The Books: “Gut Symmetries” (Jeanette Winterson)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson

Yeah, so, right around here I stopped caring. It all started feeling the same. It’s all about infidelity, love triangles, and bisexuality. Not that there’s anything wrong with those topics – it’s just that Winterson seemed to be treading water, going over the same territory. Perhaps there was crap in her personal life she needed to work out, I have no idea … and again, that’s fine – much great art comes from a writer wrestling with personal demons. But for whatever reason, Gut Symmetries feels strangely passionless, almost like an exercise. Which is so bizarre when you compare it to her vibrant pulsating earlier works like The Passion (excerpt here) or Sexing the Cherry (excerpt here). In those books, Winterson had larger contexts in which to place her stories: Bonaparte, the reign of Charles II, plague, war … As she moved along in her writing career, larger contexts disappeared almost completely – and she went completely into the personal and subjective. Winterson sees herself as part of the Modernism tradition, as well she might – and Virginia Woolf is one of her inspirations (for this work in particular, with its Waves-esque ruminations). But I don’t think it works as well. It’s not that books NEED to have a larger context, or the outer world somehow captured in them. There are plenty of books that do not have that, and they are fine. The description of subjective experience is very very challenging – and only the great writers can manage it. Winterson had been brilliant in that regard early on, but with Gut Symmetries it feels re-hashed. At least with Art & Lies (excerpt here), unsuccessful though it was, she was trying something new. In Gut Symmetries – even with its newer elements of physics (Grand Unified Theory – ie: “Gut”) and the Tarot cards … feels like same ol’ same ol’. Almost like Winterson is trying to imagine herself back into a narrative but can’t quite get there.

Gut Symmetries tells the story of a love triangle. Alice is our narrator. She begins an affair with Jove – a man already married to a woman named Stella. When the affair with Jove goes south, Alice and Stella begin an affair.

All the voices sound the same in this book. It ends up feeling quite monotone. A voice droning on and on. Droning?? The sparkling brilliant Winterson? Well, yes! I was truly disappointed in Gut Symmetries and its lack of imagination … I almost felt apprehensive, like: “Could it be that Winterson, despite the early promise, is really just a one-trick pony??” I was sad about that. I am invested in her, as is probably obvious. I know I was not alone in seeing the similarities in Gut Symmetries to her earlier books – yet without the passion and interest. In The Passion there is a love triangle – between Villanelle (obviously bisexual herself) and a married woman … but there it feels treacherous, shattering, urgent. Here, in Gut Symmetries, I think: “Okay. This feels the same as The Passion, only now I don’t care. What is missing??”

As I have mentioned before, Winterson recently came out with two books – one is a re-telling of the Atlas myth, and the other is about a keeper of a magical lighthouse – and I am so so happy to say she is back to form. And by “back to form” I mean: unpredictable, imaginative, unexpected, thrilling.

But for a good 10 years there, I struggled with my affection for her. I wondered if I would have to eventually let her go. How long can a fan hang on? (It is identical to my journey with Tori Amos … and what a thrill, what a total thrill, to hear her latest album. Yay!!)

I can say, without a doubt, that I am, hands down, the best fan I know. Without tipping over into stalker behavior … If I love you once? I love you always. I give you multiple chances. I am in it for the long haul. I can’t say this about everybody. But with some people? It’s a relationship. I will have a “relationship” with Jeanette Winterson forever. It will ebb and flow, and I’ve had to adjust … I’ve had to let HER be in charge, because – after all – it is HER that is doing all the writing. And I will still count the days to her next book. I always will!

I chose an excerpt from Gut Symmetries that I actually like – not one of the long boring sections about love and regret and desire (which sound like all her other writings on the topics). I chose a story that gives a glimmer of who Winterson is as a writer, and why I love her so much.

EXCERPT FROM Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson

My mother, big with child, had strange longings; she wanted to eat diamonds. This gastronomic extravagance could hardly have been more than a fantasy for all but the very rich and Papa could not afford a Guggenheim bagel. We were not rich, nor were Papa’s many friends but some of them were diamond dealers, trading silently, secretively in a huddle of patched-up buildings around Canal Street and the Bowery.

