Back in January, I wrote on my blog of The Seed Collectors, 'if this lets me down, I may as well give up reading'. Well, this is awkward. And very disappointing, obviously.
A bit of context before I start talking about this particular book. Scarlett Thomas's Our Tragic Universe is one of my favourite novels, and made the author one of my favourite novelists. With the exception of one early, out-of-print mystery (which I own a copy of), I have read everything else she's done. I've been waiting over four years for The Seed Collectors. Seriously - Goodreads shows I have had it on my wishlist shelf since it was first added to the site: 19 April 2011, to be exact. When I heard that review copies were becoming available, I emailed the publisher to ask (beg) for one - only the second time I have ever done that. So, believe me, I was hyped for this. I think it's now safe to say I was far too hyped.
There are certain things I have always found reliably great about Thomas's later, better novels (from PopCo onwards). They have fantastic characters: compelling, messy and human. The characters have fascinating conversations and debates that strike a perfect balance between a brilliant ideal and a recognisable level of normality and/or imperfection, achieving an effect that makes me wish I was best friends with her characters, or people like them, or simply knew people who talked like this in real life. The books' plots have a similarly impressive knack of weaving together big ideas and mundane everyday stuff, making them feel smarter than average but very much grounded in reality, and 'readable' - stories you can learn from and genuinely enjoy at the same time.
You wouldn't believe how many notes I have on this book - an essay-length compendium, mostly made up of angry ranting, most of which I've scrapped. I should clarify that I was angry, partly at myself, because I was so disappointed. A lot of my problems come down to a judgement that's perhaps unfair: The Seed Collectors doesn't match up to the expectations I inevitably had, based on the above things I've loved about the author's previous work. The characters are almost all unpleasant: the men are lecherous creeps, the women vacuous. Aside from a minor character (Zoe, who seemed like a refugee from an earlier Thomas novel), I didn't like any of them*. The characters are also terrible at communicating with each other, so that rules out the interesting conversations. There are ideas here, but they're scattered so indiscriminately (I suppose that's intentional? Scattered like seeds?) that it's hard to pull any theme or meaning out of them.
(*Does this matter? It doesn't always - obviously - but in this case I would say it does. It mattered because it meant I couldn't have cared less what happened to any of them, therefore had no investment in the story, therefore could easily have put the book aside at any point and never picked it up again. Characters don't have to be likeable if they're compelling or interesting, but personally I didn't find these characters at all compelling or interesting.)
I've spent a lot of time considering the idea that Thomas means this book as a kind of satire or a postmodern narrative experiment. In terms of form, it's probably the most inventive thing she's done, with very little linearity. The main narrative is broken up and often interrupted by random paragraphs inviting the reader to 'imagine' some scenario or concept. Key moments are seen through filters, merely overheard or glimpsed by an uninvolved character and never revealed in full. There are sections told from the point of view of birds. Multiple middle-aged characters have internal monologues akin to a teenager's Twitter - 'omfg' and 'ffs' and 'like, obvs' everywhere; every other word in capitals - a conceit that didn't work at all for me. There are dreams and lists and splashes of fantasy; I was reminded of the way Our Tragic Universe was structured around the idea of a 'storyless story' while not breaking away entirely from the conventional narrative form. The Seed Collectors takes another step towards the 'storyless' mode by splitting up and dispersing its narrative, by virtually ignoring some of its supposed main plot points and going in whichever direction it chooses.
But the actual content, though - it's bafflingly prosaic. We have a female character defined by the fact that she's fat - cue reams of boring agonising over calories and diets; we have an ageing male professor fantasising about a female student and couching it in terms of pseudo-paternal concern. Mentions of brands are so frequent you'd be forgiven for thinking Mulberry have paid for product placement. Presumably, the point is to subvert tired themes and send up consumerism (or the proliferation of brand names in commercial fiction? or the way contemporary literary fiction represents middle class people?) but again, this was something that just didn't work for me, being at once too obvious about its intentions and too opaque in its meaning. This was the real crux of my problem with the book. The banal concerns and endless brand names drag everything else down, and the 'philosophical' snippets therefore feel totally inconsequential because they're merely inserted into the narrative at random points, rather than being spoken about by characters in a way that feels natural.
It gives me no pleasure to write a negative review of something from a favourite author, but I have to be honest, I really didn't like this book. Obviously, nobody said that the author had to make this book like her other books, and given the differences I'm sure she didn't want it to be. But when I think about her previous novels (especially Our Tragic Universe) I remember things I really and truly love, little portals to worlds I want to lose myself in. My enduring impressions of The Seed Collectors are: a sense of relief at getting away from these awful people; and a lingering concern that I must have completely misinterpreted the whole story in some fundamental way.
I think it's important to emphasise that I really wouldn't want this review to put anyone off reading other Scarlett Thomas books. I just can't recommend this one.
Previous review, 25 May 2015:
I'm very, very disappointed to report that I didn't enjoy this at all. It isn't anything like any of Scarlett Thomas's other books: the characters aren't likeable, they don't have interesting conversations, the way it's written is infuriating, the narrative is all over the place and everything feels unfinished. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I was somehow reading it wrong - that it's meant as some kind of experiment or satire that I hadn't quite understood, or had approached in the wrong sort of way.
I have the notes for a much longer and more detailed review, but I'm putting them aside for now. I'm really interested in seeing what critics and other readers make of it. If there's anything in others' responses that makes me reassess my viewpoint, I may revisit the book in the near future.