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Heavy on pretence

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Opening Jeanette Winterson's Weight, the first of many prefatory pages was about the series, The Myths, of which Weight - a refashioning of the myth of Atlas - is a part:

Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives - they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.
Who could argue?  But as a description of a series of modern retellings ancient myths, the statement fails in its explanatory purpose: if the very power of myths is their enduring relevance, why commission their retelling, as opposed to returning to the originals?

In Winterson's Introduction, the third prefatory passage in the book (by the Intro, I was antsy for her to get started already), Winterson attempts an answer:

My work is full of Cover Versions.  I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently.  In the re-telling comes a new emphasis or bias, and the new arrangement of the key elements demands that fresh material be injected into the existing texts.
Weight, p. xviii.

Retelling stories is a common impulse.  Shakespeare (who used commonly available plots) did it; Tom Stoppard returned the favor in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to fantastic comic effect; and other examples across high and low fiction abound, from Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl to Anita Diamant's The Red Tent.

But a new emphasis or bias doesn't necessarily deepen the literary (as opposed to sociological, historical, anthropological or psychological) value of the work; and an injection of fresh material doesn't necessarily enhance the old story line.  New for the sake of being new is as gratuitous as the "[r]eality TV or the kind of plodding fiction that only works as low-grade documentary" that Winterson condemns in her Intro (p. xix).

In the case of Weight, Winterson ends up aping that of which she claims to disapprove.  After calling herself a "writer . . . who believes in the power of story telling for its mythic and not its explanatory qualities" (p. xx), she litters her retold myth with explanations:

Autobiography is not important.  Authenticity is important. . . . I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not say it is either confessional or memoir.  Simply, it is real.

p xix.  And:

When I was born my mother gave me away to a stranger.  I had no say in that.  It was her decision my fate.

Later, my adopted mother rejected me too.  And told me I was none of her, which was true.

Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself.

My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.
p. 97.  And:

I am good at walking away.  Rejection teaches you how to reject.  I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life.  I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once.  I stayed on the run.
p. 98.  And:

That's why I write fiction - so that I can keep telling the story.  I return to problems I can't solve, not because I'm an idiot, but because the real problems can't be solved. . . . The more we see, the more we discover there is to see.
p. 137.

Save it for counseling, Jeanette!  This irrelevant content is the same kind of "'true life' account[] that occup[ies] the space where imagination used to sit" that she criticizes, "explanatory" rather than "mythic" writing.  Coming on the heels of all her protesting against such dross, her own "mythic" contribution seems pretentious. 

In Weight, Winterson's feather-light achievement is to illustrate, not the "universal" and "timeless" aspects of the myth, but the self-absorbed, victim-centric obsessions of the moment.  For an "explor[ation of] our desires, our fears, our longings, and . . . narratives that remind us what it means to be human," read the Greeks. 

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