A Winterson Fairytale

When I finished writing my paper on Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, sometime during my BA, I never expected that I would have to write about her again. This past fall, however, I found myself reading and enjoying her novel The Passion, and I included a brief discussion of this book in a post on what I was reading at that time.  Now, for the second time in less than a year, I am writing about Winterson again, having discovered Tanglewreck, a children’s novel, while I was wandering the library with my children this past week.  These little literary ironies never cease to amuse me.

I almost passed over the book, just from sheer laziness.  Winterson’s name caught my eye from the shelf, but my immediate assumption was that there must be a second author by the same name, since I had never heard of Winterson publishing for children.  It was not until I followed my youngest son down the aisle for a second time that I became curious enough to take the book down and discover who the author of Tanglewreck really was.  Since it was the Winterson I knew, I borrowed it and read it last night in a single sitting.

Tanglewreck is a lovely little fantasy.  It has something of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere about it in the parts that take place below the streets of London, and it has something of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series also, though perhaps I only feel this because it plays with time as Pullman’s series does.  The narrative moves quickly, and the characters are entertaining, though, with the possible exception of the protagonist, a girl named Silver, they never really develop beyond the kind of charming stereotypes that make fairytales seem so familiar in their fantasy.

I was apprehensive at first, as soon as it became clear that the story would involve the manipulation of time, which I usually find is productive of nothing but incoherence and absurdity, particularly when it is combined with multiple universe theory, as it is to a small degree in this story.  The disjointedness that time travel and multiple universe produce is the principle reason why I am never really able to enjoy Pullman’s novels, for example, despite his sometimes startling originality.  In the case of Tanglewreck, however, Winterson manages to avoid some of these difficulties by refusing to provide a rational system to explain travel through time.  She makes no attempt to have the time fluctuations appear realistic, using them in an almost metaphorical role, a comment on the increasing speed of our technological culture. Travel through time, as the sudden reappearance of the past or of the possible future in the present, becomes an image of how technological society’s insistence on measuring time, on being on time, on making the most of time, can be disrupted by the past and the future, which remind us of time that cannot be measured, of time in which we cannot be present, of time that we cannot make.  As Winterson’s narrative voice says at one point,

“The river flows in one direction, but time does not.  Time’s river carries our spent days out to sea, and sometimes those days come back to us, changed, strange, but still ours.”

To me, this seems to be, among other things, an apt justification for the genre that Winterson is using.  I have always thought that one of the primary functions of fantasy as a genre, in its preoccupation with a mythical past, is to reintroduce a kind of instability into our perception of a manifest present.  The importance of this function grows in direct proportion to our culture’s technical, scientific, and industrial capacity to construct the present as self-evident.  The very genre of fantasy, therefore, brings back our days to us, changed, and strange, but still ours, and these days make our present strange also, so that we might learn to live in it differently.

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7 comments
  1. Katerina said:

    Hey, I read the His Dark Materials when I was 11 and I don’t remember a thing about them, except there was a girl and her named started with L and she had this pet animal thing that was like, part of her soul? And there was a talisman.. and the subtle knife could cut through world or whatever. I’m terrible at details.
    But I like this part:
    “I was apprehensive at first, as soon as it became clear that the story would involve the manipulation of time, which I usually find is productive of nothing but incoherence and absurdity, particularly when it is combined with multiple universe theory, as it is to a small degree in this story.”
    Especially the “incoherence and absurdity” part. I have a friend, see, who would benefit from reading this … as to improve his incoherent and absurd writing..

  2. Curtis said:

    I am not sure I agree with your assessment of fantasy engines. I find it to be that limitation of allegory which makes it dangerously poltically centric. However I suppose that those ‘malfunctions’ or nuance which it focuses on in which to abstract our view could be handled in a non specific or broad conceptual way which transcends basic allegory. But I am leary of your distinction upon the genre.

  3. Curtis said:

    It could also be that I am becoming a severe existentialist and the ideas of reality have begun to excessively blur. So I may not be able to see the relevant commentary necessary in your distinction.

  4. Curtis,

    I am unfamiliar with the phrase “fantasy engines”. What do you mean by this? Also, which limitation of allegory are you discussing, and what exactly does it make dangerously political?

