It’s tough being a novelist of ideas these days. Just ask Scarlett Thomas. Her newest novel, The Seed Collectors, is laugh-out-loud funny for pages at a time. As British reviewers noted, it fits securely into the great tradition of the modern British comic novel represented by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, and Terry Pratchett, and offers considerable further satisfactions. The blurbs are from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. And yet it looked like the book would not even come out in North America until it was picked up by the venturesome but tiny Soft Skull Press. Far worse British novels have been published in the United States and Canada; far worse British novels have won the Booker Prize. So why did the best novel yet from the most ambitious novelist in the United Kingdom almost fail to get published in North America?
The Seed Collectors is the saga of an extended family the members of which are (un)happy in their own ways; Anna Karenina updated by both Amises. That saga starts with the death of Aunt Oleander. Oleander has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of her Gardener grandnephews and nieces — Clem(atis), an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker; Charlie, a botanist at Kew; and Bryony, a part-time real estate broker and graduate student — and to Fleur Meadows, her longtime factotum at Namaste House, her New Agey retreat. It seems that the seed pods, retrieved from a Pacific island by the vanished middle generation of Gardeners, confer enlightenment — but also death.
Fleur is the only major character to reach enlightenment; she consumes her seed pod and — shades of The Master and Margarita — finds herself capable of astral flight, able to see all things at once as if she’s become Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph. For the rest, sex will have to do. “There is quite a lot of sexing in it” — a comment on the journal of one of the vanished pod seekers — applies to the book as a whole. Little wonder that the family tree at the start of the book needs to be revised by the end.
The Seed Collectors is a departure for Thomas. Her three most recent novels, PopCo (2004), The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010), were first-person narratives about young, unattached women on knowledge quests, all told with humor and inventiveness, but broadly similar. In The Seed Collectors she widens her canvas to encompass at least seven major characters including a child and a bird, a gallery that showcases her mastery of “free indirect style.” Consider the Namaste House pet robin, Thomas’s tribute to Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina, who thinks — don’t all robins? — in a quasi-medieval dialect:
Through the bedroom window he can see that Fleur is nesting, Fleur often nests. But she never lays any eggs. That man in her nest has made it yblent. Did he make Fleur put out the firedangerfish? Did he eat the other macarons? Did he make her cry out in the night, as she so often does now?
But Thomas’s real comic masterpiece is Bryony. Thomas has never written a character remotely like her before. Surrounded by the ascetically inclined, Bryony is all id and no superego: fat, spendthrift, alcoholic, shopaholic, able to resist anything except temptation, and dedicated to ludicrously self-defeating schemes for self-improvement. She is all these things, and she is magnificent. Her 15-page rampage through Selfridge’s onto Oxford Street and the train home (starting with extreme shopping, escalating through way too much wine, eating the children’s candy, inappropriate flirting with hooligans, and ending with toilet masturbation — yes, there’s a lot of sexing in this book) is the novel’s tour de force; her progress from one appalling yet hilarious act to the next is a high-wire act on Thomas’s part, requiring a virtuosic command of tone and structure. If there is anyone in greater need of enlightenment yet less susceptible to it, they are not to be found in this book:
There are 165 calories in this glass of wine, but Bryony won’t log it in her food diary later because it isn’t very nice and she didn’t really mean to have it. When she gets home she’ll have 250mls of Chablis and she’ll log that instead…Fuck it. She just won’t fill in her food diary at all today. She’ll start afresh tomorrow. That means she can drink all the Chablis when she gets home.
More important, Bryony does monstrous things to her family out of self-absorption (pulling her daughter Holly from tennis camp out of pique, choosing wine over her husband, James, when he gives her a foolish ultimatum), No wonder Holly develops an eating disorder. No wonder James pours a kettle of boiling water over his head. But, but …We’ve all reached for that last glass of wine or Twinkie while saying to ourselves “I’ll start cutting down tomorrow.” Bryony is no different, except that she takes self-indulgence beyond comedy into the realm of menace to those closest to her. We may laugh at her or we may cringe, but she’s never uninteresting.
