|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Nicola Griffith on Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
April 21st, 2012
JEANETTE WINTERSON'S MEMOIR REVISITS the people and events familiar from her first and most famous work, the semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The two books cover similar ground, but they couldn't be more different. The first part of Why Be Happy, twice as long as the second, is a scraped clean, rewritten, and embellished palimpsest of Oranges:
This repainting is much grimmer than the novel, which Winterson acknowledges.
Oranges, written when the author was just 24, is a lesbian artist's Bildungsroman. In 1960, the six-week old infant who will become Jeanette is adopted by a fanatically religious woman and her mostly absent husband. They raise her in Accrington, a working-class industrial town in the north of England, in a house without books. Jeanette falls secretly in love with literature, and less secretly with another girl; as a result she's exorcised then shunned by her church and driven from home by Mrs. Winterson.
Oranges fits snugly in the tradition of reader-friendly tales of triumph like Rita Mae Brown's 1973 classic, Rubyfruit Jungle. Its wit is mordant, its tone defiant, and its narrative path cuts as clean an arc as an arrow. Jeanette survives her bizarre and difficult upbringing, the "lost-loss" of adoption, to emerge shining and indomitable — made stronger, if anything, by her difference.
Decades after writing Oranges, Winterson stumbled over a hidden birth certificate in the effects of her father. Long-denied grief overwhelmed her. She began to lose her mind. As she went mad, Winterson kept real-time notes of unfolding events. She attempted suicide, fought to regain her sanity, fell in love with the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, and regressed to infantile helplessness during the harrowing process of finding her birth mother.
Winterson chronicles this journey in parallel with rewriting the story of her Accrington years. Why Be Happy is a mashup of these two narratives, joined at the seam by a two-page Intermission and ending with a short Coda.
Rewrites are as old as literature. In the early middle ages, monks wrote their Gospels on vellum with pigment-based inks. Vellum was high-quality parchment (mammal skin stretched, scraped, and processed to take ink): expensive. Gospels, when the doctrine changed, were not thrown away but scraped bare of the offending text. This reborn vellum, or palimpsest, could then be re-inked with the new, more splendid version, complete with gorgeously embellished initial capitals. However, after a while, the original text often began to bleed through. Some lines, where the original and the rewrite matched, appeared clear and strong and doubly real: other words, phrases, whole paragraphs became confused and contradictory, even unintelligible.
For Oranges, Winterson created characters who comforted the young Jeanette. In Why Be Happy, she finds solace in language, first through listening to her mother read from the King James Bible, and later by making her way through the library's collection of English Literature, A to Z. She comes to understand that literature is extra-somatic culture. Physically she was isolated from anything but her working-class and religious community, but her imagination thrived. She learnt the lessons of other people in other places and other times; she didn't have to leave Accrington to know how it felt to fall in love or venture onto the high seas.
And little Jeanette needed to break free. The Mrs W of Oranges was eccentric, but in Why Be Happy she is depressed and bitter, the dark star around which all else revolves. Little Jeanette's home life is bleak; she feels unloved, insecure, and — above all — the ever-present wound of "lost-loss": adoption.
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone...
[A]doption drops you into the story after it has started. It's like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It's like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can't, and it shouldn't, because something is missing.
Winterson's observations about adoption are some of the clearest moments in the first part of the book; they shine like guide beacons through an otherwise murky narrative.
Good narrative grammar is the basic building block of story. It presents events and emotions in the order designed to generate a sense of cause and effect within the reader. The reader then understands why and how a given character believes, acts, or feels in particular ways. Good narrative grammar is what creates a reader's willing suspension of disbelief; it is what sets up the motifs, choices, and reversals and then pays them off. The reader's expectations are satisfied, or exceeded — or confounded to a purpose. The gun on the mantel or in the drawer should not remain unfired; but neither should it be pulled from the air.
