Our Tragic Universe By Scarlett Thomas Canongate, 444pp, £12.99
YOU know the feeling: the book has you hooked. You're rushing the page.
One chapter in, and Scarlett Thomas's previous novel, the fun-ride fantasy, sci-fi brain-buzz that passed for philosophy (among many things), The End of Mr Y, had me breaking the speed limit, risking its bends, its bumps, slowing down to absorb the mind games, hitting its troposphere, laughing out loud, disapproving mildly of Ariel Manto, its student narrator, yet willing her on.
Alas, alas, it all had to end.
Or… maybe not.
Since if Kelsey Newman (we never meet him, though he is present throughout this new novel) is credible, nothing need ever end – according to Meg, our droll narrator, reviewing his book at the start of Scarlett Thomas's chaser to Mr Y.
According to Newman, in The Science of Living Forever, the universe will reach Omega Point, a moment of infinite power, resurrecting everyone … "billions of years after you have died" … and (here's the breakthrough) "you can't die again".
Well, it's all old hat if you've read the Book of Revelation, the Bible's X-rated last hurrah. But Meg seems intrigued. She's mostly reviewing it for the money. She's a writer. "In some ways I was already surviving beyond the end of time: beyond deadlines, overdraft limits and ultimatums from my bank manager … The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened woodlouse. I still had 50 pages of The Science of Living Forever to read and the deadline for my review was the next day."
Then things take a dip. We shift from Newman's outrageous prognosis to Meg's dreich world, through which she hobbles in a going-nowhere relationship with moaning, unemployed Christopher: needy, sometimes violent, and jealous of Meg's every move.
Unlike her friend Libby, who is enduring an on-off affair with boat builder Mark, Meg has been faithful, not that she wouldn't grab at pensionable Rowan (so far, just a solitary kiss to betray their feelings), a man so wet you could sink the Titanic beneath his oceanic dullness.
Meg is cerebral. She doesn't bemoan the lack of physical passion in her relationships. She cogitates and meditates, castigates and speculates. A good workout on the mat of mental gymnastics is all she needs to raise life in Dartford to a tolerable banality. Her writing, however, falls short of the literary big time. Her Zeb Ross books and Newtopia novels are genre stuff for teenagers. She dismisses them as "flat-pack" fiction. "My real writing… my literary novel, existed only in my head." Possible titles pop up: "Sandworld", "Footprints", "Notebooks" (a revamping of sundry scribbles in her ideas book). "I had a couple of old, rejected Zeb Ross plots – with authentic notes – that I could recycle as a kind of background noise…"
Sorting the "background noise" from the sound of real life lived is Our Tragic Universe's nub. Its clutch of characters embroil themselves in fruitless, delicious abstractions. What is a story, they wonder, or history? – storyless stories and historyless histories are much mooted and dissected.
And what is magic? Meg remembers a childhood encounter with a "wizard" in the woods. She will come to nothing, he tells her. Later she takes to Tarot reading, mulling over her life, her broken relationship with her parents, her brief affairs, her lifelong jealousy of Rosa, the girl next door, who comes to something. Ah, poor Rosa.
Rosa's fate should not be revealed, nor that of the theorist, Kelsey Newman, who makes an ill-fated trip to Totnes to give a reading, nor should the destiny of Meg and Rowan's leanings, this latter the only – if frustrating – enduring relationship in the novel. Meg moves house to Seashell Cottage, a small downpayment on the promise of better days, more dosh, greater kudos. "Does death define life?" she wonders. And earlier she muses: "We only need fiction because we die." Ditto undertakers. Which may seem an inapt response to a serious point, but Our Tragic Universe is underlyingly mocking, satirical, funny and rebellious. It doesn't completely take itself seriously, but it lacks the suspense of The End of Mr Y.
And if you are really mired by its phases of philosophising drivel, there's always knitting (K2, P2 – now there's a title for a novel) to save your sanity. Meg knits, therefore, she is.