One evening, when I was six months old, pre-born, bouncing my hands and feet off Mama’s womb wall, I heard the voices of Papa’s business friends, talking quietly in our warm low kitchen. Mama shouldn’t have been present at all, but she cared very little for the strict protocol of his Orthodox friends and banged about the kitchen, sometimes openly hostile, sometimes serving towers of blinis tall as the Empire State. She did as she pleased and no one dared to challenge her because she had saved Papa’s life and risked her own. They called her Rahab.

Somewhere from deep inside their coats, their jackets, their shirts, their vests, their skin, their bones, the men unfolded felt pouches and spread the contents, glittering. It was not their value that they were discussing with Papa, it was their capacity to stimulate the soul’s deeper life. To a Jew, stones have meaning beyond value. The twelve jewels of the High Priest’s breastplate were energy not hoard. The stones live.

Mama turned round from her usual awning of aluminium saucepans and saw the diamonds. I saw their light and pressed myself as close as I could to the membrane of my genial prison. The light struck through Mamas belly and fed me.

She stepped forward, picked up a diamond between thumb and finger, and swallowed it.

Then she swallowed another, and another, a voluntary force-feeding into a priceless pate: Mama’s oesophagus larded with light.

Papa’s people are a patient people who have known adversity. They have wept by the waters of Babylon. They have crossed the Red Sea. They have sat in the desert with their camels and their concubines. They have wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They have bargained with their God. Yet not even Job in all his affliction had his inheritance eaten by a woman with child. There was some debate about what to do next.

Papa’s people are a patient people. They agreed that Papa would lock the door to our only lavatory on the landing and persuade Mama to use a commode.

A twenty-four-hour watch was rota’d in the kitchen and one of the off-duty men went out to buy surgical gloves.

Mama had no objection. She wanted only to eat the diamonds not to digest them. No one thought about me.

And I did not think, turning in the weightless water, charmed by cut faces of light.

At last it was over, hats off, sleeves rolled up, sweat on their beards, and the much travelled diamonds shining again on their sterilised cloths.

‘a’dank! mazel tov! bo’ruch ha’bo! Schnapps!’

‘What? One missing? Oy oy oy oy oy! Oy va-avoy! Vai!’

Castor oil. Enema. Glycerine suppositories. Salt water colon irrigation. Cabbage soup. Schnell, kroit zup!

No use. No use at all. I had captured it or it had captured me. After a night of prayer this was revealed to the Elders in a dream. ‘We will attend the birth,’ they said, at belly level, directly to me, usurper of jewels, infant smuggler of precious stones.

At night, when Mama slept and the lights were out and the night was dark, Papa stood over her in his shawl and guiltily lifted her nightdress. He had never seen her naked, not seen the gentle demands of her, the map that she was where he might have travelled.

He put out his hand but he was afraid. Her belly shone.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Gut Symmetries” (Jeanette Winterson)

  1. Karen says:

    //(It is identical to my journey with Tori Amos … and what a thrill, what a total thrill, to hear her latest album. Yay!!)//

    Latest album?? Please advise!

    I know exactly what you mean about her. “Strange Little Girls” was an interesting release, but other than that she’s been sounding rather warmed-over. So I’d love to hear that she’s back on track.

  2. red says:

    Karen! What’s up, girl?? Good to hear from you!

    Yes! Her latest album is called American Doll Posse and she is totally back to form. There’s a couple of boring songs on the album – but only a couple. All the rest are rocking, witty, great beat … great lyrics – you should check it out! I’ve hung in there with her … so it’s nice to finally get INTO one of her albums again!

    My favorite is “Big Wheel” and “Velvet Revolution”. :)

  3. Karen says:

    I’ll put that on the to-buy list.

    So glad you got a kitty! My cat acts like a dog too. He comes running when we call, and begs us to play.

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