grist

 

Saturday, December 03, 2005
The reading has been slow and scattered of late--some stories (Tim Winton, Anders Monson)--one of those times when keeping up with the magazines feels like a chore. But I did sneak a short one between the powerpoints and the emails. Canongate has commissioned writers to re-tell the ancient myths, and a number of them look very promising (Atwood's The Penelopiad, The Helmet of Horror by some young Russian--for Theseus). I started with Jeanette Winterston's The Weight. I think Winterson is a dazzlingly talented writer--one of the few who can write with a steady, searing clarity--like Annie Dillard in this respect. She can hook you into a prose that is so compelling as to seem inevitable, yet still fresh and unexpected. Her attentions and ambitions are broad, however, and I don't always care for where she goes--some of her highly intellectual flights of fancy have no blood in them for me. I've been waiting for a return to the substance of books like Written on the Body (one of the finest openings of a book ever. Ever.)

So I'm always hopeful when she has something new come out. In Weight, she is retelling Atlas and Hercules, and it opens well: "The free man never dreams of escape." There are actually three openings, but that is the story itself. She mixes the myth with astronomy and autobiography to talk about the self-created burdens of the past and how they shape the present, about creation and casting off. After a promising start it mired for a while, feeling like she had to get the story out of the way in order to get to what she was interested in--and some sloppy modern language decisions--odd slang that deflected from the thrust of the narrative and diffused her focus. For a time, you feel the commissioned nature of the book--a sense of obligation that taints the tone And a chunk about the Russian space dog, Laika that was tritely cute. .

But she mounts back up as she nears the end and gets to the heart of the ideas that interest her. The last two sections (Boundaries and Desire), bristle with ideas and emotion and erase the clunky text that precedes. I'm always a fan of unevenly dazzling work as opposed to competent balance (Blake more than Updike), and on this measure, Winterson is excellent--her great is very great and, for the rest, well, it's a short book. (3.5 stars).



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