Deep in the forest of Aeros

June 26, 1998

THE WORLD AND OTHER PLACES. By Jeanette Winterson. 234pp. Cape. Pounds 14.99. - 0 224 05136 9.

In such characteristically intense, lyric novels as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Written on the Body and Gut Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson has distinguished herself as a prose stylist of verve and virtuosity. Oranges, her first work of 1985, was warmly acclaimed as imaginative, compelling and poignant, an intimate account of the coming of age of a rebellious girl of Evangelical background; Written on the Body is a yet more intimate account of a sensuous, obsessive love of a woman for a woman; Gut Symmetries, Winterson's most structurally ambitious novel, evokes "parallel lives" and universes in which two physicists, one female, the other male, are in love with the same woman, the male physicist's wife. One of the narrators urges us, as readers: "Walk with me. Hand in hand through the nightmare of narrative, the neat sentences secret-nailed over meaning." Beyond the drama of loves requited and unrequited, beyond passion and sombre reflection, we are invited to consider the paradox of storytelling and of language itself, the futile human effort to fix and define the ineffable. "There is life, constantly escaping from the forms it inhabits, leaving behind its shell." The "shell" may be the very book we hold in our hand, all that remains of the original love-impulse.

These themes, and others of a more playful nature, prevail in Jeanette Winterson's first collection of prose pieces, The World and Other Places, written over a twelve-year period since the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Less an integrated gathering of short stories than a miscellany, this small, slender book contains seventeen pieces of varying degrees of substance written at the invitation of editors for publications as diverse as Elle, the Independent, the New Statesman, the New Yorker, and an American Express travel magazine (rejected because it "did not reflect the lifestyles or interests of their reader"). In her amusing Afterword, Winterson reveals that she doesn't write short pieces except for a commissioned fee, which accounts for the rather jumbled effect of the volume. Though these scattered pieces lack the passionate intensity of her novels, there are inspired passages throughout, if one has the patience to discover them: flights of metaphor, whimsy and invention that turn on questions of sex and identity. In a number of the pieces, an unnamed narrator addresses us directly. In the parable-like "Disappearance I": I dream because you don't. Dreaming is my job and my dreams are tele-electronically recorded and transmitted at Dream-points around the City . . . . These dreams of mine are carefully screened for disruptive elements. Only here, only now, what is between us is true. You and I, this honesty we make. Sleep with me.

In this story, one of the more serious endeavours in the collection, there has been a ban on sleeping as "dirty; unhygienic, wasteful and disrespectful to others". Like sex in other societies and at other times, sleep as a natural human function has become taboo outside of certain regulated areas; individuals like the narrator, a licensed civil servant, work as "Dreamers" to provide dreams (censored by the State) for others. It is an apt, witty metaphor for the writer's ambiguous role in a capitalist-consumer society.

The formidable shadows of Gabriel Garc!a M rquez and Angela Carter have fallen over Winterson's flamboyantly surreal, fairy-tale novels The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, and may be discernible, in somewhat diluted form, in the sketchier prose pieces in this volume. Winterson is not an experimental writer, if by "experimental" one means original; her technique is that of postmodernist bricolage in the manner of the late absurdist Donald Barthelme, a collage-art of juxtaposed fragments. Some of these sparkle like gems, others ring hollow. The author braids into her foreground narrative bits of arcane and often quaint lore, predominantly cosmology, alchemy, mythology and popularized science, with comic riffs on such quirky subjects as cod-fish ("A Green Square"), a history of plumbing and sewage ("Disappearance II"), saints ("Holy Matrimony") and the cliched "laws" of thermodynamics ("Newton"); it is a surreal world of slippery panels and surfaces. As a narrator informs us, "Now I knew that Jean-Paul Sartre and Mr Camus were right when they claimed it is the Absurd that matters. The Absurd, with a most capital A. . ." ("Holy Matrimony"). At the conclusion of the fragmentary "Newton", there's a slapstick banquet scene: Nobody looked up from their plates. They were eating chicken, denims and chinos all, eating the three or four hundred fowl laid on the table, half a dozen eggs per ass . . . when BAM, one of the chickens exploded, pelting my neighbour with eggs like hand-grenades. One of her arms flew off but luckily for her, not the one she needed for her fork. Nobody noticed.

