Embrace the Cliché 

Winterson Takes on Technology

THE BEAUTY of Jeanette Winterson's writing is that she leaps off cliffs, takes risks, offers ideas that are relevant to but well outside the boundaries of contemporary discussion. In her 1989 book Written on the Body, Winterson purposely leaves out the sex of the protagonist, a move that poignantly challenges the importance of gender in contemporary literature.

It's her consistent willingness to put forth radical opinions that is the best part of Winterson's latest, The Powerbook. Her story of love and lust (as in all Winterson's fiction, the story is illustrated by a central, passionate affair) becomes a foundation to once again venture in on a contemporary debate--the use and importance of technology. She stays only for a moment, but manages to weave in a perspective that turns the whole conversation upside down.

The most overt of these ideas is a reference to the world's recent infatuation with the internet and technology: behold Ali, the cross-generation, wireless narrator who you, the reader, will become in a kind of postmodern, choose-your-own-adventure way, at any point in the book. Ali is all over London, Paris, Capri, yet consistently chronicles the same story of lust for one woman through a combination of urban myth and fantasy. This story is folded into chapters with titles such as "OPEN HARD DRIVE," "virtual road," "search," and "EMPTY TRASH."

Though these kinds of 20th century technological references may seem cliché and trendy in literature right now, it is with this very aspect of the book that Winterson makes her point. For example, Ali describes the marriage her lover is trapped in: "Inside her marriage there were too many clocks and not enough time. Too much furniture and too little space. Outside her marriage, there would be nothing to hold her, nothing to shape her. The space she found would be outer space. Space without gravity or weight, where bit by bit the self disintegrates."

Winterson starts with the language of simple tools, clocks and furniture, to show that these objects are merely self-imposed restrictions, tools we grant ourselves only to govern time and space. Ali's lover uses these objects to define the boundaries of her marriage. The internet, like these objects, is a tool to facilitate human expression, but it's certainly not the true source of generating human expression, as much of technology's recent, frenzied attention would suggest.

Ali explains, "Found objects wash up on the shores of my computer. Tin cans and old tyres mix with the pirate's stuff. The buried treasure is really there, but caulked and outlandish. Hard to spot because unfamiliar, and few of us can see what has never been named. I'm looking for something, it's true."

What Ali looks for throughout the novel is a way to conquer time through the tools at hand, to take each moment between her and her lover, and preserve it within its temporal limitations. The internet becomes her medium, a way of appreciating her tin cans and old tyres for the contrast they give to the pleasure of her lust. The story becomes an explanation of exactly what the practical properties--speed, convenience, anonymity--of the internet are, what tricks this tool affords us. Eventually, the story points out that while the internet does lend itself to more freedom of identity, a faster pace, and a more fluid writing, it is not a means of conquering a love that is inherently momentary.

And here again, we meet a fundamental problem, one that is highlighted by the internet's frenetic pace but has existed since the beginning of time; how does one appreciate a moment that is necessarily short? Ali explains her philosophy in one of the final chapters: "Here's my life, steel-hitched at one end into my mother's belly, then thrown out across nothing, like an Indian rope trick. Continually I cut and retie the rope. I haul myself up, slither down. What keeps the tension is the tension itself¯the pull between what I am and what I can become. The tug of war between the world I inherit and the world I invent." Ali's challenge and yours, as reader, lies in what to do with that tension, how to appreciate the space between two changing moments for what it is, rather than what it will become.

Winterson seems to be suggesting that it is in the preservation of memories and through writing that these moments live in infinity. It's a point that, once said, seems simple enough, but, as Winterson points out, is too easy to forget.

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