On the apparently inexhaustible topic of ill-fated and illicit love, there is no living authority greater than Jeanette Winterson. Hyperbole? Maybe. But I’m saying it anyway, because she will no longer say such things about herself. A once unruly young celebrity who served up self-aggrandizing quotes to copy-hungry interviewers, Winterson has in the past been excoriated for declaring herself the English language’s greatest living writer, heir to Virginia Woolf, and nominating her own 1992 novel, Written on the Body, as Book of the Year. She stalked a critic who slammed her 1994 book, Art and Lies, and outed her lover, a well-known and famous married woman. But the 41-year-old Winterson, who published her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, when she was 23, has now repented: “I didn’t handle [celebrity] well,” she confessed to a journalist from the London Guardian last month, the week she published her first novel in six years, The PowerBook. “I had a lot of rows with people.”
And? So what? Frankly, I find all this concern with a writer’s overweening character a little odd, especially when it centers on a writer whose gift so depends on her candor. Why shouldn’t a working-class girl suddenly vaulted into the upper echelons of literary fame not be at least a little awed by the power of that gift? Winterson’s readers celebrated the rare thrill of her truth telling. Why should we then turn around and insist that she be modest?
It seemed to me, and seems still, that Written on the Body, a steamy, voluptuously poetic chronicle of a woman’s affair with her terminally ill lover, was a singularly perfect explanation of what it means to be human and love — what kills love, what saves it, why it grows stronger when threatened and weakens when safe, and why, as the book asks at its outset, the measure of love is loss. To expect Winterson to have conducted herself with manufactured decorum through its critical reception is pointless. And as much as I appreciate her public turn toward politesse, I wouldn’t blame her if she expressed some of the same enthusiasm for The PowerBook, an elaboration on the theme of “great and ruinous love” transported to these Internet times.
As it happens, they are ideal times for Winterson. Last spring she learned that a Cambridge academic had registered jeanettewinterson.com as a domain name, and promptly sued him for the privilege of having it back, clearing the way for a similar case brought by Julia Roberts. (“I reckoned I could hide under [Julia’s] skirts,” she writes, playfully lascivious, on her newly claimed Web site. “Wouldn’t that be good?”) Having thus discovered the delightfully timeless speed of virtual worlds, she structured The PowerBook as a session at the computer, as a chain of tales written by the book’s narrator to an anonymous online lover — a style that suits her tendency toward a fragmented narrative. The lover comes and goes; our Winterson-like narrator “trawls the screen” for her and sends search engines to find her, but it’s unclear whether the digital lover has abandoned her electronic demiurge or continued to lurk silently online. It’s also unclear whether it matters. The stories — whose relationship to one another is oblique, at best — continue to barrel across the screen, to be read or not.
Winterson evokes nothing so ordinary as the seamy atmosphere of chat-room and sex sites, but creates instead the dream state of weaving fable and reality into fodder for a disembodied medium, the solitary and slightly hallucinatory habit of wafting from Web site to writing exercise to daydream. The made-up tale of a 16th-century girl servant who travels the world with a tulip for a phallus gives way to an extramarital affair that unfolds by the banks of the Seine into the story that holds the book together. From a reminiscence on the narrator’s stifling childhood under the watch of adoptive parents Mr. and Mrs. Muck (itself reminiscent of Winterson’s presumably autobiographical Oranges), the book floats up into the sublime liberation of George Mallory on Everest as he settles into the rhythm of his climb: “He sang the mountain, and the mountain, sharp, high, outside of human range, heard and sang back.”
Yet in the folds of every story, in every cranny of history, Winterson finds that great and ruinous love. Decades after his fall, Mallory is found dead, frozen, in his old tweed jacket, a letter from his wife in his pocket. “Unfold it,” the narrator instructs. “Read it. She loves him. She wants him to come home.” Love, be it for mountain or a mountaineer, makes stories worth the telling — and the listening. “It seems we cannot know enough about this riddle of our lives,” writes the narrator. And yet, “nothing eludes us so completely.”
The mysteries of love elude Winterson slightly less, perhaps, than they do the average mortal. As a poet, she has an uncanny ability to reach into the depths of a smitten soul and pull out every last bloody and tear-stained secret. She plumbs so deep that it becomes unimportant whether her lovers are men or women loving women or men — this far beneath the surface, we are all the same. “I suffer,” her narrator admits. “I intentionally put myself in the way of suffering as a test, as a measure, to see what will be drawn up — to stop myself from closing up. I don’t want to close the wound.” It’s that very wound that draws us to Winterson and her work, that lures us closer to commiserate with one so open, so willing to know and share love’s agonies.
The PowerBook is not a simple book, or an easy one. Easy to read, yes, easy to absorb, no. What at first seems a disjointed series of scenes adds up to an account of a classic affair, from first meeting to first fight to final decision, in all its tactile particulars. What at first seems merely a feat of authorial alchemy is in fact a carefully and cleverly plotted examination of the opposing forces that drive our lives. Winterson uses the metaphor of a funicular railway: “If the tension between the upward car and the downward car were to relax, both cars would crash through the red pantile roofs of the side-by-side houses and, collecting olive trees and grapevines as a memorial, the train and its passengers would career into the sea, nose first, broken backed, to join the other wrecks never recovered.” In the same way, she writes, “All of one’s life is a struggle towards . . . the narrow path between freedom and belonging.” And life moves forward on “the tug of war between the world I inherit and the world I invent.” Too much danger, love implodes; too much safety, passion withers.
The whole of The PowerBook operates on a similar tension, between rumination and plot, introspection and action, which is what makes it involving despite its nonlinear meanderings. Winterson doesn’t dangle us over cliffs, teasing with what might happen, but instead holds us aloft in an ethereal world of shape-shifting perceptions, sensations we understand even as they slip out of the character’s grasp. She plunges down into the muck and tells us what it means that our families are disintegrating, that we are losing our sense of time, that the boundaries of our stories have begun to blur into one another. She reminds us, in a culture in which a pill keeps depression at bay and candles are burned for healing, that pain is a necessary function of a life well lived and fully felt. “There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet,” her narrator declares early on. Jeanette Winterson may have given up the public antics, but her written words still stir passions few writers even recognize.
THE POWERBOOK | By JEANETTE WINTERSON | Knopf | 289 pages | $24 hardcover