Monday, March 19, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is a memoir from a writer who manages to write something that makes me shudder with anticipation and sigh in despair because her voice is so purely her own.  For those familiar with the author, her autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, gives many hints to what her real life was like but this memoir is worth reading nonetheless.  Why?

For one thing, in spite of any denials on her part, it is nearly impossible for the reading audience not to confuse the author’s fiction with reality.  It doesn’t help that the protagonist of the novel share the same first name (Jeanette), a circumstance she tried to rectify when the novel was brought to television (changing the name to “Janet”).  That there are parallels, she’s never denied but to assume that stories are one and the same is a premature assumption this memoir attempts to address.

For another, Winterson wrote and published the novel nearly 30 years ago.  Her confidence in her writing, in herself, have become more firmly rooted and she is able to share things, personal truths, which before may have been too intimate or too overwhelming.  There is also the plain and simple fact that she probably couldn’t write a memoir then and reframing her life as fiction allowed her to explore the issues that informed her life allowed her a freedom she could not otherwise have experienced.  After all, many of the “players” were still alive and there’s no doubt that feelings would be wounded. 

Of course, it would have been impossible for Winterson to write a memoir at that time even if she did not consider the feelings of others.  Or she could never have written this memoir, anyway, because there are events that are more recent, choices made and experienced, that give her memoir a relevance that transcend simple meaning.  If her autobiographical novel is an inevitable addition to the canon of lesbian literature, her memoir may open doors to a canon in orphan literature.  She certainly sets the stage for this, without necessarily suggesting that she sees her memoir as seminal or even necessary, towards the end of the book when she ties in common mythic implications of her personal experience, giving her unique story and voice an undeniable and universal relevance.

I could go on, highlighting the distances she demands of herself and the reader in referring to her adopted mother as “Mrs Winterson” and how her pragmatic attempts at objectivity still allow her to reveal a complicated woman who is both understood and beyond understanding.  This impossible balance is a testament to Winterson’s own concession to what she could not possibly understand for herself.  And in telling her story, she is fragmented, sometimes interjecting an aside that reveals something to come or interjecting her future into the past.  For those familiar with Winterson’s novels, this will come as no surprise because she is relentless in her fluid use of time.  Because she is a master at it, the effect is brilliantly realized in this memoir. 

The story is incomplete and some readers may find this disappointing.  I would argue (and I dare to suggest I am immovable in this) that the story must be incomplete.  Forget the overwrought implication of the last sentence, which is both perfect and perfectly unnecessary; the point of this memoir is a search for meaning, for understanding the self in face of the madness of life, the insanity of love’s promise, and how desperately we need to create our own fictions, find our own myths, and leave a lot of space for the mystery of unanswered questions.

Jeanette Winterson has left vistas of space to be filled because she carries so much inside and her memoir is a treasure to which I know I will return again.  Her novel and this memoir, read side-by-side, is almost a fait accompli, and I can see LGBT, feminist, and many other professors and teachers reaching eagerly for their syllabi with a keen eye to incorporating this memoir in their next course.  I know I would if I were teaching.  Love Winterson’s style or hate it (and clearly I adore it), she is provocative and her honesty, her personal story, are perhaps more provocative than anything I’ve read in a long time.   

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