Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal
Jeanette Winterson (Grove, New York, 2012)
Jeanette Winterson’s memoir revisits the people and events familiar from her first and most famous work, the semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. But though the books cover similar ground, they couldn’t be more different.
Oranges, written when the author was just 24, is a lesbian artist’s Bildungsroman. In 1960, the six-week old infant who will become Jeanette is adopted by a fanatically religious woman and her mostly absent husband. They raise her in Accrington, a working-class industrial town in the north of England, in a house essentially without books. Jeanette falls secretly in love with literature, and less secretly with another girl; as a result she’s exorcised then shunned by her church and driven from home by Mrs Winterson. But she survives.
Oranges fits snugly in the tradition of Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 classic, Rubyfruit Jungle. Its wit is mordant, its tone defiant, and its narrative path cuts as clean an arc as an arrow. It’s a reader-friendly tale of triumph: Jeanette survives her bizarre and difficult upbringing, the ‘lost-loss’ of adoption, to emerge shining and indomitable—made, if anything, stronger by her difference.
Decades after writing Oranges, Winterson stumbled over a hidden birth certificate in the effects of her father. Long-denied grief and loss overwhelmed her. She began to lose her mind. As she went mad, Winterson kept real-time notes of unfolding events. She attempted suicide, fought to regain her sanity, fell in love with the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, and regressed to infantile helplessness during the harrowing process of finding her birth mother.
Winterson chronicles this journey in parallel with rewriting the story of her Accrington years. Why Be Happy is a mashup of these two narratives, joined at the seam by a two-page Intermission and ending with a short Coda.
Rewrites are as old as literature. In the early middle ages, monks wrote their Gospels on vellum with pigment-based inks. Vellum was high-quality parchment (mammal skin stretched, scraped, and processed to take ink): expensive. Gospels, when the doctrine changed, were not thrown away but scraped bare of the offending text. This reborn vellum, or palimpsest, could then be re-inked with the new, more splendid version, complete with gorgeously embellished initial capitals. However, after a while, the original text often began to bleed through. Some lines, where the original and the rewrite matched, appeared clear and strong and doubly real: other words, phrases, whole paragraphs became confused and contradictory, even unintelligible.
The first part of Why Be Happy, twice as long as the second, is a scraped clean, rewritten, and embellished palimpsest of Oranges:
I have done nothing about finding my past. It isn’t ‘my past’, is it? I have written over it. I have recorded on top of it. I have repainted it. […]
This repainting is much grimmer than the novel, which Winterson acknowledges.
And I suppose the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it […]
For Oranges, Winterson created characters who comforted the young Jeanette. In Why Be Happy, she finds solace in language, first through listening to her mother read from the King James Bible, and later by making her way through the library’s collection of English Literature, A to Z. She comes to understand that literature is extra-somatic culture. Physically she was isolated from anything but her working-class and religious community, but her imagination thrived. She learnt the lessons of other people in other places and other times; she didn’t have to leave Accrington to know how it felt to fall in love or venture onto the high seas.
The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated…
Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture—exploit the new thing then move on.
There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imagination
Reading is where the wild things are.
And little Jeanette needed to break free. The Mrs W of Oranges was eccentric, but in Why Be Happy she is depressed and bitter, the dark star around which all else revolves. Little Jeanette’s home life is bleak; she feels unloved, insecure, and—above all—the ever-present wound of ‘lost-loss’: adoption.
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a queston mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone…
…adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you–and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
Winterson’s observations about adoption are some of the clearest moments in the first part of the book; they shine like guide beacons through an otherwise murky narrative.
Good narrative grammar is the basic building block of story. It presents events and emotions in the order designed to generate a sense of cause and effect within the reader. The reader then understands why and how a given character believes, acts, or feels in particular ways. Good narrative grammar is what creates a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief; it is what sets up the motifs, choices, and reversals and then pays them off. The reader’s expectations are satisfied, or exceeded—or confounded to a purpose. The gun on the mantel or in the drawer should not remain unfired; but neither should it be pulled from the air.
Winterson isn’t interested in narrative grammar:
Life is layers, fluid, unfixed, fragments. I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me. That is why I write as I do and how I write as I do. It isn’t really an ethos; it’s me.
This out-of-order fragmentation prompts me to imagine Winterson, over the years, picking up the memory of this incident or that, examining it, putting it down again on the memory shelf at an odd angle to its neighbour. Some incidents, visited more often, are polished with use, others are rough. The well-handled moments act like the bleeding-through of ghostly text. Some insights feel bold and powerful in their repetition, but some feel forced, over-emphasised. Some are downright confusing.
It is on page 119 that Winterson suggests why she ignores the constraints of storytelling:
Woolf and Stein were radical to use real people in their fictions and to muddle their facts—Orlando, with its actual photos of Vita Sackville-West, and Alice Toklas, the supposed writer, who is Stein’s lover but not the writer…
For me, fascinated with identity, and how you define yourself, those books were crucial. Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open—the only way to stop the story running away under its own momentum, often towards an ending no one wants.
