GUT SYMMETRIES.<i> By Jeanette Winterson</i> .<i> Alfred A. Knopf: 240 pp., $22</i>
“Gut Symmetries,” the title sticks in one’s throat, the clipped percussion of the first word clashing with the sibilant wave of its partner. When I first heard the title of Jeanette Winterson’s new novel over the phone last fall, I thought I had a bad connection. Unlike Winterson’s other titles, which range from the elevated (“Art and Lies,” “Art [Objects]”) to the playful (“Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” “Boating for Beginners”) to the visceral (“Sexing the Cherry,” “Written on the Body”), this title poses a challenge. The word gut, its physicality, its vulgarity, the fact that as a verb it means “to disembowel” has a disturbing effect when coupled with a word that indicates balance and order. Before I even laid hands on the book, I was drawn into its conundrum.
I found no easy answers. One of the book’s three narrators calls the story a “journey through the thinking gut,” and again I came up against a question mark. “Gut feelings” I could follow, but “gut thinking” is a fork in the road, two paths that lead in seemingly opposite directions.
My confusion about where to go made me realize that I was on Winterson’s territory. She deliberately unsettles her readers. In her 1995 manifesto “Art [Objects],” Winterson writes: “What I am seeking to do in my work is to make a form that answers to 21st century needs. A form that is not ‘a poem’ as we usually understand the term, and not ‘a novel’ as the term is defined by its own genesis. I do not write novels. The novel form is finished.” This ambition to transcend generic and temporal boundaries has given rise to the experimental virtuosity of her work.
If Winterson’s goal is to take her readers beyond traditional boundaries, her books provide abundant supplies for the journey. They are capacious portmanteaus, full of allusions and overflowing with odds and ends that may or may not prove useful, such as references to William Blake, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot and Italo Calvino, among others, and a musical score at the conclusion of “Art and Lies” (1994). “Gut Symmetries” is lined with theories of alchemy and quantum physics, embroidered with signs of the Zodiac and cards from the Tarot deck. History, science and mysticism jangle around inside, along with birth, death, love and cannibalism.
Winterson’s call for a new form of fiction takes shape in the book’s prologue with a theory that combines Paracelsus and hyperspace before breaking the work down into its basic building blocks: “Here follows a story of time, universe, love affair and New York. The Ship of Fools, A Jew, a diamond, A dream a working-class boy, a baby, a river, the subatomic joke of unstable matter.” Lest we take this summary as a reason to relax and just “enjoy the book,” we are next treated to a series of definitions that mystify rather than clarify. For example, “Working-Class Boy” is “Drive disc of Capitalism. Girl or boy. An unexploded dream.” Once we process--if we can indeed process--the idea that a “boy” can be a girl, we are ready to cross boundaries freely and play along with the book’s metaphysics.
“Gut Symmetries,” like Winterson’s other works, is a negotiation between states of confusion and moments of clarity. The central plot is relatively easy to follow despite its unconventional twists: Girl (Alice) meets boy (Jove), girl meets boy’s wife (Stella), and a three-way love triangle ensues. In the telling, however, the storyline falls prey to the intricacies of an unstable universe. Early on, Alice comments, “I know I am a fool, trying to make connections out of scraps but how else is there to proceed? . . . I cannot assume you will understand me. It is just as likely that as I invent what I want to say, you will invent what you want to hear.” The story shifts, depending upon whose perspective we’re hearing, and as we proceed, we are asked to question our own role as readers in making sense of, and thereby creating, the tale.
Like most Winterson characters, the cast of “Gut Symmetries” spends a great deal of time thinking--about themselves, about loving and the possibility of connection, about making sense out of the incoherence of existence. Alice and Stella, the two main narrators--one a scientist, the other a poet--come at thinking from two completely different standpoints. Whereas Alice filters her emotions and is afraid of “feeling unthinkingly,” Stella feels fiercely and thinks in prose-poetry.
For instance, Stella responds to learning about Jove’s infidelity by raging through their living space, dismembering their shared possessions and throwing his things out the window as experiments in gravity. When the trio arranges to meet for monthly confrontations, Stella and Jove shout and break things. Alice stoically offers refreshments.
Readers of Winterson’s previous works might expect a preference for the women over the man, the lesbian over the two heterosexual sides of the triangle. And the two women certainly do come across as more sympathetic characters than Jove (also a scientist, who refers to his erection as “the physics of God” and whose name implies male domination). However, by stressing the interconnectedness of the three lives and their individual responsibility for the roles they play, the book allows no easy opposition of female versus male, gay versus straight. Jove may indeed be a patriarchal male, but Stella comes to see her part in giving him power over her. There are no victims in this novel. To the degree that Alice, Jove and Stella unmoor themselves from conventional perceptions of reality, they are able to find some satisfaction within the apparent chaos of their lives.
One arena of new perspective in “Gut Symmetries” is 20th century science. GUTs, the grand unified theories of quantum physics (Jove’s field of study), are the backdrop for the book’s views of an “expanding universe opening in your gut.” Science and fiction are as interrelated as everything else in Winterson’s world view: “Now, more than ever, crossing into the 21st century, our place in the universe and the place of the universe in us, is proving to be one of active relationship. This is more than a scientist’s credo. The separateness of our lives is a sham. Physics, mathematics, music, painting, my politics, my love for you, my work, the star-dust of my body, the spirit that impels it, clocks diurnal, time perpetual, the roll, rough, tender, swamping, liberating, breathing, moving, thinking nature, human nature and the cosmos are patterned together.”
This kind of symmetry is daunting--viewed from a high enough level, the universe coheres, but what good is that from the perspective of mere mortals? Or, as Alice points out, “in a police cell, the Earth is still flat.” The most simple scientific truths might have no relevance in our day-to-day lives.
But then there is art. Art can offer order within disorder, an aesthetic solution to the puzzle of existence. In Winterson’s universe, art provides the best possible compass for finding one’s way around. For the author, creativity is a survival skill. If this sounds surprisingly apolitical for the late 20th century (what about material realities? what about structures of oppression?), that’s because Winterson wants to take us onto a higher plane, where issues of class, gender and sexuality will no longer circumscribe individual destiny. A utopian vision, perhaps, but one that can be at least partly realized through literature.
This novel invites us to take an active part in finding its beautiful symmetries. Alice, our primary guide into its looking-glass landscapes, likes to say “walk with me.” Storytelling becomes a hand held out across the space-time continuum, a link to perspectives not our own, a voyage we cannot make alone.
In accepting the invitation, I found that “Gut Symmetries” kept me on my toes, not the most comfortable way to walk, but one that made me aware of the steps I took. A kind of walking meditation, the book asks us to think our way toward insights that only our guts can know and to feel our way toward mysteries that lie beyond our analytical minds. The path is, of course, not straight and it leads in multiple directions simultaneously, but in a Winterson book, you learn by going. Even if you don’t follow every turn and angle, the journey is well worth the walk.
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