Jeannette Winterson is one of the greatest living writers, and if you have never read her, this book is the place to begin.
By greatness, of course, I mean not just talent working hard but also a commitment to challenge oneself. To me, a great writer is one who doesn't repeat, but who starts a new journey with each book. Though Winterson's style and preoccupations are unmistakable, each novel is a new beginning.
In the last ten years, Winterson has grown from her easy, popular lesbian coming-out novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, into a thin, rarefied, exhilirating place -- the space between the body and the soul. (Asked to sum up what her books are about, the lightly autobiographical hero of The PowerBook says simply: "Boundaries. Desire.")
A consummate postmodernist, Winterson's writing has always been stunningly austere, approaching the density of poetry. Dealing with topics that turn back on themselves ("Boundaries. Desire.") her novels turn back on themselves too, forming intricate webs of self-reference that make you feel, upon finishing a novel, that you're ready to start it again.
Her austerity, however, can make her middle novels challenging to read, though certainly rewarding once you find your way in. Her economy of style leaves a chill in the air, like we are touring a labyrinthine mountaintop shrine in the Himalayas. Of these middle novels, only The Passion is easy to recommend to someone approaching Winterson for the first time. While Winterson always has a sense of humor, The Passion was the last novel that used humor to draw you in -- the last until her latest, The PowerBook.
With this beautiful, short, fast novel, Winterson opens a new door into her crystalline world. Gone are the long, introspective paragraphs of the middle novels. This book moves in short bursts, including terse, struggling, but often hilarious dialogue. Winterson always gets to the point, even if the point is a circle, a spiral, and edge. The PowerBook is the story of a romance by computer, and even when we leave the keyboard and depart into a shared fantasy -- as we do for most of the novel -- the sharp banter of a good online chat is everywhere.
The heroine of the book is a writer. At times, in fact, she is Winterson herself. (Everyone can change identities online, after all.) Here she is leading into one of her early chats with her cyber-lover, a consummate nonwriter. According to the rules of their world, they are at a cafe in Paris:
Not knowing you, and knowing that smalltalk is not my best point, I started to tell you about George Mallory, the Everest mountaineer. I'm putting him in a book I'm writing, and strangers often like to hear how writers write their books. It saves them the trouble of reading them.
'So you're a writer.'
'I've never heard of you.'
'Have you had anything published?'
'Can I buy it in the shops?'
'What, here in Paris?'
'In English too?'
(I said smalltalk was not my best point.)
Winterson's longtime fans, those who've learned to love her long, introspective paragraphs, may find this novel a little thin. Certainly, the chapter titles playing on computer jargon are too easy a device, and mislead the reader into thinking this novel is more frivolous than it is. But The PowerBook is as rich as anything Winterson has done. Online communication, after all, is intrinsically postmodern, with its freedom to shift identities and create imagined worlds that can become as real as you like. All this is also true of the imagination, especially as it moves along boundaries, driven by desire. Perhaps the pleasure of this novel is Winterson's own delight at exploring a new medium where she is already at home.