Traces of the old won­der not enough to keep aloft this fu­tur­is­tic craft

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘ THE first story in English may have seemed like a song,’’ ac­cord­ing to Peter Ack­royd in Al­bion, his his­tory of the Bri­tish imag­i­na­tion. The eighth- cen­tury An­glo- Saxon Chron­i­cle was mu­si­cal and mys­ti­cal, full of ca­dences that might have been taken from epic po­etry.

And filled with won­ders, which in­cluded ‘‘ a sign of the cross seen on the face of the moon’’ and ‘‘ dragons fly­ing through the air’’. The English were sus­cep­ti­ble to fan­tasy, sug­gested the 12th- cen­tury French cleric Ni­cholas of St Al­bans, be­cause of the wa­tery set­ting of their is­land: ‘‘ They think their dreams to be vi­sions, and their vi­sions to be divine.’’

When Jeanette Win­ter­son burst on to the in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary scene in 1985 with Or­anges are Not the Only Fruit , it was as if she was on a one- wo­man mis­sion to un­har­ness English sto­ry­telling from its 20th- cen­tury re­straints and push it back to this ec­static and divine tra­di­tion. Trained as a re­vival­ist preacher in her teens, Win­ter­son wrested the apho­risms of ser­mon­is­ing away from the Bi­ble and trans­ferred to lit­er­ary prose the faith she had lost when the church re­fused to ac­cept her com­ing out as a les­bian. Her au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel in­sisted, glo­ri­ously, on the power of writ­ing to trans­form the world into a richer, more in­clu­sive place.

The pow­er­house of Win­ter­son has al­ways been the con­ceit, the im­prob­a­ble metaphor. No English writer has made such ex­trav­a­gant use of this de­vice since the Ja­cobean poet John Donne ( him­self an Angli­can min­is­ter), who com­pared his love to a flea. Both writ­ers use lan­guage not only as a mode of ex­pres­sion but as a blunt in­stru­ment of pas­sion, a liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of the way our be­lief in a higher power can break, blow and burn things into a dif­fer­ent shape.

No won­der Win­ter­son has so di­vided read­ers used to think­ing of po­etry and prose as op­po­sites, and nov­els as re­al­ist re­flec­tions of the world. This is the thing about Win­ter­son. You ei­ther love or hate her; or, rather, you choose to be­lieve in her or not.

For many of us, be­gin­ning our read­ing lives in the 1980s, The Pas­sion and Sex­ing the Cherry were rev­e­la­tions: a lib­er­a­tion from the greyflan­nel- suited novel. And yet for much of the ’ 90s Win­ter­son seemed to lose this faith in the in­tense bond her writ­ing forged with her read­ers, be­gin­ning in­stead to sec­ond- guess the way her nov­els would be read. There were still flashes of bril­liance — the hymns to a sick lover’s body parts in Writ­ten on the Body , for ex­am­ple — but Win­ter­son seemed to have aban­doned the bril­liant sim­plic­ity her con­ceits de­pended on for buoy­ancy. Aban­don­ing her down­trod­den nar­ra­tors ( chicken cooks, dog women and other sa­vants), she be­gan in Gut Sym­me­tries and Art and Lies to freight her nov­els with mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tors, over­wrought com­men­taries on art and ap­peals to out­side au­thor­i­ties such as Paracel­sus. As an es­say­ist she had an even more egre­gious ten­dency to hec­tor from on high.

It is a re­lief, then, to see Win­ter­son, in The Stone Gods , main­tain­ing the equi­lib­rium she seemed to find again in Light­house­keep­ing . Gone are the show- offy riffs on mu­sic or as­tron­omy. In­stead, she re­turns to her own ec­static orig­i­nal­ity in this story of a love af­fair be­tween Bil­lie Cru­soe and Spike that stretches, like a su­per­charged Or­lando , across mil­len­ni­ums and tran­scends the wreck­age of sev­eral worlds.

In this eco- fa­ble’s open­ing story, set in post­nu­clear Lon­don, we see the bril­liant Win­ter­son of old. Bil­lie, an un­will­ing PR flunkey for the multi­na­tional com­pany that now con­trols hu­man fate, falls for Spike, the beau­ti­ful ro­bosapi­ens who has been de­signed to make ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions for the planet.

Bil­lie is also a clan­des­tine or­ganic farmer. Win­ter­son’s de­scrip­tion of her home pours forth with the thrilling in­can­ta­tory force of ( yet an­other preacher) Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins: ‘‘ The bur­rows, tun­nels, nests, tree- hol­lows, wasp- balls, drilled- out holes of the wa­ter voles, ot­ter sticks, toad stones, mice rid­dling the dry­s­tone walls, bad­ger sets, mole­hills, fox dens, rab­bit war­rens, stoats brown in sum­mer, er­mine in win­ter, clean as bul­lets through the bank . . .’’

This last patch of par­adise is doomed; it turns out we have de­stroyed it be­fore and will de­stroy it again. It seems that Or­bus, the new planet des­tined for hu­man ex­o­dus, to which Bil­lie and Spike es­cape, is what the Earth once was; and what, af­ter a cat­a­strophic at­tempt to clear its di­nosaurs, we may yet be­come. Bil­lie and Spike part trag­i­cally, but meet again on Easter Is­land ( Bil­lie is a ship­wrecked sailor, Spike an is­lan­der) as the last tree falls. And again in a fu­ture that pre­dates the novel’s be­gin­ning ( Spike is bod­i­less pro­to­type, Bil­lie her programmer).

Win­ter­son folds each story into the next with the clear hope the scale of our po­ten­tial global catas­tro­phe will im­press it­self on us. But, un­for­tu­nately, she can­not re­sist the urge to polemi­cise, which, com­bined with the sheer silli­ness of her last story, brings her writ­ing crash­ing back down to earth.

There is some of the old won­der here, but not — 20 years on from those first ex­tra­or­di­nary nov­els — the divine res­ur­rec­tion of a mys­ti­cal tra­di­tion of English writ­ing that Win­ter­son’s early work seemed to prom­ise.

a Delia Fal­coner is the au­thor of nov­els The Lost Thoughts of Sol­diers and The Ser­vice of Clouds.

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