Grove markets the book as a memoir. Memoir is usually regarded as non-fiction. As Lee Gutkind points out, labelling a work non-fiction creates a pact with the reader that—like that of narrative grammar—is only broken by the writer at great risk.
When people read nonfiction they expect it to be as accurate and as true as possible. That’s the promise that nonfiction always makes: that the writing and reporting are as faithful as possible to fact, that truth and accuracy make a difference.
The hazards of ignoring narrative grammar and breaking the pact of non-fiction are that the reader becomes wary, less willing to suspend disbelief, more likely to hold herself apart from the text. Certainly this is how I began to respond. So I was astonished when, as Winterson embarked on the emotional journey of teenage love, I dropped my reservations in a haze of empathy and memory. Winterson absolutely nails how it feels to walk the streets in the dead of night, straining against the gravitational pull of family reality, trying to escape their event horizon and find one’s own path. I am there. I can smell it, taste it, feel it. It feels unforced, uncluttered, and heart-squeezingly true.
But then young Winterson says goodbye to her mother and walks away for the last time. End of part one. Followed by a two-page Intermission.
Creative work bridges times because the energy of art is not time-bound. If it were we should have no interest in the art of the past, except as history or documentary. […]
The womb to tomb of an interesting life—but I can’t write my own; never could. Not Oranges. Not now. I would rather go on reading myself as fiction than as fact.
The fact is that I am going to miss out twenty-five years. Maybe later…
It felt like driving into a wall across the narrative. Was Winterson really going to set up Mrs Winterson as the dark star in her life and then skip her death, skip her own grief, anger, bewilderment and struggle to recover her balance from the sudden loss of gravity?
But perhaps the shock, this sudden confounding of my expectations, was the point. I’d recently read Pam Houston’s self-interview in The Nervous Breakdown in which she discusses the power of non-logical, non-linear narrative:
What reading poetry has taught me, I think, is that when meaning gets made associatively, rather than logically or chronologically, we feel it in a different part of our bodies, and, I would argue, we feel it more strongly, like a punch.
I compared this to Winterson talking about poetry:
…when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying had had things pretty easy. A tough life needs tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.
I began to understand: poetry as self-discovery, as psychotherapy. And hard on the heels of that thought, I read a discussion with Adam Phillips, in Prospero, the Economist‘s art blog, on how the constraints of poetry connect it to psychotherapy.
The most obvious link is that they are both linguistic arts. Freud suggests not exactly that we speak in poetry, because poetry has line-endings, but that we potentially speak with the type of incisiveness and ambiguity that we’re most used to finding in poetry. […]
But the other thing that psychoanalysis does is […] enable somebody to speak. It’s the attempt to create the conditions in which somebody can speak themselves as fully as possible. […]
There is a thing Kafka says in his diaries which is something like “literature is an axe to break the sea frozen inside us”.
Intrigued, with a new angle from which to view Winterson’s approach, I picked up Why Be Happy again, and within a few pages hit the best writing in the book. It is very possibly the most honest writing Winterson has ever done: bone-hard, brutal truth that hides nothing about the discovery process of finding her biological mother, and going mad. Here the narrative grammar is immaculate. Cause precedes effect; I always know what’s going on, even—especially—when what is happening is terror and confusion and almost terminal ambivalence.
This is what poetry does, at its best. It evokes emotion and then leaps into the dark, hauling the reader along for the ride, skipping those way-points that aren’t absolutely necessary. Evoking emotion in precisely the right order is one of the constraints that makes the form. Without form, poetry is just words.
And that’s the challenge Winterson sets herself and her readers. In this memoir, she refuses all constraint. She writes at book length, but without the constraint of narrative grammar. She writes memoir without the constraint of accuracy. She writes associatively without the constraint of precision word-choice. Sometimes the latter isn’t terribly important, as when she confuses black holes with dark matter; we shrug and move on. But sometimes it’s dangerously jarring, as when describing her ex-lover as a cuckoo, a word like a bomb in the context of adoption. And sometimes it threatens the central metaphor of the book, as when the word ‘wound’ means, variously, a scar or healed wound, and an open or eternally gaping hurt. Is Winterson hurt but healing, or bleeding to death? Or is she somehow occupying both states at once, as she writes both stories simultaneously, out of order?
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal‘s nature as palimpsest is both its central difficulty and its brilliance. It can be both astonishing and frustrating. When the past and present iterations of Jeannette Winterson are in accord, her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true. When they obscure one another, the meaning is lost. Occasionally, she is working with two layers at once. Depending on which the reader reads most easily, the ending could be happy or sad. We don’t know. Winterson hasn’t decided yet. As she says:
I have no idea what happens next.
First published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2012