rabbit at rest (john updike)*
CHALLENGER: our tragic universe (scarlett thomas)

i'm not entirely sure what our tragic universe wants. as one reviewer put it, "i wanted to root for this novel and its brain-bending, occasionally contradictory signifiers; i also found myself yearning for a way in." after kicking things off with a thought-experiment quote from baudrillard's simulacra and simulation, scarlett thomas presents us with meg, an asthmatic hack writer in devonshire who pens adventure novels as zeb ross, modern-day england's composite-author equivalent of carolyn keene or gossip girl's cecily von ziegesar.** meg's a hack writer in the grub street sense of the term: she'd vastly prefer to be plugging away at the serious novel she promised her publisher ages ago, but she has to support her shiftless boyfriend in the interim, and she writes a page only to delete four more. were i to attempt serious fiction at all (a mistake i haven't made since college), i'd find it near-impossible to write surrounded by friends like meg's: her set is riddled with author-philosophers who congregate around booze to argue about which stories get to be stories in the first place.
'Isn't this the problem of definition?' Claudia said. 'They obviously weren't telling "stories" as we would understand them. If we say that a story is something with a beginning, a middle and an end, deterministically linked, with at least one main character, then someone else can't come along and say that a story is actually defined as "anything anyone ever says".'
How about if we define "story" differently again?' Frank said. 'What if a story is simply any representation of agents acting? What if that's all it is, and the shape of the narrative, its determinism, its construction of "good" and "bad" characters and so on are culturally specific?'
i'm willing to believe people speak this way, but i have a hard time imagining that they do so all the time. meg's lumpen boyfriend excepted, thomas's characters sure do. "i wanted to write a novel while at the same time unravelling it, so that the result would be simultaneously broken and whole," thomas has said. it...is; i'm not always entirely sure what's going on, particularly when characters are arguing about an american author's discussion of the omega point, an infinitely powerful instant at the end of the finite universe at which it will be possible for us to create an infinity of perfect post-universes in which we live forever. i bitched to joe this weekend about how long it's taken me to pull together this THUNDERTOME: "it's this intentionally storyless story about the death of the author and all this philosophy." "whose philosophy?!"*** "i'm not entirely sure, but i don't like it."

i do quite like some of thomas's other meanderings; she's a great admirer of chekhov's and tolstoy's, and her characters' chats about their relationship**** got me all excited about reading their letters (and anna karenina, which i finished on a train over the weekend and will toss into the first arena of the new year when i finish slogging through these december books). there's also a lovely bit about robert louis stevenson's travels with a donkey in the cévennes about the beast of gévaudan, the chupacabra of the baskervilles of 18th-century france:
'"Wolves, alas! like bandits, seem to flee the traveller's advance, and you may trudge through all our comfortable Europe, and not meet with an adventure worth the name. But here, if anywhere, a man was on the frontiers of hope. For this was the land of the ever-memorable BEAST, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and 'shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty'; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king's high road..." There's a bit more after that, Tim said. 'Sometime later Stevenson is lost, and meets two young girls who won't give him directions. One pokes her tongue out at him, and the other just tells him to follow the cows. He says then, "The Beast of Gévaudan ate about a hundred children of this district; I began to think of him with sympathy."'
i came away from our tragic universe with a rather fine reading list, and i appreciate that. i also appreciate thomas's clever imagery, and her affection for her meandering, flawed characters; it would be easy to satirize them, but she does what she can to present them realistically. until they begin chasing beasts and disappearing and maybe practicing magic, that is.
'You shouldn't be able to fix the meaning of the universe, just as you shouldn't be able to reduce Hamlet or Anna Karenina to a sentence or say what they "really mean". I want a tragic universe, not a nice rounded-off universe with a moral at the end. And I don't think looking for a final meaning for the universe is rewarding either.'
fair enough, ms. thomas. i do hope we stumble upon each other in a conversation somewhere else, as you seem lovely; this just isn't quite my scene.