Winterson isn't interested in narrative grammar:
This out-of-order fragmentation prompts me to imagine Winterson, over the years, picking up the memory of this incident or that, examining it, putting it down again on the memory shelf at an odd angle to its neighbor. Some incidents, visited more often, are polished with use, others are blunt. The well-handled moments act like the bleeding-through of ghostly text. Some insights feel bold and powerful in their repetition, but some feel forced, over-emphasized. Some are downright confusing.
It is on page 119 that Winterson suggests why she ignores the constraints of storytelling:
Grove markets the book as a memoir. Memoir is usually regarded as nonfiction. As Lee Gutkind pointed out in these pages last month, labeling a work "nonfiction" creates a pact with the reader that — as in the case of conventional narrative grammar — is only broken by the writer at great risk.
The hazards of ignoring narrative grammar and breaking the pact of nonfiction are that the reader becomes wary, less willing to suspend disbelief, more likely to hold herself apart from the text. Certainly this is how I began to respond. So I was astonished when, as Winterson embarked on the emotional journey of teenage love, I dropped my reservations in a haze of empathy and memory. Winterson absolutely nails how it feels to walk the streets in the dead of night, straining against the gravitational pull of family reality, trying to escape their event horizon and find one's own path. I am there. I can smell it, taste it, feel it. It feels unforced, uncluttered, and heart-squeezingly true.
But then young Winterson says goodbye to her mother and walks away for the last time. End of part one. Followed by a two-page "Intermission."
It felt like driving into a wall across the narrative. Was Winterson really going to set up Mrs Winterson as the dark star in her life and then skip her death, skip her own grief, anger, bewilderment and struggle to recover her balance from the sudden loss of gravity?
But perhaps the shock, this sudden confounding of my expectations, was the point. I'd recently read Pam Houston's self-interview in The Nervous Breakdown in which she discusses the power of non-logical, non-linear narrative:
I compared this to Winterson talking about poetry:
I began to understand: poetry as self-discovery, as psychotherapy. And hard on the heels of that thought, I read a discussion with Adam Phillips, on Prospero, the Economist's art blog, of how the constraints of poetry connect it to psychotherapy. Here are some pull quotes:
Intrigued, with a new angle from which to view Winterson's approach, I picked up Why Be Happy again, and within a few pages hit the best writing in the book. It is very possibly the most honest writing Winterson has ever done: bone-hard, bone-naked brutal truth that hides nothing about the discovery process of finding her biological mother, and going mad. Here the narrative grammar is immaculate. Cause precedes effect; I always know what's going on, even — especially — when what is happening is terror and confusion and almost terminal ambivalence.
At its best, poetry evokes emotion and then leaps into the dark, hauling the reader along for the ride, skipping those way-points that aren't absolutely necessary. Evoking emotion in precisely the right order is one of the constraints that makes the form. Without form, poetry is just words. And that's the challenge Winterson sets herself and her readers. In this memoir, she refuses all constraint. She writes at book length, sometimes eschewing the constraint of narrative grammar. She writes memoir without the constraint of accuracy. She writes associatively without the constraint of precise word-choice. Sometimes the latter isn't terribly important, as when she confuses black holes with dark matter; we shrug and move on. But sometimes it's dangerously jarring, as when describing her ex-lover as a cuckoo, a word like a bomb in the context of adoption — the cuckoo famous for laying its eggs in other birds' nests. And sometimes it threatens the central metaphor of the book, as when the word "wound" means, variously, a scar or healed wound, and an open or eternally gaping hurt. Is Winterson hurt but healing, or bleeding to death? Or is she somehow occupying both states at once, as she writes both stories simultaneously, out of order?
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal's nature as palimpsest is both its central difficulty and its brilliance. It can be both astonishing and frustrating. When the past and present iterations of Jeannette Winterson are in accord, her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true. When they obscure one another, the meaning is lost. Occasionally, she is working with two layers at once. Depending on which the reader reads most easily, the ending could be happy or sad. We don't know. Winterson hasn't decided yet. As she says: