“Art and Lies” opens with light, a generative thread that precipitates the sprawling world of matter: A train, wheels, overcoats, windows, brooches and a man. Homeless, loveless, self-hating, remorseful--he is a shadowman too self-absorbed to notice the light that burns his clothes and illuminates his face, the light pouring down his shoulders with biblical zeal. And the book opens with a ringing bell that over time will transform to a diving bell or sounding bell--as we enter a deep water in which the soul of man is to be revealed, tested and saved: “It’s not too late.”
Winterson’s take on genesis, an act of necromancy, of aesthetic will, opens what promises to be a lovely, astonishing novel of ideas, somewhat in the manner of Angela Carter’s extraordinary “The War of Dreams"--a book, or so it seems, that has animated this one. Both novels, Winterson’s and Carter’s, propose a parallel planet truffled with mutable nightmare cities: ceremonial, political, invisible (Calvino continues to inspirit Winterson too), lethal, erotic and so on. Both authors propose slices of life (as well as bodies; Winterson’s primary narrator, Handel, is a surgeon. Breasts tumble from his knife like apples) or cinematic collage, a light show that reveals the cruelty and sweetness of things; above all the ungraspable nature of a universe in which objects and people are arbitrarily named and language reduced to Babel: “This is what she wanted; to shift the seeming solid world, to hang over it as the noon hangs over it, casting it according to the hour.” A world “unmoored from its proper harbour.”
If the world is a boat, a play of light and water, it is also a book that asks the essential question: “How do I live?” (Or, in other words: How do I love?) Winterson promises a book of glass, a window on the world, a revelatory medium: This book is a plate of glass--a metaphor that brings to mind the cabalistic window of colored glass that engenders the veil-dance of illusion: " . . . the light snags in rough cut stones . . . " Next she gives us a very palpable book “glazed yellow by time” that contains the promise of mysteries and keys: a map, a number, an unopened letter. Like the letter it contains, the book has not been fully cut, bringing once again the cabala to mind and the idea that an unexamined dream is like an unopened letter. This mystical carrot is wagged more energetically when Borges’ library of Babel is conjured:
“To begin with, the shelves had been built around wide channels that easily allowed for a ladder, but, as the library expanded, the shelves contracted, until the ladders themselves splintered under the pressure of so much knowledge. Their rungs were driven into the sides of the shelves with such ferocity that all the end-books were speared in place for nine hundred years.
“What was to be done? There were scribes and scholars, philosophers and kings, travelers and potentates, none of whom could now take down a book beyond the twentieth shelf. It soon became true that the only books of any interest were to be found above shelf twenty-one.”
Evoking Calvino next: “The boys built themselves eyries among the books.” Quoting Pliny, tipping her hat to 18th-Century erotica and dipping in and out of the Bible too, literary nodes and manners begin to pile up like plunder--"The book did not pause but continued its unsigned journey before and back"--and a book that has opened with motion and light and a clear ringing becomes within a few pages gravity bound with the author’s good intentions--one must always be wary of good intentions. Just as do children, books suffer from pedantry, and “Art and Lies,” wanting to cover all the issues of our age, from ecological devastation, rampant corruption, dysfunctional families, homophobia, abortion, incest and more begins to preach. So that although the book’s structure is mutable and porous, it manages to be both opaque and tedious, and this from a writer of great capacity whose custom it is to juggle with fire.
“Art and Lies” keeps to a peculiar territory somewhere between platitude and flashiness. Far too often it tells us things we know, dressed in mannered--even fusty--clothes, not the cosmic drag one might hope for. (Think of Carter’s acrobats of desire. Severo Sarduy’s transvestite universe of Cobra, pervious and buoyant.) When it is not inflated, the writing is often frivolous and strident, so that the cast of characters, if ruled by the moon, offer an uninspired lunacy: They are made to stand on soapboxes vaporing.
A curious paradox is therefore sustained throughout “Art and Lies,” and clearly unintentionally. In the name of liberty and fearless experiment, the novel is straitjacketed by Issues that Matter--when it is not pushed over the top into silliness. I am thinking here of an impossibly foolish moment when, with his tongue, our surgeon-narrator precipitates a baby and an orgasm simultaneously.
Italo Calvino has argued that the book reveals its moral territory as it is written. In other words, books have a habit of informing the author what they are about, not the other way around. Says Calvino in “The Uses of Literature”: “Literature is not a school.”
In a rare moment near the end of “Art and Lies” (“There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies!”), Winterson retrieves the golden thread of her book’s beginning, that thread of light “speeding”; “the word spinning a thread through time.” How I wish that this thread reverberated throughout, forming a network of associations, assuring a journey inspirited by the author’s passionate heart and agile imagination, blessedly unencumbered by excess and pedantry.