updated on:12/1/2010

I thought one line toward the end of "Our Tragic Universe" nicely summed up what I saw as the overall philosophy and vibe of the book. The narrator, Meg, thinks to herself: "We were just two people, two of what Tolstoy called randomly united and fermenting 'lumps of something' and we were going to be in a room together. That was all." The novel deals with a group of adults falling into and out of love and relationships with each other and is infused with all kinds of philosophy to back that up, ranging from New Age and Zen to hard science. The prose is very thoughtful and engaging and the characters are very real, even if the overall attitude toward relationships is anything but positive. Like Meg herself, maybe the greatest human contradiction is that we at once long for companionship and solitude. This book doesn't try to answer or explain that, but does do a good job exploring it.

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Ceci's thoughts on "Our Tragic Universe"
updated on:11/30/2010

My scanner started malfunctioning recently. It refuses to replicate a document as a whole, unified document. Instead it breaks it into numerous, discrete elements– paragraphs, pictures, captions, sentences, etc. – from within the document. Like my scanner, Our Tragic Universe, is fixated on multitudes of individual elements. Multiple plotlines stop and start. Some resolve, some don’t. Some are relevant to the main storyline. Some are not. Meg and her friends get together for meals, lectures, and holidays to discuss narrative structure, magic, knitting, immortality, dog behavior and psychology, and other topics weighty and mundane. Storylines move back in time, then in to the present again. It is all very dynamic, entertaining, and sometimes even fascinating. But through it all, I kept wondering, “where is this going?” and “what does it all mean?” I suspect these are not questions I am supposed to be focusing on, but I think I may just be the kind of person who always looks for some kind of meaning in the universe. Meg, on the other hand . . . she would probably ask me, “Is the scanner broken?”

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Book Junky's thoughts on "Our Tragic Universe"
updated on:11/26/2010

How fun! Reading Scarlett Thomas' writing was a like a literary charged combo of Tom Robbins and Nick Hornby. I loved the stream of conscious jumping all around style. It can be difficult to follow if you put the book down, but if you can set aside some time, it can be so interesting and a dynamic ride. Lots of points to ponder woven through some fun characters and interesting shorelines. I think writers will really enjoy the references and education in story structure (or storyless stories). I found it all interesting, but I feel like if I was an English major I would have been tickle pink. As someone who was NOT an English major… it was, umm, interesting. And, of course, I loves the parts of the story that got into magic. A little romance, a little relationship conflicts (with some approachable characters), little bits of magic, writing lessons… no real tragedy, but that is ok by me - my head is still spinning from all of the ways to think about this book. I am looking forward to reading more of her work, and discussing the book.

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"Our Tragic Universe"
By Scarlett Thomas

Average Rating:
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3.50 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

Question 1: Fake or Real?

What is the significance of the quote in the beginning of the book about organizing a fake hold up which ends up reducing everything to the real? (It is brought up again by Rowan on p. 142)

Question 2: Storyless?

Was this book a storyless story, a predictable formula, or neither?

Question 3: Meg's Fortune

Do you think Meg's fortune, as predicted by Robert, held true? The prediction being: You will never finish what you start. You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing. Or did Miss Scott's interpretation of the prediction come true? (p.132)

Question 4: Ship in the Bottle

What was the significance of the ship in the bottle? What was it's purpose in the story?

Question 5: Bottles of Oil

There is a reoccurring theme of bottles of oil. What do you think is their significance? Do they have anything to do with the Aristophanes play The Frogs mentioned on p.38?

Question 6: Kelsey Newman's Book

What roll did Kelsey Newman's book play on all of the character's lives?

Meg, Christopher, Josh, Tim, Vi? 

Question 7: In this Second World

Which of the characters do you think were were getting close to the "Road to Perfection" by "learn[ing] to become a hero in this world. by becoming truly yourself, and overcoming all your personal obstacles"? Which were accepting their special invitation from the universe for adventure and which were eating pizza on the sofa? (p. 37)

Question 8: Narrative Change

At one point Meg is talking with Rowan and says, "In narrative any equilibrium must become a disequilibrium, All narrative involve change from one state to another: happy to sad, or sad to happy usually. But it can be alive from dead, broken to fixed, confused to comprehensible, separate to together - anything" Rowan adds, "Every ship is a shipwreck waiting to happen." p. 145 What evidence of this do you see in the book?

Question 9: The Breakup

Why do you think Meg finally decided to leave Christopher the moment he does/becomes/acts more like she has wanted him to be?

Question 10: Beast of Dartmoor

What do you think the Beast of Dartmoor was? Was he the result of magic by Meg? Was he a cultural premonition brought to life by Tim? 

Question 11: The Notebook

Do you think "Our Tragic Universe" is Meg's novel "The Notebook"?

