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The World and Other Places

by Jeanette Winterson

(Jonathan Cape, 14.99, 234 pages, hardback; July 2 1998.)

This is a cute little book. Its pages are (I know, because I've measured cover scanthem with the battered plastic 12-inch -- or should that be 30cm? -- ruler that my daughter used at school, which was a very good school, a dearie-aye-and-dandy school where the rich folk with their big cars and their peacock-feather strutting chests sent the children of quality) seven and one-quarter inches tall and five and one-quarter inches by the horizontal dimension -- although both of my measures would be different if issued as by order of God Herself in the European system.

That is one of this book's mysteries. Its cuteness.

It is also cute because there are wide spaces between the lines of text, so there are not so many words on each page that the senses are confused. There are also lots of blank pages. For both reasons, there are not many words in the book as a whole. Dedicated Winterson devotees will perhaps be grateful: less to memorize.

Another mystery is that it has very pretty endpapers but that no artist is acknowledged for these.

Maybe there was no artist.

The book would have even fewer words had it been copy-edited. No verb is unadverbed, no noun unadjectived.

There are seventeen stories in this book, as well as a half-finished Afterword and an Acknowledgements section that mentions no names and gives no details of the stories' original publication. And why should we want such details? After all:

... when we read something for the first time, for us, that is the moment at which it is written. When we read something again, our own past and present collide.

That is a good point about our own past and present colliding. I do not understand what it means, but it is obviously a good point: it has poetic truth.

If I could understand what "poetic truth" was I could hear the bang as my past and present collided.

Most of the stories in this cutely shaped book (did I mention the cuteness?) are not really stories at all. They are more like leaves from a journal, albeit a journal that may on occasion be a fictional one. "The Poetics of Sex", for example, is a collection of thoughts, arbitrarily arranged, that Ms Winterson has (or has had?) about her lover, as if these needed to be explained (justified?) to a heterosexual, such is their uniqueness. Yea, the bright armour of lesbianism gleams! (I'm not sure what that means, either, but the stream of my consciousness, like the eyes of a person flu-inflicted on television and in possibly Haiti but maybe somewhere else, plashes whither it will.) And unique such thoughts are, for straight old me has never had any like them:

She is all the things a lover should be and quite a few a lover should not. Pin her down? She's not a butterfly. I'm not a wrestler. She's not a target. I'm not a gun. Tell you what she is? She's not Lot no. 27 and I'm not one to brag.

When I have listened to the bang of my past and present colliding I will move on to wrestling with butterflies.

Others of these stories, these "stories", these pretend-stories, these pseudo-stories, these essays of the vital, pumping organs, possess, obfuscated among their roiling and rollicking poetry, their exquisite ecstasy of word-weaving, woven into their tapestry of iridescent (coruscating?) prose, something approaching a plot. "The 24-Hour Dog", to choose one at random, is about someone who gets a puppy and, discovering that it needs to be looked after, takes it back. I had never thought of this before, and am unlikely to again.

Indeed, a recurring theme, a trope, of these pieces is of failure, of the inability, for reasons good or ill, to finish something started, or even properly to start it at all.

I am wondering if I am going to be able to finish this book.

There are frequent line-spaces -- often two in every page -- to break up the prose. At first I wonder if this is roisteringly, ruddily done in an attempt not to overchallenge the reader's attention span. But then I realize Ms Winterson is using the device to emphasize the good bits.

Rather like Stella Gibbons used asterisks.

There is the whiff of fantasy to all the pieces gathered here, but most of them -- where my limited understanding can encompass their meaning at all -- are to do with the mundane. (The prime example is the title story, which is about the making of fantasy and then its ultimate reduction to, almost, the mundane.) They pour a fantastic sheen onto the everyday, as when someone "shakes his head like a collecting box for a good cause". (Did he, in that case, shake it right off? A more prosaic writer would drably inform us on this point. But to do so

here would

cast an unwanted pebble

into the tranquil pond of

prose poetry. Making it ripple like a raspberry. I scream. Quietly, so as not to offend the neighbours. If I still have any.)

There are, however, some straightforward fantasies (phantasies?). "Turn of the World" presents us with four fantasticated settings yearning to have something set in them; they are prettily described but not especially nouveaux, so that the overall effect is of four Ratners (Ranters?) rings sans their artificial gems.

"The Three Friends" is a brief fable and, although its meaning is obscure, is affecting: Ms Winterson has successfully tapped into the true stuff of fairytale.

"Disappearance I" is more like sf than fantasy, being placed in a world -- most probably a future world -- where it is at least illicit and possibly illegal to sleep, but where some are paid to sleep so that the non-sleepers can witness their dreams. This is a world we have visited before, and again there is little new said.

And then there is "Disappearance II", a skein of silver lining (linen? linoleum?) amid the clouds of self-indulgence. This is a taut little horror story where, for once, the flurry of misplaced words works to advantage. It is that rare thing, a successful fantasy of perception: we can accept the banal explanation of the tale (that the owner of some vastly vast stately pile has made love and death to an out-of-season visitor, then stowed the corpse in some remote antechamber where it will never be found, not even by himself), but the narrator doesn't, and we don't. The whole can be read -- and preferably read several times -- as an allegory of the losing of brief love, as a moving portrait of a mind going awry, or as a fantastication, and is rewarding in each respect.

One fine story out of seventeen pieces, most of which resemble the excesses of (hey ho) feasibly talented but as yet hardly promising students at creative-writing evening classes. The strike rate is not bludgeoningly high. For the most part (

She drifted away from me, her dress clinging to her like a drowned man.

) reader, I am that drowned man.

Review by John Grant.

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