I didn't know that Jeanette Winterson, author of The Powerbook, is actually considered to be quite an evil, pretentious and annoying person by most of the publishing world. But I assumed as much, for Winterson's leaps into multiple story and time lines, and her melodramatic attempts at eastern-sounding philosophy, are tremendously ostentatious and tremendously unappealing.
The Powerbook reads like a work that cannot get over itself. Yes, the premise is interesting; a woman opens up her e-mail only to be transported into various places across the world in assorted times, from Ancient Rome, to the Medieval Era, to a strange pre-industrial world. Genders change, lovers change, sexuality changes. The protagonist is at once male and female, hetero and homosexual, and has some great sex scenes inducing readers to reconsider their fantasy location for sex.
With short, free-verse style chapters that have catchy titles in cool fonts that are perfect for the modern reader who possesses only the concentration required to endure short commercial breaks, The Powerbook should be an interesting read. There's even the required internet allusions throughout the book, including lines like, "There's no Netscape Navigator to help me find my way through life." But formula is not everything.
The biggest problem The Powerbook has is that Winterson thinks she can successfully shift time and place with a simple chapter heading. As a result, the book becomes entirely confusing; it is impossible to tell when the protagonist has changed age or gender, for often the protagonist will remain the same but the time, place and lover will be different. If Winterson's intent is to involve the reader in an interactive hunt to chase down the three or four occasionally similar story-lines, then she succeeds.
Winterson's faith in her ability to craft language echoes throughout the book, but such faith is misplaced. A particularly nauseating section reads, "She thinks I'm holding on to pain. She thinks pain is a souvenir. Perhaps she thinks pain is the only way I can feel. As it is, the pain reminds me that my feelings are damaged." The only real pain comes from reading the maudlin sentimentality that resonates throughout the text.
The pretension of this book, with its Zen-like attempts at pedantry and its flippant exchanges with time prompted me to wonder, where the heck does this woman get the audacity to publish such garbage? Furthermore, what prompted her publisher to actually waste the money on the book's production?
The answer, alas, is celebrity. Winterson is an infamous creature, obsessed with her own ability to shock the British literary world. Her childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal home where the bible was taken quite literally) and her sexuality (she is an outspoken lesbian who has publicly outed many-a-closeted female of the publishing world) make her an intriguing oddball for the British gossip magazines..
Her first few novels were met with "rapturous acclaim," especially her Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and she had written three books and won Bafta Prize by the early '90s. Yet her actual writing ability has been eclipsed by her personality. Some episodes of her obnoxious self-righteousness include entering a dinner party to insult a journalist who gave her a bad review and her claims that she writes as well as Shakespeare. Other tales of conceit include her self-nomination as "favorite living author," with her choice for the 1992 Book of the Year, her own Written on the Body.
Her habit of disrupting social expectations, combined with her recent lecture series in the U.S. on the concept of art and her sexuality, it is almost tempting to label this controversial literary personality the 21st century's Oscar Wilde. But there's a tremendous problem with this potential classification, for Wilde could write and Winterson cannot. She may have personality, but The Powerbook certainly doesn't.
THE POWERBOOK by Jeanette Winterson Alfred Knopf 289 pp., $24
289 pp., $24