Why did it take this book almost a year to find a publisher? I believe that a combination of industry-specific reasons and more significant cultural attitudes are to blame. The state of American publishing is a problem for any writer without a preexisting mass following. Certainly with the death of the mid-list, an idiosyncratic British writer can expect trouble with American audiences (though Paul Murray’s similar The Mark and the Void at least got published in the United States—and reviewed, with an interview, in The Millions). And in a tweet on June 29, 2015, Thomas summarized some of the reasons publishers gave for rejecting the novel: “Too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much…” We can only take Thomas at her word here, but “too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much” could once have been part of a rave reader’s report on, say, Money, or (“British” apart) Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It’s impossible not to notice that these are books by male authors centered on powerful male voices. Would Thomas have had less trouble if she were male and her main character had been Bryan rather than Bryony? I’m inclined to think not in this particular case; Thomas doesn’t mention the issue, and her defiance of literary convention is extreme enough to make an American publisher nervous. (This issue deserves a full discussion, which might begin by noting that Bridget Jones is a less extreme version of Bryony in many ways, but her self-deprecating first-person voice and the Jane Austen–derived structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary, promising a happy ending, ensure that Bridget is reader friendly. Thus, a very different woman writer achieved worldwide success with a fairly similar female character; there are lessons here.)
In fact, Thomas’s unconventionality, perhaps her greatest literary virtue, has paradoxically diminished her appeal to some of the very readers who should love her. Readers seem to have particular trouble getting their heads around her notion of the “storyless story” (as a character in Our Tragic Universe calls it, “a vagina with teeth”). For example, in a piece ostensibly arguing for the publication of The Seed Collectors, Laura Miller opined that the book’s difficulty in finding a U.S. publisher was largely due to the failure of Our Tragic Universe to engage Miller and her friends as much as its predecessor, The End of Mr Y. (The friends’ opinion: “Nothing happened.”) Where Mr Y was a science-fiction thriller that featured a lengthy chase through a Victorian, computerless cyberspace, Our Tragic Universe deals with a young writer of sharecropped science fiction (think the Star Trek series) living her coincidence-inflected life on the Devonshire coast. It is, Miller complains, “a book about stories that tries mightily to avoid telling a story,” one that “deliberately avoids introducing the sort of mechanical crises, complications, and adventures that would make the proceedings more conventionally exciting.” A succinct statement of the idea of the storyless story; but it’s hard, Miller concludes, “to see why masses of people would want to read it.”
Although this is exactly the kind of book I want to read, Miller seems to align herself with Jonathan Franzen’s statement that “fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” But Franzen’s assumption is optional, and Thomas’s signature strength as a novelist is showing how. From her early novel Going Out — where the young protagonist Julie observes, “In real life nothing means anything. Stuff just happens and there is no structure…Not all events are stories.” — she has acknowledged that “stories give events meaning” (as Luke, the other protagonist of Going Out, responds) while battling the distortion of meaning that results from formula, cliché, and convention.
Meg in Our Tragic Universe is depressed that her own writing is the equivalent of “flat-pack furniture,” screwing pieces together according to a recipe “in exactly the way anyone would expect.” The storyless story is a protean concept in Thomas’s hands, but the reader will find Our Tragic Universe much more tractable if it is defined as the rejection of the flat pack: non-IKEA writing.
The Seed Collectors may appear less storyless — it has a beginning, middle, and end, and teems with stories the way a forest teems with trees — but look closer. Along with conventional stretches in “free indirect style,” the book contains voiceless elements such as lists and elements the voice of which comes from nowhere, such as a series of metaphysical puzzles for the reader akin to koans. At least one of the lists is Charlie’s and at least one of the puzzles is Fleur’s, but neither can be the narrator, because so much happens that they could not know. The Seed Collectors may not have an identifiable narrator, confirming Edward Champion’s insightful suggestion that “the novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along.” If so, the plot itself would mirror one of the book’s principal themes, the exuberant unstructured living mess that is nature, specifically the plant world. Whatever else it is, The Seed Collectors is not flat-pack writing, and is all the more exciting for it.
Somewhere James Wood claims that “broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from [Samuel] Richardson and the other from [Henry] Fielding.” Among many other inadequacies, this distinction ignores the current that flows from Laurence Sterne, the patron saint of non-IKEA writing. Tristram Shandy is more than the fount of postmodernism and metafiction. By using these techniques, Sterne reminds us that fictions are made out of words and therefore rejects a crude Richardsonian realism. Sterneans are above all playful; at the same time, they create characters readers can care about: Tristram Shandy, Leopold Bloom, Bryony Croft. As a Sternean, Thomas is more interested in rubbing words and ideas together and seeing what sparks they throw off than in telling stories that reinforce what we already think and end happily for likeable characters.
Not so long ago, a novel like The Seed Collectors would have been enthusiastically received in North America. What is a writer like Thomas to do in the Age of Franzen? Kudos to Soft Skull Press for the courage to bring out The Seed Collectors — but such a small press, however estimable, just doesn’t have the resources to ensure mainstream success. Thomas may have to resign herself to cult status on these shores.
