British publisher Canongate's "The Myths" is one of the most ambitious and intriguing publication projects of recent years, the sort of undertaking that I wish were more characteristic of the mainstream publishers which have such tremendous connective resources at their disposal. Canongate recruits major authors to write reflections on and retellings of major world myths (so far Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, Karen Armstrong, Philip Pullman, and Jeanette Winterson have graced the list), and then lead a consortium of 24 publishing houses in releasing the individual "myths" simultaneously worldwide.
The first two works I have read from "The Myths" series - Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad and now Jeanette Winterson's Weight - have made intriguing choices that reveal them as representative members of the arc of the authors' whole body of work. Atwood's novella turns a critical gaze on the misogynistic injustices of Telemachus and Odysseus in Homer's work (where indeed the hostile suspicions the two men hold about Penelope's fidelity are excruciating to witness) and gives a crucial choric voice to the maids they so brutally murder at the epic's end, filled with a gendered viciousness disturbingly out of proportion to the crime committed by the girls. Sadly, for all these interesting moves, I found it to be surprisingly straightforward in its "revisions" of the myth, and not nearly as intricately written as the best of Atwood's novels.
"Weight" also seems a bit like Winterson Lite (I am going to suffer in the Underworld for that pun someday). She weaves some wonderfully surprising strands into the fabric of her tale of burdened Atlas and the repellently phallus-obsessed Hercules (who, you may remember, agrees to take on the weight of the world for Atlas - doomed to hold up the universe for all eternity - while he fetches some golden apples, only to trick poor old Atlas into taking up the world again when he returns with the fruit). Winterson's characteristic self-reflexive move (drawing attention to the ambiguities of her persona as an author) makes an appearance:
There are two facts that all children need to disprove sooner or later; mother and father. If you go one believing the fiction of your own parents, it is difficult to construct a narrative of your own.The traumatizing story of Laika, the first animal sent out into space (and not, crucially, brought home), also makes a strange and not wholly well-integrated appearance in the novel. I couldn't help but recall My Life as a Dog, where a Swedish film where the resonance of Laika's tale with the personal experience of isolation is set up so much less cheesily.
In a way I was lucky. I could not allow my parents to be the facts of my life. Their version of the story was one I could read but not write. I had to tell the story again.*
I am not a Freudian. I don't believe I can mind the strata of the past and drill out the fault lines. There has been too much weathering; ice ages, glacial erosion, meteor impact, plant life, dinosaurs.
The strata of sedimentary rock are like the pages of a book, each with a record of contemporary life written on it. Unfortunately the record is far from complete. (139-140)
Altogether, the different strands don't seem to make the final step to being a coherent or at least finished whole. I don't mean this so much in the sense of narrative incompleteness, because ambiguity and instability are clearly two of Winterson's favorite strategies, but rather (as in the case of The Penelopiad) that this novella always feels like a side-project, written in the margins of the "real books" the authors have underway. They are a bit drafty (in at least two senses of the word), the sentences letting in little gusts of readerly doubt through every slight awkwardness.
Nonetheless, Jeanette Winterson's fragmentary, aphoristic style seems better suited to the project of the mythological novella, being nearer to poetry than the novel. Still in both cases I wish a ruthless editorial hand had questioned the small infelicities of style and the large jarrings of narrative obviousness. There is no reason, in the hands of these skilled and authority-questioning authors, why archetype should settle into stereotype, even for a moment.
March 4, 2008 (Yikes, I have fallen really behind in my reviewing.)
* Winterson's upbringing by her fundamentalist adoptive parents (who were not what you might call comfortable with the emerging knowledge that she was a lesbian, or for that matter a voracious reader of non-Biblical literature) is the subject of her utterly fascinating novel/memoir hybrid, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. I highly recommend it.