Surfing the Narrative Wave (part 1)

cover of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

I am trying to read Jeanette Winterson‘s autobiography “Why be Happy When you Could be Normal?” as slowly as I can in order to enjoy it for as long as possible. But it’s not easy. As I read, I feel as I though I’m on a surfboard, being carried along by a massive wave. Once I start reading, there’s no stopping.

How does Winterson create this narrative surge?

I’m caught up right from the first sentence.

“When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’

I am still reacting to the effect of that introductory sentence as I read the next.

The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960…”

In two sentences, one has been swept out of a dramatic personal context into a much much larger and equally dramatic political, historical and geographical framework.

I’m carried along willy-nilly, from the Devil in Manchester in 1960 to highly charged, idiosyncratic image to highly charged, idiosyncratic image characterizing the mother, to (the narrator’s view of) the mother’s reason for adopting, to the opinion that children, adopted or not, all live out some of their parents’ “unlived life”, to twenty-five later and the publication of the narrator’s first novel. I haven’t even turned the first page.

This kind of series of rapid shifts from one extremely succinct, dense point of focus to another to yet another creates terrific momentum.

The writing can slip from character description to scene to personal reflections, from facts concerning world and local context to childhood memory to socio-economic context to attitudes towards women writers.

What seems to help the wave gain height and speed is the lack of explanatory transitions or bridging. In the example above, we slip from the mother to McCarthyism in no time at all through a simple but very efficient – and organic – link: ‘The Devil’/’Satan’.

I love the energy that comes from these sudden and surprising juxtapositions and narrative shifts.

What do you think?

Do you ever play with the idea of jamming different writing styles and content up tight against each other in this way in your own writing? What sort of effect do you find it creates?

Susi Lovell is a Montreal writer, dancer and photographer.

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