But at least The Seed Collectors is finally available in the United States and Canada; you can judge for yourself. And if you don’t like sophisticated work that makes us laugh and think at the same time? There’s always Purity.
Critics who produce the same tired titles for these infernal end-of-the-year lists are as useless as austere accountants who refuse to fox trot on the dance floor. They are stiff, unimaginative, uncultured, incurious, and, quite possibly, lousy in bed. They are the literary equivalent of unadventurous tourists who cling to tired maps and who are hopeless with a Swiss Army knife.
The authors who are afforded predictable laurels are not to blame for this. Don’t get me wrong. These folks know how to cut the rug. Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), Tom McCarthy (C), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), David Rakoff (Half Empty), Adam Ross (Mr. Peanut), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Matt Taibbi (Griftopia), Paul Auster (Sunset Park) and Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) hardly need any help from me. Chances are that you’re already familiar with these fine titles. As for some “masterpieces,” well, you don’t really need me to tell you that the emperor wears no clothes.
But who needs such unpleasantness! 2010 was a great year in books! This was a hard list to assemble! There were only two books this year that almost made me consider suicide!
The following list represents an effort to identify books that were completely marginalized, modestly outside the radar, or needlessly condemened by certain hatchet wielders who lacked the grace and/or the intelligence to embrace a peculiar magic.
Allison Amend, Stations West – Jewish cowboys, vagabonds, 19th century multiculturalism, and an elaborate storyline covering a good fifty years. It isn’t often when a novelist crams so much enjoyable story into a taut 250 page container. In addition to the book’s telling but unobtrusive historical details (“inexpensive porcelain dishes” delicately placed inside a glass case for a quiet dignity, the newspapers taking so long to deliver the news, et al.), Amend is very careful in giving the reader much to infer. Garfield, for example, is an indolent trainhopper who becomes something of a politco. The reasons behind this unlikely ascent are skillfully delivered: “As the country entered a new century, so did Garfield. He was tired of the raised eyebrows, the barely polite refusals, tired of fighting just to get the same food or service everyone else did. Just because he had a Jewish surname.” Yet remarkably, this book has received scant notice from the book reviewing outlets. Perhaps because it’s too readable to be true.
Toby Ball, The Vaults – “So he leaned against a thick timber that had at one time served as a post for a jetty and with his collar up and hat down inhaled the sweet, moist smoke and felt the cold become a more-interesting-than-uncomfortable sensation on his skin.” That’s probably the type of hyperspecific pulp prose style that’s going to infuriate the Millions readership. The time has come to loosen up. From a worldbuilding standpoint, why shouldn’t we know the origin point of the post? Why shouldn’t we know how someone faces the cold or contends with competing dermal sensations? These may seem flippant questions. But if we can accept this level of detail in William Gibson or Nicholson Baker, then surely we can offer some wiggle room for an engaging novel that somehow manages to squeeze such intriguing sentences into brisk chapters (did I mention that this book moves?) for a high-octane, multiple character story that involves a parallel dystopian America in the 1930s.
Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Forget Wells Tower. Robin Black’s marvelous short story collection, which was needlessly ignored by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is very much on the level: far truer to human existence than anything written by that lumbering Young Turk. These subtle and mature stories avoid belabored metaphors and neat conclusions, revealing numerous nuances about the human condition in its careful use of understated language Black knows “the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.” In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” cybersex involves “gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.” The striking possibility that humans can surrender to their baser instincts is suggested by “Harriet Elliott”’s narrator sleeping in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals. Some stories are interrupted by terrible accidents, often of the car crashing variety. But these stories don’t just tell the truth; like much great literature, they make a quiet case for perseverance.
Paula Bomer, Baby – These darkly hilarious tales are somewhat reminiscent of Kate Christensen, Iris Owens, and Maggie Estep. Yet Bomer is more willing to investigate that uncomfortable territory between extreme behavior and insanity. In a Bomer story, you’ll find a perverse passage (“She didn’t know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway.”) that makes you ponder why the character hasn’t been arrested for outright neglect. (What “things” did this mother try? And why is her partner so complicit?) Unfortunately, mainstream publishers don’t have the stones to publish such material anymore. Fortunately, Word Riot Press is there to cover the gap.
