I don’t pretend any impartiality when reading a new book by Jeanette Winterson: I’ve been a fan for fifteen years or more. But I’ve only been a fan because the books were so good. I say were because for every work of dazzling brilliance in her early career, such as Sexing the Cherry or Written on the Body, there’s been a mid-period borderline clunker like Gut Symmetries or The Powerbook. Winterson attracts extreme reactions, which is probably down to which of her books you read first. But her last novel Lighthousekeeping was a real return to form, so my heart is in my mouth on the edge of my seat over her new book The Stone Gods.
The Stone Gods is Winterson’s most fun to read book probably since 1989’s Sexing the Cherry. It’s a satire, a dystopian vision, and an historical reimagining. All her novels since 1992’s Written on the Body have celebrated love as humankind’s greatest achievement; The Stone Gods goes further, celebrating it as robotkind’s greatest achievement too.
We open with the news, sometime in the future, that a new world has been discovered – Planet Blue – which is ideal for humans to occupy: “But everything is trial-size … Sardines that would take two men to land them … mushrooms soft and small as a mouse ear. A crack like a cut, and inside a million million microbes wondering what to do next. Spores that wait for the wind and never look back. Moss that is concentrating on being green.” People, who have not been concentrating on being green, have used up Earth (or Orbus as it’s known in the book) and Planet Blue is an ideal opportunity for a fresh start.
And boy does this world need a fresh start. Winterson assembles an over-the-top hyperbolic version of reality, full of strongly drawn archetypes in a world obsessed with celebrity, youthful sex and law enforcement. The western world, run by corporations, is known as the Central Power, a thinly disguised USA, and everyone can be ‘Fixed’ to look how they want and to prevent ageing:
Making everyone young and beautiful also made us all bored to death with sex. All men are hung like whales. All women are tight as clams below and inflated like lifebuoys above. Jaws are square, skin is tanned, muscles are toned, and no one gets turned on. It’s a global crisis. At least, it’s a crisis among the cities of the Central Power. The Eastern Caliphate has banned genetic fixing, and the SinoMosco Pact does not make it available to all its citizens, only to members of the ruling party and their favourites. That way the leaders look like star gods and the rest look like shit-shovellers. They never claimed to be a democracy.
The Central Power is a democracy. We look alike, except for rich people and celebrities, who look better. That’s what you’d expect in a democracy.
There is full-blooded and passion-driven broad satire on everything from sexualisation of youth (“Now that everyone is young and beautiful, a lot of men are chasing girls who are just kids. They want something different when everything has become the same”) to charity (“I make a voluntary donation to this month’s charity, which is Apes in the Wild. ‘There isn’t any Wild,’ I say. ‘Exactly so,’ says Tasha. ‘The money is to create a strip of Wild, and then put Apes in it'”).
The narrator is Billie Crusoe, who works in Enhancement (“It’s my job in Enhancement to explain to people that they really do want to live their lives in a way that is good for them and good for the Community. Enforcement steps in when it doesn’t quite work out”) but her heart isn’t quite in it. She’s about to fall in love with a living robot called Spike, and some of her thoughts about the proposed colonization of Planet Blue are not very on-message:
She needs us like a bed needs bedbugs. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say to the planet that can’t hear me. And I wish she could sail through space, unfurling her white clouds to solar winds, and find a new orbit, empty of direction, where we cannot go, and where we can never find her, and where the sea, clean as a beginning, will wash away any trace of humankind.
After a breakneck first half, where the jokes turn to high drama, the book suddenly switches to another mode, goes all Cloud Atlas on us, and just as we’re settling in to that, we go back into what seems to be Billie and Spike’s past, which is only a little way into our future. Winterson fits so much into 200 pages that I kept checking back to ensure the book was numbered properly. Even when she’s hectoring us, providing too-neat allegories, or devolving at the end into a drawn-out eulogy on love (familiar to readers of any of her last four or five books), her lyrical gift, always her greatest strength (“hostile atmospheres, captured in jars and swirling like genies”), is so immense that I found it impossible not to drum my heels in merriment more or less throughout.
