By Jeanette Winterson.
223 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $22.
Jeanette Winterson’s witty first novel, ”Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” told the semiautobiographical story of an English girl whose lesbian affair wreaks havoc in her family’s conservative evangelical community. One of the many things that made it a particularly auspicious debut was that Ms. Winterson leavened her keen satire of legalistic faith with deep insight and empathy; even as she rejected dogmatic religion, she displayed an acute understanding of the human need for God. Ms. Winterson’s subsequent novels have continued to bring together sex (often lesbian) and religion, even as they have abandoned the generally conventional narrative turf of her first book for more experimental territory. In the process, she has reinvigorated the novel. Restlessly — often brilliantly — her taut, slender works meditate on time and matter, life and death, and the ways in which faith, art and love join modern science in pointing toward truth. For her, the novelist would appear to be at once preacher, researcher and lover, and the novel a combination chapel, lab and boudoir in which writer and reader struggle together toward a vision of ultimate meaning.
No wonder, then, that Ms. Winterson’s sixth novel, ”Gut Symmetries” — whose chapter titles are borrowed from tarot cards and whose title refers both to human viscera and to the grand unified theory (GUT) sought by physicists — opens with a reference to Paracelsus, scientist and magician, who was ”driven by a mountain in his soul” to discover life’s unifying principles. The novel centers on three characters: Jove, a Princeton physicist; Stella, his longtime wife; and Alice, a young British physicist who, meeting Jove on an ocean liner, first becomes his mistress and later has an affair with Stella.
All three take their turns as narrator, moving the story forward and filling in their respective family backgrounds. But what matters here is less the particular sequence of events than the reflections that flow out of it. Ms. Winterson has not made it her business to write the sort of novel in which readers are drawn to one or more characters and worry about how things will come out. Rather than play on our sympathies, she takes us into her narrators’ minds, showing how experience collides with belief and learning, how people labor to construct ideas by which to live. She also uses her characters as authorial mouthpieces who affirm — among much else — the Keatsian dictum that beauty is truth, truth beauty. ”Perhaps it seems surprising that physicists seek beauty,” Alice comments, ”but in fact they have no choice. As yet there has not been an exception to the rule that the demonstrable solution to any problem will turn out to be an esthetic solution.”
FOR Ms. Winterson, beauty is a more reliable index of truth than reason is. After all, quantum physics has shown that scientific truth — like faith — is not always rational. The further physics advances, the more it looks like religion. Quantum physicists join ancient mystics in speaking of the oneness of all creation.
You might say that ”Gut Symmetries” seeks a GUT that brings modern science, time-honored religious insights and individual experience into perfect harmony. But it’s a tall order, for humans live on a human scale. Though we know the earth is round, we perceive it as flat; though we reach for the stars, we are immured in flesh. Higher truths — whether discerned in the spirit or through a telescope — should provide solace, summoning us to look beyond our self-concern and put our lives into cosmic perspective, but for most of us this is impossible. As Alice puts it, ”Now that physics is proving the intelligence of the universe what are we to do about the stupidity of humankind?”
Like its predecessors, this is a short book but not a quick read. At a time when many publishers expect literary novels to have the relentless forward motion of an Indiana Jones movie, Ms. Winterson refuses to shift into narrative drive; eschewing the Interstate, she favors the bumpy, meandering byways of interior landscapes. At every turn, furthermore, her fresh, vivid way of putting things stops one dead in admiration. ”In 1959,” Alice recalls, her successful father ”was in the fullness of his present,” having seen that the key to success was to ”pan the living clay that you are and find gold in it.” In ”Gut Symmetries,” Ms. Winterson has struck gold herself.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, 11 May 1997