The Boston Phoenix
April 8 - 15, 1999

[Book Reviews]

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Dual identity

In her first volume of collected stories, Jeanette Winterson lays bare her evolution as a writer

by Sara Schulman

THE WORLD AND OTHER PLACES: STORIES, by Jeanette Winterson. Knopf, 220 pages, $12.

Jeanette Winterspoon Jeanette Winterson live in a glass house. The mechanism of her fiction writing is exposed hook, crook, line, sinker, and cranny. She shows us how she does everything so that we cannot help but have opinions. She's like a vulnerable friend. And yes, familiarity can breed contempt, but it also breeds admiration -- the kind that comes once you truly know someone, once you truly accept a person for who he or she really is.

Because the passion of her writing is handed to us on a plate, it feels quite natural to describe Winterson's work in the metaphors of sexual love. She's like a fresh-faced girlfriend from the plains who starts out earnest but desiring and willing to learn. The further she's pushed, the more perverted she becomes, until her kinkiness has exploded far beyond the expectation and, in fact, the capacity of the previously goading lover. Now, she's a full-throttle menace, armed with the latest accouterments, and we long for the old simple gal who liked to make love in a bed and then coo.

In other words, there are two Jeanettes, the old narrative one of The Passion and the newfangled, formally inventive one of Gut Symmetries and beyond. The first Jeanette could tell a great story, but in description she gilded those lilies, she was an over-the-top romantic. The second Jeanette writes brilliant sentences. She is one of the greatest writers of sentences in the English language. She is an experienced, knowing practitioner of the art of putting words together and understands what two words can do. This is what's called a writer's writer. But what do all those sentences mean? We're never sure. Down, girl!

Now, in Winterson's first volume of collected stories, readers can experience the two Jeanettes in one. There are samples of pure story, samples of pure sentences, and many of the bridges and tunnels she has constructed from one point to the other. You can pick and choose what to read, and watch her exposed decision-making process in action. It's a very instructive volume.

For example, look at the first three stories. The book opens badly with "The 24-Hour Dog," a story so dull and meaningless that the most interesting thing in it is when we learn that Jeanette owns a sports car with blue leather seats. This is followed by "Atlantic Crossing," a story so brilliantly constructed in its first half that you don't want to read it. It's too great to read. You want to savor its ideas. The writing itself is more effective than what actually happens, because the sentence construction, the doubling of words and sounds, every turn of events, and the kinds of characters and the ways they are introduced are all so risky and fascinating, they dazzle beyond plot. It is about race, Hemingway, colonialism, love, lust, the '50s, Marilyn Monroe -- and that's just the first four pages. Unfortunately, just when the reader is ready for some meaning, it evaporates and the story ends poorly. But what a first half! This is followed by "The Poetics of Sex," a defensive, overly written meditation on lesbian sex that has some great, great lines and insights but recedes into its own contradictions:

My lover Picasso is going through her Blue Period. In the past her periods have always been red. Radish red, bull red, red like rose hips bursting seed. Lava red when she was called Pompeii and in her Destructive Period. The stench of her, the brack of her, the rolling, splitting cunt of her. Squat like a Sumo, ham thighs, loins of pork, beefy upper cuts and breast of lamb. I can steal her heart like a bird's egg.

Look at how she blew it with that last line. It is too sweet and gets the author off her own meat hook when the moment calls for abjection. Loved the pig, hated the flowers.

Winterson, who's been out from day one of her career, can -- and does -- write convincingly about male characters who are in love with women. She's really good at the part where they look at the woman, imagine her, enjoy her, desire her, suffer at her hand. But she can't quite pull it off the other way around. Women don't yearn for men quite so convincingly in Winterson's world. That's neither here nor there, but it's noticeable. Still, she can do straight men better than any straight writer I know of can do lesbians, and I guess that counts for something. Also, she is the master/mistress of the narrator of unknown gender, which has managed to get her short fiction into magazines like the New Yorker -- which has yet to publish a story with primarily lesbian content by an openly lesbian writer. Cynically speaking, I think that trick had a lot more punch when Marguerite Yourcenar, Patricia Highsmith, and their ilk were still in the business. Now, well, she has to throw these devices in, I guess, so that readers who are unable to relate to a lesbian character can find something to hang onto while enjoying those great sentences. But if her readers didn't need these stratagems, would she? I don't know.

Now that head guy writers like Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer are on their way out, the literary establishment has been quick to anoint new official head guy writers: Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, John Irving, and some other middle-agers. To ensure the longevity of the monopoly, it is simultaneously anointing the next generation of straight white guys: Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Foster Wallace, etc. But there's more to read than just what's being produced from these bloated ranks. There's something out there called English-language fiction being created by interesting, innovative, risk-taking, tough writers like Caryl Phillips, like Rebecca Brown, and, yes, like Jeanette Winterson -- all of whom really deserve to inherit the keys to the kingdom.

So check out Winterson's collected stories to see what works, what doesn't, what happens when you go wild, and what happens when you want to and can't. You know, the drama of really writing, really reading, really living.

Sarah Schulman is the author of nine books, most recently Shimmer (Avon), a novel about the Red Scare, and Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America (Duke University Press).

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