Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

• All narrative is simulation. Narrative is representation, or imitation, or mimesis – it stands for something that it is not. But even a ‘true story’ isn’t life, by definition. Life is life. But on the other hand all we know about it is what exists as narrative. As Plato says, there are true stories and there are false stories. The only difference, presumably, between a premonition story about the Titanic and a real account of it is the timing and perhaps some detail, for us, since I’m guessing that neither of us has seen the Titanic or met anyone who was on board. For us, the Titanic is also a story, because everything we know about it comes through narrative and not through experience. Narrative has to have patterns, the minute we express it as narrative; it has to make sense. Therefore we impose patterns on life in order that we can express it as narrative. Whenever something good happens, for example, we start anticipating its end.

For example, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Pads boxes – clues – solving a puzzle – working with what you already have – reconstruct a narrative – although they represent or imitate mass-produced items, they are hand-printed; they are not. Point being: you wouldn’t stop to examine them if they were mass-produced. You think differently about the labour of an artist compared to the labour of a factory worker. You realise how many things you don’t bother examining closely. The packaging of every object tells a story, but we take those stories for granter and forget to defamiliarise them.

• It was as if the superobjective of everyone in the Western world was simply ‘I wish to become a fictional character – rags-to-riches makeovers, home makeovers shows turning the inside of people’s houses into spaces resembling film sets, with any embarrassing old lino, faded photographs and comfortable dog beds removed. Talent shows where contestants had to cry before they could receive any good news, dramas where selfish people learnt to consider others, advertisements where women desired bright, clean kitchens in which their children can eat cereal and their husbands could read the newspaper and nothing would ever break or go rotten. Not one of these kitchens contained anyone rolling a joint, washing a muddy dog, having a huge row, making a messy stir-fry, picking their nose or anything real people did in their kitchens.

Blokes talking at the bar about a football match where the underdog has triumphed against the odds, or complaining because a woman is playing hard to get. That when someone plays hard to get, they are making themselves into a character in a story, and they choose the story that leads to the outcome that they want. If a woman puts a dragon between herself and the hero, it becomes an obstacle to overcome. If she goes and knocks on his door and says ‘Fancy a bunk-up?’ she becomes a slut: basically a conquest with no obstacles and therefore no value. It was like people wanted to put everything in a story because otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense. The guys talking about the football match wanted the ‘fairytale’ ending to the match they’d watch because they wanted it to be more satisfying, and the wanted to believe underdogs could win because they identified with them.

• Chekhov: Writing is all about formulating questions. Story – structure is just the container. The container might be strong and reliable and familiar, but you can put whatever you like inside it. It’s the space that is important. There’s no reason why you can’t put something unfamiliar in a familiar container. Just don’t seal the container.

*further reading: Aristotle’s Poetics & Frank Tippler’s The Physics of Immortality

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