Book 5 of 52: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

First, let me say that the fact that this is my 5th review of the year is laughable; I’ve read at least a dozen books, maybe more, and getting this behind is rather embarrassing. I promise to get caught up though, if somewhat retroactively with a few of my choices.

This book, though, is one Ijust read because it. Can. Not. Wait.

My friends, this book has reminded me of all the reasons why I want to write. It’s something only a few books have done with the power that this one has. Hexwood, by Diana Wynne Jones has that effect when I reread it. A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle, does it. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. Many other books by those authors have a similar, if slightly lesser, effect. What I mean is that these are books which completely suck me in, speak to me like I wrote them, and make me wish I had. They use wordplay and vocabulary and modern reference in ways that make me realize that books are just as powerful now as ever, maybe even more, despite all the clutter of modern life. So, you’re probably asking, what is this newest addition to the list and why does it have that effect on me?

Well, first, the novel itself is one I would describe as “meta-fictional fantasy realism”. That is to say, things happen in the novel that might not actually be fantastical, but the protagonist at least begins to think it’s fantastical, and that’s good enough for me, so there. The protagonist is Meg, a 30-something “writer”: she’s a  novelist who has so far only written a handful of genre books for teens, but still dreams of finishing a true novel that is creative and inspiring and, well, good.  The novel, in a nutshell, is her efforts to get an idea. Although so much happens around that that I can’t do it justice without

a. ruining the story and

b. confusing the pants off you.

I call it meta-fictional because first, there’s something “so meta” about a wannabe writer like myself even reading about a wannabe writer. Add to that the fact that the book is about that writer writing a book that by the end seems very meta-fictional itself. But really, it’s not just her writing, it’s what happens in her life to give her these ideas. It’s about her relationships, her knitting, her dog, her money problems, and everything else that an unmarried woman might have to deal with.

I finished about 2/3 of this book on my train from New York City to Pittsburgh Wednesday afternoon. When I reached the end, I was so excited about the very act of writing that I immediately got my computer back out of its case, opened up Word, and started writing a new draft of the intro to one of the travel-memoir-ish book ideas I’ve had for awhile. Then, still not out of steam, I opened up a new document and wrote a conversation for a book idea I had last month, and after that I decided to redo the first steps of Snowflake Method writing I had done for that book awhile ago but then lost. I probably wrote a total of 1000 words after all of this, which is far from excellent but felt like running a marathon after all of the writing I have NOT been managing to do the last few months.

One of the other things from Our Tragic Universe that I really love is when Thomas writes about Meg’s writing. One of the things that really helps her to finally get going partway through the novel is just sitting down with her ideas. She has so many, and has rewritten stuff so many times and scrapped probably two novels’ worth of words with almost nothing to show for it. It’s nice to know that this happens to other people. I probably have a dozen book ideas in my own head. Some of them I’ve had since middle school, while others I’ve only had since last week. Likewise, some have been restarted another dozen times, while others haven’t even been put on paper or typed up at all.

At the same time, I think that the lessons Thomas teaches in this book can apply to anything: job searching, cooking, knitting, building, whatever it is you do or want to do and currently can’t get yourself to start. It’s a novel about life, our world, and our time.

If I could write just one book that inspired just one person to feel empowered like this book has, I would feel like a success.


Author: elizabethlorraine

Writer, actress, runner, knitter, and geek.

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