In the later sections of the book, Winterson also reinvents her childhood and adoption, most famously visited by her before in her debut Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, and shows that the love she writes most effectively about is not from lover to beloved, but from parent to child:
My mother came home from the mill and made a detour round the gasworks to the Adoption Society. She found a foothold in the back wall and hauled herself up, goat-style, to stand on top of the coping slabs and look in through the window. There were several cots, high-sided and severe.
She stood like a lighthouse, like a pulsar, and I was a radio telescope that caught the signal. There she is, a star the size of a city, pulsing through the universe with burned-out energy. I know you’re there, I know where you are, I can track you because we are the same stuff.
The Stone Gods achieved early notice in the news when the manuscript was left on a train platform earlier this year. Winterson shows there are no hard feelings by seeming to make neat references to this in the book. She also preempts criticisms of the ending by having a character say, “The book isn’t finished, but this is as far as I could go.” I didn’t mind. I just wanted to turn to the beginning and start again.
I’m a fan of Winterson, having managed by luck more than intention to read her good books and avoid the duds. I havent read ‘Lighthousekeeping’ yet so this will be another one to add to the list. What’s your opinion of ‘Tanglewrack’ thats another one I havent got to yet? Have you read ‘Weight’? – I thought it was good, one of the better Canongate Myth series books.
Tanglewreck is OK, probably quite good as kids’ books go, full of imagination and fun (perhaps too much imagination squeezed into the pages in fact) but still a kids’ book nonetheless. I quite enjoyed Weight but haven’t read any of the other Myth series to compare it to.
For me Winterson’s best would be Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, Art & Lies (which lots of people hate but I have a real soft spot for) and The Passion. That’s ignoring Lighthousekeeping and The Stone Gods of course!
I like ‘Art & Lies’ too. Found it in a charity shop, was nearly put off by the cover but went for it and really enjoyed it. With all the novels you mentioned you end them feeling you’ve really been told a good story, in the most creative way possible.
Ah, you remind me that I have to get around to reading “Weight” – which I have sitting accusingly on my bookshelf.
I have some reservations about “Powerbook” and “Art & Lies” – but I find it difficult to dismiss them because they do contain these bursts of beauty. It’s getting through the unwieldly bits that frustrates me as a reader.
I adore “Oranges”, “The Passion”, “Written on the Body” – and “Gut Symmetries”.
“The Stone Gods” – it’s good, I have enjoyed it and will recommend to friends – but I keep thinking, I have seen her do MUCH better.
Ah, that’s me, fulfilling the prophecy: “those who can’t write, blog.” ;p
I have only read “Written on the Body” a long time ago but I can recall being really impressed by its theme and originality at the time. Must dig it off the shelves. Your review has inspired requesting on next trip to local library, so many thanks.
Very happy to hear that the latest novel seems to recapture the fireworks of Sexing the Cherry, not only my favourite Winterson, but one of my all-time favourite books non-stop. Even though here in Belgium it’s impossible to get hold of a hardback copy (only the trade paperback is in the shops) and I was planning to be patient until my amazon order arrives, I feel tempted to just go and buy the paperback … it has indeed been quite some time since Winterson really surprised me (last time was “Art and Lies”, don’t understand why indeed so many people seem to dislike it). I stumbled upon this blog during my lunch break, happy that I did!
Well I’m glad you found me Muriel! Oddly enough, I haven’t seen the hardback either: I’ve seen it in three local bookshops and they all have the trade paperback only. I suppose they stock the edition they think will sell most easily, but it’s a shame as trade paperbacks are horrible. It was an advance proof copy which I read, so I don’t have a ‘proper’ copy at all yet.
I must admit I do understand why so many people dislike Art & Lies – Winterson now describes it as a ‘closed and difficult’ book – but I just happen not to agree with them!
Well, an advance proof copy is even better than a hardback, lucky you.