Jane Brox, Brilliant – In The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore unfurled a Bummer Bertha, suggesting that microhistories, by way of auctorial passion, have little to offer the serious minded. Such a distressingly humorless attitude can be handily answered by Jane Brox’s fascinating book, emerging from a straightforward examination of how artificial light has permanently altered human existence. Before reading this book, I had no idea how difficult it was for astronomers to locate dark patches of the sky. I knew that the end of the curfew had augmented nightlife, but I hadn’t fully considered how swiftly gaslight had superceded candlelight, making such items as theatrical makeup more garish. The common electricity that we now take for granted is a relatively recent phenomenon. Imagine that you’re a farmer in the 1930s who has recently received rural electrification. Now imagine that you’re given the sudden ability to see beyond the circumference of the kitchen table and how this alters your everyday family life. Brox’s book is loaded with such examples. And I include it on this list, with the proviso that you may become as intoxicated by the subject matter as I was: so much so that you will find yourself flocking to the library, seeking the many sources and pondering the vantage point of someone illuminated in 1849.
Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions – Ervin’s debut novel is one of two Hungary-themed books on this list. I don’t know what it is about Hungary, but maybe the Budapest Tourist Office will explain this obsession to me one day. Extraordinary Renditions was one of those novels (or three interconnected novellas; pick your category!) that made it into my backpack at BEA (I have no recollection of acquiring it; so perhaps it was a plant!) and which I very much enjoyed. Like the Amend and Bomer books, it’s very much the kind of book you don’t see published by a major house anymore. No coverage in The New York Times, nothing in The Washington Post, some coverage in some newspapers. See a trend? Anyway, this book’s about national identity and expatriates running around Hungary. It’s funny, alarming, evocative, and, very often with its internal description, defies its apparent historical setting. It echoes political texts while presenting political folly (and youthful folly). Said folly even extends to the naivete of a celebrated composer of some years, who shuffles the Budapest streets like a young man.
James Hynes, Next – Knowing of my needless difficulties in obtaining review copies from Little Brown, a good friend placed this novel in my hands and urged me to read it. Not only did I finish this tome in one sitting, but I plunged into Hynes’s backlist, discovering the wonderfully twisted book, Kings of Infinite Space. I don’t say this lightly, but James Hynes is very much the real deal. He is as worthy a literary satirist as Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, George Saunders, Jess Walter, and countless others. But you won’t see him in The New Yorker anytime soon. And that is because, from his homebase in Austin, he understands the human condition too well. Hynes knows that what occurs on your way to a job interview is often just as important as whether or not you get the job. The result here is a novel that is both hilarious and revealingly introspective.
Charlie Huston, Sleepless – The prolific and highly enjoyable Charlie Huston has given us some gleefully brutal moments, vampirism afflicting the marginalized, and comic capers involving a crime scene cleanup. But Sleepless signaled an unexpected gravitas and several ambitious steps forward. With its plot set in the daringly recent future (six months from now), with 10% of the population suffering from permanent insomnia and addicted to a massively multiplayer game called Chasm Tide, Huston portrays an increasingly more persuasive world in which life is dictated by the cultural dregs that remain. Where Gary Shteyngart offered little more than expansive (yet enjoyable) detachment with his dystopian epic, Super Sad True Love Story, Huston wants to get at the manner people carry on. Does it come from fatherhood? Some larger sense of responsibility? The ability to withstand horrific torture or loved ones disappearing? Manhood’s certainly part of the game, but the chessboard’s much larger. And Huston only gets better.
Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge – This sweeping epic was, at 624 pages, perhaps too much for some critics to take in. One snarky scribbler condemned this book for “feel[ing] birfurcated” without bothering to cite a reason. (Perhaps the events of the Holocaust? Known to unsettle populations and disorder romantic harmony? Just a few wild stabs in the dark.) Such foolish snaps don’t even begin to approximate what Orringer’s magnificent debut novel does. Using beautiful language to depict the near disappearance of an idyllic paradise (“He entered through a floriated wrought-iron gate between two stern figures carved in stone, and crossed a sculpture garden packed with perfect marble specimens of kore and kouros, straight from his art history textbook, staring into the distance with empty almond-shaped eyes.”), this powerful novel is equally unflinching in ilustrating how its colorful cast of characters (including an acrobatic family member) “might grow up without the gravity…without the sense of tragedy that seemed to hang in the air like the brown dust of bituminous coal.” This is a book that approaches unspeakable barbarism with a rare ebullience, feeling neither inappropriate nor unconsidered. It is a call for hope and small acts of resistance. It may be set in the past, but this is very much a novel for our times.