  5. Curtis said:

    What I mean by fantasy engines is, your description of, in this case, the purpose of ‘time travelling’ device in the text you are reading. This would be an engine of fantasy- the ‘time travelling’ in itself, essentially it is fantastic- whether explained or not, hence an engine of fantasy.

    What I meant by the danger of allegory in being political is that- you have taken this time travelling element or I will use engine- and unless it is stated in the body, you have strung this interpretation of what it means within the narrative. If it is stated in the body then it plays on this danger, fixing it in particular context- and attributing it to a certain kind of politics. I find this not a function of fantasy but of fables. The equivalent of the moral narrative that teaches us a lesson.

    For instance however you look at the matrix- its eventual usage of ‘machines’ and their behaviours attributes it into the level of fable- that machines obviously achieve the social narrative of which human beings are ultimately different ‘categarocalized’, described as ‘this set of features’ et al. Like the idea that a Jew is a machine because you can identify them by their ‘6’ shaped nose. Or a Nazi by their actions concern human rights et al. This is dangerous politics- it strives to teach us a lesson in basic terms- which I do not think is the purpose of over all fantasy. Ultimately it can be answered in simple terms as well, ‘be aware of this danger’ et al.

    If you take ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill’ as a reference point, nothing fantastic takes place in this piece of fantasy aside from perhaps the deeds and characters of the people involved. It also serves a good example because it has this fable element in the lesson it tries to teach about the ironic/ absurd and stern/patriotic/ activist. However while it acknowledges this lesson and in a way gives an answer- the process of the lesson is not simple- we’re told that absurdity and sternness should be native in every man- but we have to continue to process this in us and the world at large.

    I feel that, and it may be your description, that this process is ended in your description- an allegorical association to what is meant- and if stated in the body of the work then it does it to itself. While Notting Hill has universal and consistent context which has to be developed through each history and individual reader- by your description this work only has to connect what serves this analogy of explanation and speedy service etc- in its day and age- hence simplistically and allegorically dangerous- it also becomes irrelevant in a non modernist or technological society. Meaning. What I would define as a necessity to true fantasy- Seen in such ideas of Faramir’s very speculative speech about the ‘sinister’ qualities of his foes- it does not provide an actual deeper process into what it means to be human.

    It’s one of the reasons that I would classify Narnia as a true fantasy- because it is people trying to deal with historical content- not exactly allegorical- because it doesn’t contend itself as happening or existing allegorically.

    I suppose it could be said that the presence of this is author processing this concept- however I prefer to have my needs of process to be open ended- rather than making an observation of commentary on presence- but on circumstance- it is ok to take wood for these reasons et al- but at what point is it absurd, wrong damaging? From your description I feel there is this errancy of being able to classify this thing or that within the scope of the concept without honest process, further more only the obvious considerations, fast food, IM, ipods can actually be conclude as immediately correct attachments.

  6. Curtis,

    If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that it is dangerously political for Winterson to use time travel to allegorize how technology destabilizes our perception of time. If so, I would clarify that Winterson is using time travel more as a commentary on technologically produced time than as an allegory of it. Though there may of course be allegorical elements of her novel that I am missing,I would not myself characterize it as primarily allegorical in nature.

    Also, I would dispute your claim that the Narnian novels do not function allegorically. Lewis himself indicates at various times that the novels have allegorical meaning, and he makes this allegory explicit in the novels on more than one occasion, having Aslan mention that he goes by another name in the children’s home world. In fact, one of the most common criticisms of these novels was that Lewis’ allegory was too obvious, particularly in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Even Tolkien, who was Lewis’ very good friend, was very critical of the Narnian novels in this respect.

    For me, the question is not whether the fantasy genre should be understood to include allegory, because I think that it does so in practise whether or not we agree with it in theory. The question is not even whether this use of allegory makes the novel function politically, because I think that all writing worth the name will engage in a politics. The real question, in my opinion, is only whether the allegory has been accomplished well, whether it contributes usefully to the effect of the novel. In the case of the Narnian novels, I would say that it most often does, though there are certain passages that I would count as exceptions. In the case of Tanglewreck, to the degree that it is allegorical at all, I would say that it is also successful, though you should by no means take my word for it when it is available for you to read yourself.

  7. Curtis said:

    I’m afraid I don’t have a rebuttle, I know what I am feeling to say, I just can’t seem to come to that place of expressing it.

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