VICTOR: updike, with a blow to the back of thomas's head when she wandered off to eat a tangerine.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 i bet there are more composite authors out there. hazard a guess! who's secretly a collective?

02 have you ever read scarlett thomas? what did you think?

03 had you a major or majors?

04 tolstoy or chekhov, internet: you must pick one.

05 if you were the beast of gévaudan, what sort of person would you eat?

06 is skepticism re: capital-p Philosophy a character flaw?

*previous battle here.

**CZ is an actual person, mind you, but - just trust me here.

***joe was a poli sci / philosophy major. or he minored in philosophy. i could never keep it straight.

****"'Tolstoy, being rich, thinks that living like a peasant is virtuous in its simplicity. But Chekhov's been there and done that. He's eaten goose soup so thin that he says the only substance in it is like the scum you get in a bath after fat market women have been in it. He has slept in troughs.'"


esb said...


kidchamp said...


Amid Privilege said...

Comparative Literature.
Philosophy simply ran its course. Happens to be the best of us. Science is very inconvenient at times.

Elena said...


And I would eat Thomas' protagonist.  I bet her flesh would be tender.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: Nicole Krauss or Sam Harris. 04: Mailer recounts—in The Spooky Art—an agreeable fake story, from a JF Noonan play, about Chekhov visiting Tolstoy around the turn of the century.  The anecdote involves Tolstoy complimenting Chekhov’s prose but then criticizing his playwriting with a special disparagement—he’s awful, even worse than Shakespeare—and  ends with Chekhov’s journal entry about the ride home— ‘I whipped the horses.  To the moon I shouted, “I am even worse than Shakespeare!”’ 05: Hapless co-eds, or anyone with a Trenta Caramel Macchiato; tradition vs. good eating. 06: From Ian Shoales’ Fuzzy Logic Potential quiz: 8. If world peace can be visualized, and Batman can be visualized, is world peace Batman? Answer: Some world peace is Batman.

kidchamp said...


kidchamp said...

"Perhaps all of our prayers are best summed up by my small son Harold, just eight years old. Kneeling beside his little bed, hands clasped reverently before him, he said, 'God bless Mommy. God bless Daddy. God bless my dog Spot. And please, Batman, whoever you are behind that mask of yours, please save us."

uncle paul said...

Philosophy gives philosophy a bad name. But Edmund Burke (another phil/poli-sci combo) wrote "Proportion Not the Cause of Beauty in Vegetables," and _meant_ it.

kidchamp said...

i remember feeling quite heartened when i read "a philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful" at school, although in retrospect concluding that POETRY KICKS ALL ASSES was perhaps a bit reductive.

rachel (heart of light) said...

Those people do exist, and I listen to their conversations about normative societal structures every day (bonus side benefit of taking the bus that services a university!). I mostly smile to myself, because I am not entirely wizened and grumpy yet.  But it's hard to refrain from laughing hysterically when they say have conversations like that and then finish with "You know, I'd just like to teach at a small liberal arts college in a metropolitan city". Riiiiiight. And I'd just like to win the lottery. No biggie. 

kidchamp said...

we'd overhear some superlative chats when we drank at the turf (or anywhere, really, but especially the turf) in oxford. lots of people can get angry about chaucer, but drunk eighteen-year-old englishmen get spectacularly angry about chaucer.

Amanda said...

01 Frank W. Dixon, of course. MDF, you are the best one.
02 No.
03 I had at least five; eventually, they distilled into one.
04 Tolstoy. Sez Nabokov in his glorious Anna lecture:"We might list the greatest artists in Russian prose thus: first, Tolstoy; second, Gogol; third, Chekhov; fourth, Turgenev." Also, "When you read Turgenev, you know you are reading Turgenev. When you read Tolstoy, you read just because you cannot stop."
05 The same sort of person I currently eat.
06 No.