Friday, May 20, 2016

By Scarlett Thomas
374 pp. Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint. $26.

In fairy tales, magical seeds grow into beanstalks, climbing through clouds into giants’ houses full of treasures and gold, lifting the hero away from the quotidian concerns of taking care of cows and avoiding starvation. The characters of Scarlett Thomas’s new novel, “The Seed Collectors,” start in those elevated regions, though, comfortably beyond any real worry about money or material needs. Their magic seeds have to go to greater lengths: providing an escape from existence and self, which by the end of the novel does indeed come to seem like a reasonable choice.

The seed collectors of the title are the extended Gardener family, a Salingeresque clan full of thematically named botanists. Their matriarch, Oleander, has just died, leaving behind a yoga retreat called Namaste House and a collection of mystical seedpods holding the secret of enlightenment. Years ago several family members disappeared on the expedition to find the seeds, leaving behind a large cast of relatives who are now more or less failing in their own attempts to flower. They slowly come to grips with their

inheritance through a handful of key events: Oleander’s funeral, a child’s birthday, a journey to a remote Scottish island or two, uncovering pieces of family skeletons as they go.

Thomas has a gift for interior monologues that flow steadily and easily, carrying you through a character’s mental landscape, full of vivid imagery and digressions that flirt with spinning out of control but never quite go too far. There are flashes of brilliantly weird and fanciful images — an electric toothbrush gone mad, the staggering progress of a walking palm — but for the most part these landscapes are full of food and drink and sex and shopping, banal and strangely similar, hinting that these are all the same hunger, unsatisfiable.

The most vividly drawn of the characters is Bryony, the calorie-counting fat woman who lies to herself continually about her self-imposed diets, and is also a cheating wife and neglectful mother, utterly impervious to self-insight or remorse. By the end she seems vaguely responsible for the misery of her entire family as a consequence of her constant gorging, and when she’s left standing after a series of disasters, this feels less a victory than a moral failure. But almost all of the characters here are aggressively selfish, prejudiced and mean. The one figure we’re halfway invited to like is the heir to Namaste House, Fleur, who feeds hungry birds instead of herself (including one robin who seems to have taken a wrong turn from “The Secret Garden”) even though, as Oleander once pointed out to her, how can she know the birds wouldn’t rather be dead?

Well they might. Thomas makes clear that pleasure taken in this world is misguided where it is not impossible. The only true pleasure to be found is in the mystical seeds, which kill and enlighten their consumers all in one go, removing them not merely from the world but from the cycle of death and rebirth and from any sense of self. Almost every character who refuses this dubious gift, who chooses the world and the self, spirals down into disaster or at least unhappy stasis.

“The Seed Collectors” similarly avoids providing pleasure in the narrative, doling out story in what seems a deliberately frustrating and vaguely medicinal way. Hints of interesting people and events are dropped just out of reach, and remain there. Scenes skip unmarked gaps of time, foreshadowed events are left offstage and characters are sprinkled liberally into the background bve happiness, except perhaps the Katy Perry-esque pop star who more or less accidentally gets a taste of enlightenment and seems by the end to have turned into something of a ­superhero — but we don’t hear any more of this story except that she turns up on a stranger’s doorstep in need of a meal and a shower after some unspecific adventure. The characters are intertwined and crossbred as if in an attempt to cultivate and fix some remarkable quality in the family line, but what that quality might be never becomes apparent. They all go stumbling vaguely in the direction of escape just like the walking palm.
In real life, there’s no such thing as a walking palm; it’s a myth used to entertain rain-forest tourists. That shouldn’t matter in a novel that relies so heavily on fantasy, of course, but magic is scattered haphazardly here — in limited amounts and without real coherence — so that it’s unclear whether Thomas’s walking palm is a mistake of research or if we’re supposed to accept it the same way we’re meant to accept the magical seeds, the flowers that grow human faces, a magical book that transforms into whatever you need it to be, the exotic lost island full of the enlightened that is the source for all the rest of these. “Isn’t this all just a load of. . . .” one character asks, trailing doubtfully off, and although she’s assured the answer is no, we’re left unconvinced. As Fleur is told, all of the world is an illusion, so whatever we choose to believe in is real.

But as Ursula K. Le Guin has said, in fantastic literature “the imaginary must be imagined” — the storyteller must make her magic consistent. Readers are willing to accept everything from beanstalks to vampires, if only we’re convinced the author understands how they work even when we don’t, and won’t break the rules of her underlying universe. When that mandate is neglected, magic becomes a transparent device, a way for the author to more conveniently stick her hand into her own universe and stir. In “The Seed Collectors” that has the effect of making Thomas’s world seem all the thinner and more fragile, exactly the illusion she suggests it is — but the characters get thinner along with it, as does our ability to care about them.

The magical book in particular appears without ceremony or introduction or plausible explanation. “Somewhere in the world there is a magical book,” the novel informs us, before its first appearance in the narrative. “It simply changes itself to become the book you most need at this point in your life. If you are poor, perhaps it transforms into a very expensive book. But this is unlikely, because your soul knows of all the things you really need, and it is unlikely that wealth will be the most pressing thing.”

In its aggressive refusal to satisfy the reader’s desires in order to carry out its purpose, “The Seed Collectors” clearly wants to imitate this fictional book, but like the deadly self-destroying enlightenment of the poisonous seeds, the question is why we want to eat. The devices of fantastic literature act to bring wonder into the world. They invite us to find pleasure and satisfaction in the author’s invention, the miraculous and the terrible both. But here the magical device is aimed so aggressively against the world itself, against the bodies of the characters, that the only kind of satisfaction it offers is the Chekhovian bang of the gun on the mantelpiece, the trigger that is pulled because it has to be.

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