Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A unicorn in a donkey suit (Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson)

Jeanette Winterson's Tanglewreck, a fantasy for young readers, is not only a departure in genre - Winterson has written sophisticated fiction for adults for the last two decades - it is also a departure in writing style. Winterson's adult writing has always been more interested in the trip than in the destination, or as Bruce Bawer's New York Times review of Gut Symmetries put it,
At a time when many publishers expect literary novels to have the relentless forward motion of an Indiana Jones movie, Ms. Winterson refuses to shift into narrative drive; eschewing the Interstate, she favors the bumpy, meandering byways of interior landscapes. At every turn, furthermore, her fresh, vivid way of putting things stops one dead in admiration. ''In 1959,'' Alice recalls, her successful father ''was in the fullness of his present,'' having seen that the key to success was to ''pan the living clay that you are and find gold in it.''

Tanglewreck prefers a more straightforward idiom. Modern-day London is apparently being struck by phenomena called time tornadoes, in which evidence of times past are momentarily glimpsed - a woolly mammoth walks the streets, Roman chariots gallop on the surface of the Thames - and then any person or thing in its path is swallowed up, never to be heard from again. Take this description:
Then, from downstream, there was a sudden terrible crack, like the sky breaking.

I guess if we are going to make a so-called rip in time, let's be done with it. Or this:
Abel Darkwater knew that all time is always present, but buried layer by layer under what people call Now. Today lies on top of yesterday, and yesterday lies on top of the day before, and so on down the layers of history, until the layers are so thick that the voices underneath are muffled to whispers.

Ok then, all time exists right now but the other dimensions are buried just beneath the surface, or something like that. I'm not complaining exactly. Winterson is laying out the rules of her new and troubled world with clarity. I must say I do know where I am. But she is doing the job with a dispatch I did not expect. I'm so used to working for my supper when I read her books.

There is the obligatory hero or heroine on the verge of adolescence - in this case our heroine is Silver, 11 years old, parentless, and relegated to shoveling coals in the basement for her evil Aunt, Mrs. Rokabye. So far, I cannot get a grip on who Silver is, aside from the protoype Harry/Lyra with whom the young reader is supposed to identify. What I am enjoying is Winterson's villains. She has painted these characters and their badness in broad strokes.

Abel Darkwater was never late - unless he intended to be; and his watch was nevber wrong - unless he wanted it to be.

Some people are alwas short of time, but Abel Darkwater had all the time in the world - well, nearly all of it - and it was the nearly that was the problem, and the reason why he had come to Tanglewreck.

Or Mrs. Rokabye,

Mrs. Rokabye has a pet rabbit called Bigamist, on account of his habits. The house if full of small-scale Bigamists, so that wherever you go, there's a pair of yellow eyes watching you, and a black nose twitching, and an ear cocked at your business, and a scut just hiding under a chair as you come into a room. They're all her spies, but Bigamists is the worst. He tells her everything I do.

Evil rabbits - that is definitely a touch I like.

Mrs Rokabye was standing at the low kitchen door, smiling. It was a horrible sight; the corners of her mouth were drawn up towards her eyebrows, and her eyebrows were pulled up towards the hairnet she always wore in the house. She had been practising smiling all morning, but it was not nearly for long enough...

I was hoping by page fifty to have a better idea who Silver is, not merely the function she fulfills and the circumstances in which she has been placed, but I guess I will have to be patient for a bit longer. What I will say is that midterms are two weeks away (already) and I need a comfort read alongside Middlemarch and my neuroscience stuff and this would seem to be it. Anyway, I promised Sheila I would read it. It does move along at a clip and I am enjoying the plot set-up, I am just disoriented by difference from Winterson's adult writing. Perhaps it's appropriate to a younger reader, although one might say it is pandering. I was looking forward to see how her interests as a writer would be adapted for a younger reader and they seem to have been merely abandoned. I feel like I came to see a unicorn, but whoever was showing the creature got afraid we'd be freaked out and dressed it in a donkey suit.

And as the fall progresses:

Jude the Obscure
(in progress)
Tanglewreck (in progress)
Among the Russians
Proust and the Squid

Red Cavalry (in progress)
The Solitudes (
started, don't know if I'll get through it)
Rhythms of the Brain
Neuroscience of Cognitive Development
(in progress)
The Dead Fish Museum
In the Land of No Right Angles
(in progress)


Sheila O'Malley said...

I definitely thought the book was pandering. And also - even with all the fantastical stuff - it is too literal. Winterson is interested in quantum physics (it shows up in her other books) - but here: she explains too much. Madeleine L'Engle doesn't explain - she SHOWS ... I felt Winterson really lost her way here. I hope SHE had fun - but Ithought it was a bit weak. And yeah - Silver is a cypher, basically. It doesn't help that her next book - the adult book about the lighthouse keeper - also has a lead character named Silver.

I just felt like Winterson kind of dried up here - in terms of creativity. I like a lot of the ideas, and I especially like the whole Bedlam (the mental institution) becoming a sort of way station for the geniuses and wrecks of history ... that the ghosts of Bedlam still wander the earth ...

Of course I had to read it - I'll read whatever she does ... but I wasn't wacky about it!

Ted said...

S - Indeed, L'Engle does, as she is a marvelous writer, but the mystifying thing is, so is Winterson. It's as though she stopped making good decisions about how to tell a story (or somebody convinced her that the decisions she normally makes when writing for adults aren't appropriate when writing for children. It's irritating to read. But there are some aspects of the story I'm enjoying and it's about all I can handle at this moment, given my school load.

Anonymous said...

Earlier in the summer in read Winterson's "The Stone Gods," which I enjoyed for the most part. I'd like to read more of her work, but I'm not sure where the best place is to start. Any suggestions? (I'm assuming you won't recommend this one =).

Sheila O'Malley said...

May I chime in?? My favorite of hers is The Passion. One of my favorite books of all time, actually.

Sexing the Cherry is awesome, too.

Ted said...

Hi J.S. - I'd vote with Sheila for Sexing the Cherry, although I remember liking Oranges are the Only Fruit as well. As by all means, Sheila, you're welcome to chime in. Your reactions to Winterson's adult fiction are way more recent than mine.