Girls will be girls

GUT SYMMETRIES by Jeanette Winterson, Granta pounds 15.99

The readers of modern fiction are breaking into two camps. Whereas women readers have been brought up on the great male canon, with the Brontes and Jane Austen the exceptions who prove the rule, many men don't read fiction by women. Women's writing is packed into a ghetto, while the media always intones the same litany: Amis, Barnes, Rushdie, McEwan. Perhaps four Atlases are better than one? Feminist publishing, seeking to criticise and to capitalise on this trend, got accused of perpetuating the old divisions and re-inventing the ghetto. But the idea of men's books and women's books has shunted quietly on. Women who want to escape the label "woman writer" (as opposed to writer - the masculine norm) have had to write like one of the boys, de-sexing themselves. Super-feminine lady writers, if they stick to their nice nook, will be both praised and despised for doing what comes naturally. But the woman writer who refuses these categories blows the scheme sky-high and incurs the wrath of the gods.

Stroppy women writers upset both patriarchal men and and self-hating females, plus those who insist we're all androgynous and what's all the fuss about? Angela Carter was one such stroppy woman writer, and Jeanette Winterson is probably another. Carter ruffled everybody's feathers by mocking femininity just as much as masculinity and insisting that both were man-made funfair grotesques, each a distorting mirror for the other, and sided with the workers, the clowns, the scene-shifters, albeit with a touch of aristocratic de haut en bas. Winterson, definitely not from the bourgeoisie, cocks a snook at the men's clubs, and invents the figure of the questing lesbian to go further than Carter did and criticise one of our most beloved institutions, heterosexuality itself.

When you add to this the fact that Winterson seems to see herself as the heir to Virginia Woolf and openly admits she rates her own novels as excellent, it is no wonder she's on many a hack's hit list. She has broken the rule: don't show off. We're harsher on girls who show off than on boys. Boys will be boys, but bad girls are monstrous.

In this new novel, Winterson certainly does show off. And though, like Voltaire, I will defend her right to do so, I think she runs into technical and aesthetic problems thereby. She's perhaps a little too ambitious in what she's trying to achieve (this is almost a compliment). The problem is to do with science.

Tho old Freudian model of stories (present block, past rediscovered, future can open out) continues to fascinate each new generation of writers, but an increasing number of novelists now wrestle with the need for new life metaphors and new narrative modes that fit a world trying to understand advances in scientific knowledge. The new glasnost involves artists struggling to understand and express scientific "truths" which are our new myths. If there's no father God up there, no omnipotent narrator dictating the sacred Book to his earthly scribes, then where are the stories coming from? I'd say from our bodies, from our unconscious lives and fantasies, from our dreams of history, from other books.

I could also add: from the discoveries of science. Modernism, after all, explored a new form of consciousness just as the new physics was being born; no accident, surely. And so contemporary novelists - Ian McEwan, Sara Maitland and Maggie Gee, to name a few of the pioneers - have leaped enthusiastically into the new theories of time, space, and travel between the two. Winterson is in good company. She goes on to over-egg the cake a little, for she adds to quantum physics and chaos theory a good dash of Jewish mysticism, Tarot-card symbolism and alchemical imagery, to produce an embarras de richesses. Her sumptuous hoard of research remains too obtrusive; it is decorative in a baroque way, on the surface, without having been properly incorporated into the text. In cooking when you fold your egg whites into your souffle mixture, you incorporate them gently yet completely, to effect in the oven a proper chemical change. In this novel the egg whites puff out unevenly, spoiling the shape of the story.

Ah, but perhaps that's what Winterson wants, to be a cunning nouvelle cuisine chef desiring to produce a different dish? Her alchemy can only go so far, prod us into trying, ourselves, to envision the new kind of novel she wants to dream up. That's what I always thought Futurist cooking was about: displeasing us in order to provoke new desires. You could say Winterson does that par excellence. And so, dear patient reader, to the story.

This, I have to say, could be a Freudian classic, for it's about that magical threesome Freud reckoned we were stuck in, at least when neurotic: father, mother and baby. Here, the oedipal triangle apes the eternal one of husband, wife and mistress. The husband is called Jove. Lacanian theorists, who can sound nasty when they try, have observed that behind every lesbian couple lurks an important man, and that some lesbians over- value and so flee the phallus. Here we have Jove, the Greek father-God, having to relinquish his wife Stella (the novel is heavily powdered with references to star-dust) to the narrator Alice; who, like her Lacanian namesake in Through the Looking-Glass, spends a fair bit of time pondering semantics and difference. (The entire novel is peppered with names like Pinkerton, Captain Ahab, Signora Rossetti, which wink too obviously at the reader.)

The story's not really about sex at all. Jove's love-making with his wife, and then with his mistress, is never sensually conveyed: it's a gap screaming with significance. Either the taboo of childhood is operating and we mustn't look, or the scoffing of lesbian revolutionaries prevails and we wouldn't want to bother looking. Either way, Jove as seducer remains an idea. Nor are the two women really fleshed out. Stella inhabits a recognisable female self, beautiful with long, dark red hair, while Alice, like the genderless narrator of Winterson's Written On The Body, seems to float free of a sexed identity. She's mainly a brain discoursing about science and telling stories. A kind of tomboy mermaid, the free spirit of the time before growing-up and conventional femininity set in. Lesbianism, in this sense, is certainly about le contact des deux epidermes, but is also crucially about the refusal of either/or masculine-feminine, a cri du coeur for a new kind of being unfettered by boring cultural expectations. Meanwhile, descriptions of a "real" world anchor us in recognisable backgrounds: ocean liners, New York, Capri, grandmothers' kitchens.

I think we're supposed to believe in the "real" love stories being unravelled to us between the two women, between their parents, between them and Jove. But because Winterson doesn't believe in simple appearances she can't quite cherish sensual realities, the particularities of personality. Stella, when narrating, sounds exactly like Alice. That's okay according to wave- particle theory (they're both hot on it) but in a novel looks like carelessness. Similarly, if you want to convince the reader that you know Italian life like the back of your hand then you really ought to get the grammar right. If you're exploring the possibility of all of us being part of a Woolfian wave-ridden whole, then perhaps you should back-pedal on the scorn for ordinary humanity: "I feel in colour, strong tones that I hue down for the comfort of the pastelly inclined. Beige and magnolia and a hint of pink are what the well-decorated heart is wearing; who wants my blood red and vein-blue?"

This novel reminded me of Jeanne Hyvrard's Waterweed in the Wash-Houses, first published in French in 1977. Hyvrard introduced the Tarot symbolism and alchemy as structuring metaphors, to invoke both the narrative of chaos theory and the alchemist as an alternative image of the Creator. Hyvrard bravely stays with ecriture feminine, on the side of poetry and unreason, the frenzied language that can be called mad. Winterson, for all her apparent rebellion, is closer to the Christian myth of the saviour child born not so much of woman as "cosmos-hurled"; her Alice may know more than all of us put together but is desperately anxious to assure the fathers of modern science that she has read their books and done her homework thoroughly. She is a good girl. She reminds me of those early Christian mystics who found the body a burden, a prison and longed for the freedom of death and heaven. Her scientific interjections function not only as attempts to understand life, death and the meaning of the universe, but also as kind of resistance to being flesh, bounded and finite yet possessed of an imagination; femme moyenne spirituelle. A flawed novel, then, but an engaging one.

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