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, September 2010: Scarlett Thomas is a nimble writer, joyfully unseating and upholding cozy fiction conventions in Our Tragic Universe as she builds a story around Meg Carpenter, a writer who--as a genre fiction ghostwriter, book reviewer, and writing coach--has immersed herself in every nook and cranny of her craft to keep herself afloat... and to stay at arm's length from the "real" novel she just can't get her head around. The thoughts that consume her in the meantime range widely, touching down on storytelling, magic, coincidence, love, and what it might be like to live forever. (Her wryly observed theory is that it "would be like marrying yourself, with no possibility of a divorce.") In the hands of a less talented writer (and thinker), such a litany could easily devolve into a meandering mess. Not so here: Meg's searching soul is remarkably controlled, making her a protagonist you trust and want to follow, even when--in fact, especially when--you're not entirely sure where she's going. It's always clear that Meg's journey isn't aimless, and you'll be delighted to find--as she does--that the best stories "make someone surprised to see the picture, and even more surprised when they realize they had all the pieces all along." --Anne Bartholomew

From Publishers Weekly

Thomas's delightfully whimsical novel riffs on the premise that ordinary lives stubbornly resist the tidy order that a fiction narrative might impose on them. Meg Carpenter, a young writer living hand-to-mouth in Devon, pens book reviews, science fiction novels, and pseudonymous YA thrillers while the serious literary novel she dabbles at keeps ballooning and shrinking back to the same 43 words. Though Meg reviews New Age titles that lay out organized plans for one's life (and afterlife), her own life is an unruly mess, encompassing a slacker boyfriend and his amusingly dysfunctional family, friends having extramarital affairs, and associates who can't balance their vocations and avocations. Enough propitious coincidences occur to suggest her life might also admit the occasional intrusion of the magical. Thomas (Popco) dexterously mixes the serious with the humorous and provides a cast of characters who come across as credible owing to their recognizable foibles and fallibility. 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Like many Booklist reviewers, Meg, the heroine of Thomas’ latest novel (following The End of Mr. Y, 2006), combines book reviewing with novel writing. But Meg has problems that are all her own: her personal life is at a dead end, and she is constantly writing and then deleting her novel while she supports her deadbeat boyfriend, Christopher, and lusts after the local museum director, Rowan. A cast of intriguing characters populates the beachside community where Meg resides, and her interactions with them help buoy Our Tragic Universe as it veers between philosophical monologues and intensely abstract discussions. As in Mr. Y, Thomas continues to wrestle provocatively with the theme of the philosophy of existence, but this time her attempts to address big ideas slow the movement of the story. Still, for readers who enjoy the ideological push and pull of philosophical fiction, Thomas is definitely worth reading. --Heather Paulson


 "Few writers can mix science, philosophy, and humor as cleverly as Thomas..." —Library Journal

 A "delightfully whimsical novel"...Thomas "dexterously mixes the serious with the humorous..."
Publishers Weekly

A "freewheeling intellectual journey with no destination. ... For the omnivorous reader who, like Meg, can't get enough of the insights and passions and theories and inner lives of others, Thomas's fifth novel should be an addictive delight." —Kirkus Reviews

"Thomas brilliantly reminds us that, despite popular representations, many women are actually staying up half the night talking ideas. One feels alone. And then one reads Our Tragic Universe." —Jincy Willett, author of Winner of the National Book Award

"A delight, not least for the quality of Scarlett Thomas’s writing, which is full of a very enjoyable life and energy." —Philip Pullman

"Our Tragic Universe surprised me with where it goes, and in such a terrific way. Scarlett Thomas’s prose is so addictive you can’t help but fall deeper and deeper under her spell. How does she do it? She is a genius." —Douglas Coupland
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I was reading about how to survive the end of the universe when I got a text message from my friend Libby. Her text said, Can you be at the Embankment in fifteen minutes? Big disaster. It was a cold Sunday in early February, and I'd spent most of it curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced cottage in Dartmouth. Oscar, the litery editor of the newspaper I wrote for, had sent me The Science of Living Forever by Kelsey Newman to review, along with a compliments slip with a deadline on it. In those days I'd review anything, because I needed the money.

How do you survive the end of time? It's quite simple. By the time the universe is old enough and frail enough to collapse, humans will simply be able to do what ever they like with it. They'll have had billions of years to learn, and there'll be no matron to stop them, and no liberal broadsheets, and no doomy hymns. by then it'll just be a case of wheeling one decrepit planet to one side of the universe while another one pisses iself sadly in another galaxy.
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SCARLETT THOMAS is the author of PopCo and The End of Mr. Y. She has been nominated for the Orange Prize and named Writer of the Year by Elle UK, one of the twenty best young writers by the Independent, and one of the Telegraph’s 20 best writers under 40.

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