Dot.com dominatrix

She's wonderful at close-focus fiction, so why insist on being mistress of the entire virtual universe?
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The Independent Culture

The.PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape, £15,99, 192pp)

The.PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape, £15,99, 192pp)

If ever a writer had immortal longings, it's Jeanette Winterson. The.PowerBook is a heaving, millennial effort of a novel, billed, with the archness you either love or hate about Winterson, as "21st-century fiction". Sternly aphoristic, the author reminds us that just as there is no beauty without effort, "There is no effort which is not beautiful". In this instance, however, Winterson's grunting and straining after greatness is downright distressing to the reader.

The book's title and its icon-splattered format are borrowed from the vernacular of information technology. This yields some original imagery: time is something we "download" into our bodies; life is a series of "windows" which we may or may not open. Our narrator is a shape-shifting e-writer called Ali or Alix. We are first introduced to Ali/Alix as an Arabian storyteller, a girl disguised as a boy, who services a foreign princess with a dildo fashioned from an embalmed tulip.

Mostly, however, our guide in the virtual universe is a female novelist of global importance who woos an elusive married woman with tales of "great and ruinous" passion. Surfing though time and cyberspace, this Orlando of the internet pops up, sometimes as Lancelot, ripping the bars from Guinevere's cell, sometimes as Francesca da Rimini exulting in her gory death in the arms of Paolo, but mostly as a crashing bore haranguing her beloved with Great Truths about love. By the time the world-class novelist gets to the bit where she's wondering if "it's the tension between longing and aloneness that I need", you can practically hear the virtual snores of her companion.

Things improve dramatically when the narrator touches down to the actual world. Incidental observations of street life in Paris, London and Capri remind you how good Winterson is at the close work of fiction; words are weighed and sentences balanced with artisanal expertise. But the here and now is never enough for Winterson; she cannot resist making metaphors out of molehills. "There is no secret about eating artichoke, or what the act resembles," she says, but goes on to explain the sexual connotations lest some reader should miss the allusion. All too often, the reader is left feeling like the doltish ingenue in the playground as the bully crows "But everyone knows that!"

The idea that everyone really might know much of what she is presenting as original truth never seems to occur. In a lovely description of a blackbird, the bird "sings of the morning of the world, which happens every day for him, untainted by memory." Winterson shares the blackbird's delighted confidence that he is singing a new song, but we have heard it all before from Cat Stevens. Even when she generously attributes her sources - Boccaccio and Dante got there first with Paolo and Francesca - we are left in no doubt that her telling is the definitive version.

It is a brave thing to write about love, and Winterson exposes more of herself, perhaps, than is good for her. For a lover who has existed before and beyond time, Ali/Alix shows a curious emotional immaturity. Winterson wants the deathless loves of Lancelot and Oscar Wilde, she wants those bleeding hands and feet, but somehow it comes over more as pash than passion. There is much to applaud in her heartbursting attempt to outgallop her heroes, but the gallantry is missing. Gentil parfit knights do not spit down on "the obvious people" Winterson so despises.

One of the more ground-breaking claims of The.PowerBook is that the omniscient narrator has gone "interactive". Omniscience we could cope with, but nobody loves a know-all.

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