If you're someone who loves the power of words, who loves lush, poetic prose and the images it can conjure, the magic it can work, then you will probably love Jeanette Winterson's beautiful novel, "The Powerbook."
"The Powerbook" explores Winterson's recurring themes of time, love and gender identificantion (or the lack of it) through the story of Ali/Alix, a woman living in cyberworld and reinventing herself at another's command. But reinventing yourself doesn't come without a price as Ali/Alix soon finds out. Will she pay it? And if she does, will it be worth the price?
For me, "The Powerbook" is Jeanette Winterson at her very best. Everything that was so wonderful in her previous novels comes together in this one. She tells stories, she writes the most lyrically divine prose, she uses linear time and circular time, she anchors herself in reality while letting herself soar on flights of fancy.
"The Powerbook" is art for the sake of art. Although some would argue that "art for the sake of art," especially in the literary realm, is nothing but conceit, Winterson herself, has stated differently and I agree with her. Art, she said, is our opportunity to get things right. To tell the truth. To find the ultimate reality. And she's right. Art doesn't deceive us, except on very rare occasions, and when those rare occasions do occur, we're angry with the artist.
I know that many people will read this book and wail, "But that's not real life!" Those who do should stop and reread the book once again. And even again and again if need be. It's life that tells us lies, either deliberately or by omission, life that deceives, life that denies us the rich world of fantasy and imagination and creative invention...the world that Winterson seeks and finds in her own strikingly original work.
In "The Powerbook," Winterson allows her narrator to become a part of his/her own stories, to become a character in them, to reinvent himself/herself to suit the needs of the receiver. While this book is not conventionally plotted, there are stories in "The Powerbook," and they are wonderful stories indeed. One of the best is a meandering, poetic discourse on the meaning of life and love and death. "I was happy with the lightness of being in a foreign city," Winterson writes, evoking Milan Kundera's wonderful "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "and the relief from identity that it brings." And later, "There was such lightness in me that I had to be tied to the pommel of the saddle..."
"The Powerbook" is set in London and Paris and on the beautiful island of Capri as well as in the world of cyberspace, employing both the world of reality and the world of fantasy in the very best mix possible. The lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur in this book, but they blur in real life as well. Who can say exactly how much of an experience is "real" and exactly how much exists in the imagination?
And, as she does in every book, Winterson mesmerizes us with her images of time, or the lack of time. She explores linear time, circular time, the absence of time, the impermeability of time, the transmutation of time, time without end and on and on and on. It's fascinating, but only if you want to make the effort.
Winterson is so often accused of being possesed of literary conceit and disdain for her readers. I think this is grossly unfair criticism. Her books can be difficult and they do demand the reader's attention; one cannot flip through a Jeanette Winterson book, speed-reading on a beach under the summer sun. However, if Winterson demands attention and time and effort from her readers she also gives. I judge a book's worth, in part, by what I take with me after reading it, what becomes lasting, what changes me. With Winterson's books I am always a different person when I finish than when I began...I'm richer, smarter, more enlightened. To me, that's high praise for an author rather than criticism.
In Winterson's wonderful book, "The Passion," she writes, "I'm telling you stories. Believe me." It is the wise reader who does believe Winterson and the rewarded one who listens to her stories...again and again and again. Jeanette Winterson really is a writer with something important to say.