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the daily review, wed., nov. 3

Meg is helping her friend Libby invent a story to avoid being found out for cheating on her husband. When their far-fetched plot requires Libby's car to be sunk in the river to hide the evidence, she hesitates for a few seconds, then pushes it in. Throughout Scarlett Thomas's eighth novel, episodes of novelistic improbability intrude playfully on a story that claims to be intent on depicting realism. Thomas's insistence on representing the inconclusiveness of real life, avoiding formulaic plotting and exploring the possibilities of storytelling therefore becomes part of both the form and content of Our Tragic Universe.

Meg is a writer, just barely surviving financially in a small village in Devon. What she wants to write is a real novel, one that will secure her prizes and praise, but everything keeps getting in the way - the necessity of knocking out another novel for the ghostwritten Zeb Ross teenage-thriller franchise for the good money it brings in, or writing reviews of bad science books. When she does get a chance to sit down with her own work, she ends up cutting out huge swaths until she is faced with a blank page.

This novel, like Thomas's The End of Mr. Y, which similarly deals with the biggest questions of the meaning of the universe and the possibility of happiness against a background of magic and science, will please existing fans. It lands somewhere on the borders of cult and mainstream, especially with the recurrent theme of The Science of Living Forever, a book Meg has to review that claims we are all already dead and trying to navigate to some kind of heaven. This book becomes a prominent part of her life and of the novel - yet its timely appearance is a mystery, since her commissioning editor claims to have no knowledge of the book when Meg finally submits her review.

It's hard to say quite how Our Tragic Universe works.

It's the story of Meg, her financial woes, her impossible love situation - living with an unhappy man named Christopher but in love with a museum curator 20 years her senior (who is Libby's husband's uncle - the novel really puts its few characters to work, and is classically insular in a just-credible way).

It's also a story about writing, about how to construct stories, about theories of storytelling and fictionless fiction. Meg's notes for her new novel become part of the book, and when she considers literally turning the notebook into an experimental novel, the whole thing becomes a pleasantly dizzying mise en abyme - rather a good antidote, if veering toward cliché, to the theoretical discussions about writing.

It's a great trick of Thomas's, to create this raggle-taggle band of endearingly incompetent characters with their fierce intelligence - everyone, except the people who are too grumpy to have conversations anyway, can chat about theory for hours on end. These same discussions are, however, one of the novel's weak points. Thomas's writing and characters can carry the teaching points quite some distance, particularly when it's part of the will-they-won't-they of Meg and Rowan (true to the novel's postmodern homage, their story - the main plot driver - is resolved in a very unresolved manner), but there are points where the reader's head pops up out of this fantastical metafictional world, taking in a great gulp of fresh air and wondering exactly where it is all going.

Ultimately the quest for the storyless story is abandoned for a deep love of structure and rational explanations. Death of the author be damned: Thomas is a benevolent dictator, never mocking the characters. So what if these people are all tangled up in relationships with the wrong person? So what if they reach for their dreams on a daily basis and fail just as often? So what if they repeat the same mistakes time and time again? The point is that life is messy and disappointing, but there can be happiness, or at least a kind of untidy contentment. It's hard not to be drawn in to Thomas's quirky, higgledy-piggledy world. Just jump in and hold your breath - and your disbelief - and Our Tragic Universe will cast its spell on you.

J.C. Sutcliffe is a writer and translator who lives in Canada and England.