The Dewey Decimal System, and Other Old-Fashioned Modes of Categorization in Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Jeanette Winterson’s latest, a memoir by the pop psychological title Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, looks like the kind of book you would pick up at a used bookstore in an untrendy college town — not the kind with beautiful Verso editions and a few zines in the back, but rather the kind with a lot of biographies and some children’s books with newish covers. I would say that looks can be deceiving, but that’s not really my point. My point is that the memoir is, basically, a memoir, which would be unremarkable were it not authored by Jeanette Winterson, who has up to now been famously cagey about the extent to which her much-loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit veils her own childhood experience with fictional markers. By memoir, I don’t mean to suggest that Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal lacks properly literary insight, but, more simply, that it is primarily a story of trauma and recovery, which happens to be told by a celebrity most famous for her literary writings.

In Why Be Happy, Winterson is, at times, sincerely concerned with the status of the literary, but she never turns to polemic or defensiveness in order to justify her own existence within that sphere. Instead, she organizes her insights into sections that overlay multiple contexts. For example, in “The Trouble With a Book…” she connects her adoptive mother’s refrain that “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late” with her own literary coming of age, with which, indeed, trouble came. On her experience reading T.S. Eliot at age sixteen without a helpful academic or social context, Winterson speaks simply of having wept in the library. Winterson refuses to buy into the idea “that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant,” because “a tough life needs a tough language – and that’s what poetry is.” (40) The weeping is more than merely sentimental for her. It is a site of recognition for a truth about time that her controlling mother denied for theological reasons. “This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy,” she quotes, and the line works beautifully as shorthand for her view of literature. Literature reveals human insights to receptive human subjects in a language that, in its purest form, refuses misdirection. At the end of this section, Winterson becomes a writer, and, true to the memoir form, it’s easy enough to impose a causal link on these events. Winterson was moved to weep, and so she uncovered her latent literary voice. However, this memoir is not driven by writing as salvation from the silence of an unhappy and abusive childhood. It is driven by a desire and need to reflect, particularly on love, but that it happens in literature is as much a sociohistorical fact as it is a reflection on some transcendent truth about the literary. Winterson situates herself as someone who had rare access to the classics of English literature at the Accrington public library, as well as the fortune of a seriousness of disposition, and plenty of enforced solitude, which enabled her to read them well.

On this note, it’s important to note that her mother’s refrain about the trouble with books is not meant to be read as shorthand for a blanket condemnation of the woman. Winterson is clear throughout Why Be Happy that she identifies with her mother more than she condemns her, or sees her as emblematic of everything wrong with the world. Indeed, she lovingly tracks her mother’s home culture as one which had once been animated fully by a nearly 400-year love affair with English literary language, dating back to Shakespeare and the King James Bible, both of which many still read regularly during the first decades of her mother’s life. (The former at community courses held for workers, the latter at church.) Her mother was part of a vibrant storytelling community, who remixed (Winterson simply says “misquoting and mixing,” 28) John Donne as they made daily social intercourse lively and shared their cryptic proverbs with their families. However, this connection was severed with the modernization of the Bible and the encroachment of dialect-normalizing national media, and so, as often happens in rapid transitions, some good things were lost, and some bad things remained unremarked upon. (See her digression on domestic violence in the north, 46.) And so, what seems easy enough based on the structure of the memoir — this is what was wrong and how I overcame it — here becomes chiastic, reliant on a readerly acknowledgement of what is lost when life is made into fiction. One thing that is lost is history, and another, any real possibility of fully-fleshed out competing perspectives. On Oranges, Winterson says in the first section, she “wrote [her]self as hero like any shipwreck story.” (6) In Why Be Happy, the titular question is, at every turn, actually a question, albeit one we’re likely to answer in the affirmative.

Life and fiction are inextricable from one another, although, as the story of the modernization of the Bible perhaps reveals, one’s link to literature, the literature that enables Winterson to understand her life in the context of Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf, not to mention Engels, Marx, and Jung all at once, can indeed be severed by the rapidly-accelerating homogenization of culture. Winterson is the last person to romanticize provincialism or condemn the opportunities afforded individuals in Britain, as well as the West in general, today, but she also refuses to ascribe herself a politically heroic role in the triumph of the “overcoming” individual. One wouldn’t expect an admission of onetime support for Margaret Thatcher from a writer in Winterson’s milieu, but here it is, on page 138: “I voted for her.” Fortunately, there is a follow-up: “I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives toward utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results…I did not realise the consequences of privatising society.” (140) It is precisely Winterson’s heroic narrative of getting a place at Oxford, despite her working class Pentecostal background that had sold Thatcher’s ideas to her, and I think that it’s important that she makes this connection so blatant. She says,”If a grocer’s daughter could be prime minister, then a girl like me could write a book that would be on the shelves of English Literature in Prose A-Z.” (138) And of course, with the hindsight that the memoir allows, we know that she was right. But the whole existence of this installment of Winterson’s literary writing, here as life writing, relies on a historical recontextualization of that narrative, which can only be heroic in fiction. The heroism of this memoir is in the emotional work that is almost too painful for her to explain, or so it seems from its spare perfection. I’d best leave that to Winterson.

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