The only Winterson I genuinely dislike is ‘Gut Symmetries’; I don’t remember why, as I read it only once 🙂 but I remember it left me totally disappointed. ‘Art & Lies’ may be (or rather: seem) closed and difficult at first (the non-translated Latin extract somewhere at the beginning … that was quite mean; even Umberto Eco is kind enough to include translations) but the way it totally goes from dead serious, deep and often bleak, to hilarious (the Doll Sneerpiece parts) had me almost in hysterics. The only other book which had that effect on me was Jonathan Coe’s ‘The House of Sleep’ (number 2 on my best-ever list, and while we’re at it, The Master and Margarita’ by Bulgakov is number 3).
Anyway … you did some very good PR for Jeanette, because I just went and bought the paperback 🙂
Haha, I’m glad of that, maybe she will put me on commission! Don’t envy me for the proof copy: I paid through the nose for it on eBay. I do get some review copies and proofs from publishers but not Penguin sadly.
I agree with you on Gut Symmetries, except I read it twice to make sure… I also didn’t like The Powerbook. Everything else I love to varying degrees, and yes, the Doll Sneerpiece stuff in Art & Lies is hilarious.
I hope you enjoy The Stone Gods, Muriel, and that you’ll share your thoughts on it here when you’ve read it.
I will have to try The House of Sleep. The only Coe I’ve read is What a Carve Up!, which is excellent.
“The House of Sleep” is a must-read, really. I lost interest a bit in Coe (didn’t like ‘The Rotter’s Club” and the other later stuff he became famous for), even though the new novel (“The Rain before it Falls” , beautiful title) is said to be a return to the style of the earlier novels, like HoS. It’s disquieting, confrontational, and occasionally, not often, funny (but when it is, it’s the kind of funny that makes you almost uncontrollable). I have recommended this book to just about everyone (important to me), and no one has regretted it. “What a Carve up” was good too, very funny.
The Powerbook I liked so-so. I happened to be in London when the play was on (a very happy coincidence), and guess what: it was much better than the book.
Your blog is truly amazing, I’ll be coming back here regularly.
(Sorry for my sloppy English)
Thanks for the compliment Muriel – your English is perfect.
I’m a “wardrobe fan” of Winterson’s. It’s hard to admit how much I adore her when I count William Blake and T S Eliot as my first loves. But her words capture my heart in a very special way. Oranges… and PowerBook did it for me – I thought her wit manipulated form very well. Lighthousekeeping was forgettable but Tanglewreck has become my favourite as gifts for friends (it made me cry so bad!). I guess sometimes we just have to forget our literary selves/learning to really appreciate good stories.
Thanks for visiting Nicole. I think Winterson would be pleased that an admirer of Eliot likes her: she considers Sexing the Cherry to be an interpretation of Four Quartets. I think she would also take the view that her work is literary! She certainly does create a passionate adoration in her fans however.
it’s lunch time now and i’ve just stumbled onto this lovely blog.
where i live, there’s a bit of time lag between when books are first released in the UK and when we finally get to touch and smell them over here in Singapore.
i love jeanette winterson’s writing. did Oranges for my A-levels but The Passion is my favourite ever.
am mighty glad to bump into more people who love her stuff. her blog is great too!
Glad you’ve found me, Jeanette, and I hope you get a sniff of The Stone Gods before long.
i had to buy a book for my english lesson. I took the stone gods by accident . now i see i made a good choise.What an amazing book. By the way nice blog.
I just read a review that said the beginning of the book involves an advanced civilzation millions of years ago and that Orbus could possibly be Mars. They want to go to Planet Blue (Earth) and the monsters on Planet Blue are the dinosaurs. I haven’t read the book yet but it’s on its way to me. Just curious if John had thought this was a possibility?
Er… crikey, good question, bigdoghat! It’s over a year since I read it, but my recollection is that I interpreted the opening section of the book as being set on a slightly advanced (or parallel) version of Earth. I would have to re-read it to look for what the review you mention refers to. Do come back, however, and share your own interpretation of it when you read it.