Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods

The second chapter of Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods is called Easter Island, after the island in the Pacific now known as Rapanui. Like Jennifer Vanderbes' 2003 feminist romance Easter Island, it uses the island's devastating history as part of a larger story. For both it is a microcosm of the Earth in the time of the humans. The story is well known: Easter Island had sustained a population of many thousands at least until the late 18th Century when Captain Cook's Resolution arrived to find a barren, inhospitable land with a ragged population "few in number". What had happened? The Stone Gods suggests an answer by using the famous stone statues – the moai – as a metaphor of global industry. On her website, Winterson spells it out: "There is no environmental explanation, only a human one, chiefly the pointless obsession with carving stone gods… but read the story for yourself."

Reading the story as Winterson has framed it enables us to understand that Easter Island is a lasting presence rather than an isolated case. What happened to the island will happen to us; or rather, is happening to us. Just as deforestation ended Easter Island's moai-building culture (timber was almost certainly used to move the statues from the quarries) and eroded the nutrient-rich soil, so our "pointless obsession" with economic growth will, if we fail to act on the signs, lead to a destitute time.

Although there's no evidence that Easter Island's decline occurred so dramatically, in The Stone Gods the women try to stop the men from cutting down the final tree. Of course, they fail. The novel's four chapters - all different yet interlinked - might be a more sophisticated, if equally vain, attempt to prevent an identical fate. It is aware of its likely reception. Billie, the main character, finds an old manuscript on the London Underground (the Circle Line). It's called The Stone Gods. She examines it: "A love story, that's what it is - maybe about aliens. I hate science fiction." Later, she hands it to her robot friend Spike to read:
"What's it about?"
"A repeating world."
Yes – a world that carries on regardless unable to see the implications of its actions even as the implications loom like moai on the horizon. She thinks it is an entertainment; the truth becomes "science fiction".

After reading The Stone Gods, Ursula Le Guin's review – which I referred to at the time of publication – appears even more cranky.
It's odd to find characters in a science-fiction novel repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction. I can only suppose that Jeanette Winterson is trying to keep her credits as a "literary" writer even as she openly commits genre.
This is doubly wrong: one character says it once. And, if my reading is fair, it's also a joke resonating with the theme of disastrous repetition. How many times will we turn exigency into a genre? One can only suppose Ursula Le Guin is pursuing her own pointless obsession. It isn't the first time she has made bizarre critical claims.

Winterson diverts from the record too, with more interesting results. The nineteen-page chapter compresses and distorts Easter Island's real history. Cook's party did injure an islander but did not kill him. Nor did Resolution sail away immediately after. Not one row of moai on the coast stares out to sea; they all look inland and, contrary to what Billie observes, the plinths on which they stand do not contain wood. Also, after Cook had sailed, islanders are seen to be toppling moai, suggesting a loss of faith. However, such destruction occurred between the arrival of the Dutch on Easter Day 1722 and Cook in 1774. Very few moai were left standing by the time Cook popped by. In a cave, Billie is introduced to Rongorongo tablets displaying a written script though this was not reported by visitors until almost a century later. Of course, such non-false errors reveal only the value of the imagination.

Later some moai's "unseeing eyes" are said to be fixed on the interior of the island yet, if they had not been toppled, it is very likely they would have had eyes of white coral with painted irises and pupils. I admit that this example is particularly unfair. Even when painted, we know they could not see anything; "unseeing" is not wrong. Yet still, the viewer has to make the intellectual leap to deny the illusion. And it's this uncertain space between instinct and intellect where the gaze of the moai becomes uncanny, even when the eyes are blank grey basalt; perhaps even more so. But the uncanny is a genre also. Where does it leave us?
It is as if, here, everything signifies some other thing: the Bird, the Egg, the flag, the writing, the winning, the winner, the Stone Gods, even the island, even the world are symbols for what they are not.
Face to face with a universe of symbols, we await some other thing; something that is not. The inexpressive eyes of the moai make it felt but never allow us to see. Perhaps this is why they were toppled. It was an attempt to bring an end to the imagination. Now, in the civilisation of the book, they have been raised again.

See also my review of Easter Island: The Great Taboo by Nicolas Cauwe.

6 comments:

  1. A thrilling account of this book, Stephen. As always you see things in it that I never came close to, as though you're reading it not just from another angle but from, as it were, another dimension. And which means I must now revisit the book in the light of this.

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  2. Thanks John. As it's science fiction, reading it from another dimension would, I suppose, be appropriate. Of course I'm a year late because I found it in the library only last week. However, it is just out paperback.

    I don't have the will to review the Booker longlist so I'm glad someone (ie you) is.

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  3. Le Guin is probably getting fatigued by the comments of folk like Margaret Atwood, also Winterson has spoken very negatively in interviews about sf if I recall correctly, which Le Guin may have erroneously read into the novel.

    That said, whatever Winterson may have said in interviews, it sounds like the novel was well aware of its own genre and indeed playing with it, which does rather undermine Le Guin's comments.

    Le Guin also criticses the novel of "fictional implausibility or incoherence" and of sentimentality and purple prose (I believe it was nominated for the bad sex prize this year wasn't it?). What did you make of those criticisms?

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  4. Max, I suppose the rest of Le Guin's review is fair enough, though the criticisms seem rather forced. I thought the form rather than the execution led to problems with plausibility. Such a short book with shortish chapters doesn't allow the reader to sink into anything (which I'd guess is unusual in the genre). And I don't recall purple prose; none worth complaining about anyway.

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  5. The Stone Gods is a poor attempt at science fiction and is very close to plagaring Specimen Days by Micheal Cunningham, published in 2005. Specimen Days is very similar but much better written and obviously an original piece of work. Stone Gods is pathetic after you have read Specimen Days. Stone Gods reads as an opportunistic attempt to cash in the mania of climate change and package it as science fiction. I have been reading this genre for 50years, since I was 12 and this attempt is laughable.

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  6. I've only just seen chabo's comment (revisiting this post after almost two years!) - and I can only weep in despair. If anyone is plagiarising, it's Cunningham himself in Specimen Days, which reworks the structure and themes of his previous (much more successful) novel The Hours to an almost fetishistic degree.

    Winterson, of course, revisits her own obsessions, as any writer does, but she takes time to rework her art each time, even if the results are not always successful. More importantly, she doesn't write for the sake of it, but only when she has something to say. She hasn't written any adult fiction since The Stone Gods three years ago and has no current plans to do so.

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