Gary Rivlin, Broke USA – Many flocked to Matt Taibbi’s excellent Griftopia as the high finance expose of the year. But Gary Rivlin’s understated look at predatory lending is also worth a look. The book collects perspectives from every end of the spectrum. There’s Chris Browning, the former manager of a Check ‘n’ Go in Ohio, who was fired because she was required by the higher ups to upsell and lend money to anybody who walked through the door; Martin Eakes, the man behind the Center for Responsible Lending offering a more reasonable APR through his credit union. And then there’s the sordid history of the rapacious corporations that built up their businesses with the refund anticipation loan, disguising the hidden costs of tax preparation. Like Howard Karger’s Shortchanged and John Lanchester’s IOU, Rivlin’s book is vital in understanding some of this nation’s most underreported issues.
Matthew Sharpe, You Were Wrong – Lips are “two fat garden slugs making love.” There is “no worse violation of a soul than hope.” We’re told that “tones can be tough for everyone and were extratough for Karl, who was lately an avid pupil in the urgent remedial project of tones.” Sometimes the reader is subtly addressed. Sometimes not. There is a curious precision to the description in the way the “midafternoon sunbeam entered the house through a bedroom window to the right.” These are just some of the many nonsequitur joys (or planned pleasures?) to be found within Matthew Sharpe’s extremely goofy and very enjoyable novel, which seems to be channeling Flann O’Brien’s madcap spirit.
Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas’s subtle efforts to examine the relationship between narrative and life – to say nothing of the omega point – were drastically misunderstood by those who expected another The End of Mr. Y. For this masterful novel — defiantly plotless after the success of Thomas’s previous pageturners — is very much interested in how narrative must rely upon contrivances in order to present life. Beyond this, it dares to portray Meg Carpenter, an intelligent woman whose identity is occluded by the driftless mumbling of her flaccid partner. By offering a protagonist brazenly defiant of reader expectations, Thomas subtly channels Henry James’s Isabel Archer (with Meg, like Isabel, even running into some money), while also demonstrating that the quest for the new often leads to the same old cycles.
Donald E. Westlake, Memory – This lost novel in a drawer, published by Hard Case Crime after four decades of dutiful dust collection, revealed that Westlake was far more than a mystery master. The book’s taut and fatalistic narrative arguably aligns itself with Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. And had Westlake pursued more solitary outcasts like protagonist Paul Cole, he may very well have pursued John Banville’s trajectory (ironically, with Banville finding his alter ego, Benjamin Black, in the end). Which isn’t to take away from Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Westlake’s wonderful Parker novels (written under Richard Stark) – all very deserving of praise. Memory confirms that “inferior” genres must be reconsidered by the seemingly discriminating.
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Mark Sarvas, proprietor of The Elegant Variation, takes some time to share the books he read in 2006 that he found, shall we say, most to his liking. First off, the more I think about it, the less I care for the whole “Best of” formulation. It offends me on a number of levels, not the least of which is by the assumption that one has read enough of what’s on offer in a year to be able to decide what’s “Best”. (And this is no knock on this inestimable blog; rather, it’s a systemic crankiness that’s afflicting me this year.) So I’m going to come instead from the perspective of “My Favorites of the Year,” which seems more inherently more defensible. (And, in an open note to newspaper editors everywhere, why not opt for the more modest construction “Editor’s Choice” or “Editor’s Favorite”? It seems preferable to the untenably pompous “Best of” declarations that have becomede rigeur.)OK. End of my mini-rant. A list, in alphabetical order, of books thatstruck me as being of particular note in 2006:Amphigorey Again by Edward Gorey: What will probably be the last collection from a master.Black Swan Green: David Mitchell proves he can do “human” as well as “clever” with a breakthrough novel.Christine Falls: It will only be available in the US next year, but John Banville’s first thriller as Benjamin Black is drawing deserved praise forits UK release.Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio: The best short story collection we’ve read in years. Breathtaking.The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas: Flawed but exuberant, it’s a Foucault’s Pendulum for the iPod generation.Everything that Rises: Lawrence Weschler’s brilliant John Berger-esque collection of essays on unlikely visual convergences.Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: The graphic novel that finally won me over to the form.The Lost: Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliantly written memoir answers those who ask if there’s anything left to write about the Holocaust.The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier, translated by Lorin Stein: A delicious Gallic treat, depicting the party from hell and explaining what every man should know about turtleneck sweaters.Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris: OK, this one is a cheat – it’s not out until March of next year but this hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change my mind about MFAs.Ticknor by Sheila Heti: If there’s a favorite of the year, this bitter comedy of envy and failure would be the one.Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon: It’s not from this year but I only just caught up with it and can see what the fuss was about.Thanks Mark!