A roast chicken is served: "Poking out of the ass of the chicken, I can see my copy of L'Etranger by Albert Camus." (The misplaced modifier makes the sentence funnier than intended.) "A Green Square" poses such queries as "What colour are Mickey Mouse's underpants?" and makes the point, perhaps redundantly, "The whole world's a nut house anyway." There are quick caricatures, often of heterosexual or "authority" males, such as the Reverend Wreck of "Holy Matrimony", who provides budget marriage and video counselling: The Reverend Wreck. Trap jawed, a guffaw man who likes a belly laugh and owns the necessary surface area. Monkish habit, salesmen's eyes and a worrying twitch of the right hand that he claims he picked up whilst in India, unlike the left which he bought at a car boot sale. I believe that Dazzle Matrimonial supply the jokes.

Here and there are flights of pure fancy that breeze along as if the author were typing as rapidly as the laws of physics allow: I was offered the job of a particle in factory physics. I was offered the job of an electron in an office atom. I was offered the job of a frequency for a radio station. People told me I could easily make it as a ray in a ray gun. What's the matter with you, don't you want to do well? I wanted to be a beach bum and work on my wave function. I have always loved the sea.

Continuous eloquence wearies, as Pascal has said. Yet continuous whimsy wearies yet more.

Still, amid even fragments and slapstick comedy, a genuine cry of the heart will lift, as in this passage from "A Green Square": I am trying to find a way out, or maybe just an air vent, or a window, a different view that would calm and steady me against this mounting desperation. It's not too late, even though I am already half out of the ejector seat, losing my grip, breaking up, classic symptoms of a bottled life. The problem is what to do about the problem. I can't go to church. I'm not of the generation who simply believe. I can't put my trust in science either, whose most spectacular miracles have been . . . to perfect mass destruction and prolong senility.

The strongest stories in The World and Other Places are those in which the author takes time to establish a coherent, distinctive voice, and elaborates on subjects she respects. "The Poetics of Sex", for instance, though rather aerated and abuzz with metaphor, is a poignantly composed love poem cast in the format of a prurient sex survey ("Why Do You Sleep With Girls", "Which One of You is the Man?", "What Do Lesbians Do in Bed?" and "Don't You Find There's Something Missing?"); it manages to be witty yet serious, parodistic yet moving, sincere yet unsentimental. The first story in the volume, "The 24-Hour Dog", is a zestfully written memoir of a puppy-experience that lasts for just that period of time; a "universe of play" is brought into the narrator's life, thoroughly disrupting it: "I looked at him, trusting, vulnerable, love without caution. He was a new beginning and every new beginning returns the world." "Psalms", the last story, is an equally well-written account of a pet - in this case, a tortoise with the unlikely name of Psalms. Here, Winterson's Evangelical background gives depth and meaning to the account. The narrator's mother yearns for a lost "natural life when the Lord comes back" and there won't be chemicals, deodorants, fornicating or electric guitars. For the religious-minded, the world is a "looking glass for the Lord", and animals are to be given biblical names: Ecclesiastes the hen, Solomon the Scotch terrier, Isaiah and Jeremiah, "prophetic" goats.

The promise of these stories suggests that Jeanette Winterson should take short fiction more seriously, in the way, for instance, of William Trevor, Edna O'Brien, Angela Carter and Italo Calvino, whose classic compendium of prose poems, Invisible Cities, seems to have been the model for one of this volume's more subtle, evocative stories, "Turn of the World". In this, the mythical Islands of Fyr, Hydor, Aeros, Erde are explored. "It is well known that all the stories in the world come from this dense dark forest of Aeros", the narrator tells us. An inspired metaphor for the human imagination and for our ceaseless fascination with its varied and unpredictable products.

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