Boating for Beginners
Jeanette Winterson Boating for Beginners
According to David Lodge realistic literature is based on “ their obsession with form to neglect the content and the third person omniscient mode is more often used to assert or imply the existence of society or history, than of heaven and hell. Therefore, modernist fiction eschews the straight chronological ordering of realistic material and the use of reliable omniscient intrusive narrator”.
In her novel, Jeanette Winterson uses a “method of multiple points of view” and her novel “tends towards a fluid and complex handling of time, involving much cross-reference backwards and forwards across the chronological span of the action”. We can reinforce this idea by quoting Linda Hutcheon, who says: “the postmodern artist was no longer the inarticulate, silent alienated creator figure of the Romantic but some theorists who showed they could write with sharp wit verbal play and anecdotal verve”.
For Christopher Pressler, Jeanette Winterson is often described as one of the most controversial yet innovative fiction writers. Postmodernist techniques , modernist tradition, metafiction and magical realism are, however, mere instruments that Winterson deftly combines with a strong political commitment aimed at subverting socio-cultural power structures and ultimately, at appropriating traditionally male-defined concepts for her lesbian politics. She self-consciously questioned the mechanisms by which narratives texts are produced and partaken of a clear penchant of fantasy, magical realism and the fabulous.
In Boating for Beginners, she rewrites the Flood and Noah’s Ark. In her fiction, God has not created men, it is Noah that makes God “ by accident out of a piece of gateau and a giant electrical toaster”. Gloria a homodiegetic adolescent female narrator struggles to find her own identity in a word of distorted fictions that pass for unquestionable realities. To analyse the demystification of the rewritten history of the Genesis it is interesting to answer this question: How does Boating for Beginners question the way History is written?
To answer this question we will firstly analyse fact versus fiction. And finally we will focus on deconstruction in Jeanette Winterson’s novel. To understand how Jeanette Winterson put on stage two groups of people, it is important to see in details all the characters. The first group gathers Noah, God, Japeth, Ham and Shem (Noah’s three sons, the same names as in the Bible) and their wives Ham’s wife, Sheila, and Japeth’s wife , Rita; Mrs Munde, Gloria’s mother, and Bunny Mix.
Noah is an ordinary man (12); turned into a ridiculous character (18), he is a liar (139), a scientist who invent stupid things (82), he is a right wing man, suspicious of women and totally committed to money as a medium of communication (69), he turns out to be an unscrupulous businessman and his sons are submitted to his authority and obey him, (90), he is also fascist (69) he is authoritarian and looks like a star, he is a “spherical man with a bright bald head”, he was around four feet tall with the blackest, most piercing eyes possible in anything other a crow (50), he looks like a transvestite (18), “he was wearing a red-and-white spotted tie (61). God has been created by Noah he behaves as a child, he is vulgar (22) and (90). Throughout the novel, he has been called in different names: Noah called him “Yahweh”, “Lord”, “Unpronounceable” (biblical reference), the “drama queen” (110) but also by with disrespectful name like “Holy Wisp” (111-112) Lucifer called him the boss (133), Marlene called him “the cosmic dessert” (98); Ham called him the “God of Love, the omnipotent Stockbroker and the Omniscient Lawyer” (30).
The sons of Noah have been deconstructed: Japeth is a jewellery king, Ham the owner of that prestigious pastrami store, More Meat, and, Shem who was once a playboy and entrepreneur, is now a reformed and zealous pop singer. The wives of Noah have been baptised Sheila, Desi and Rita (26): Rita was dark-skinned with a bush of orange hair and matching painted fingernails (26); Sheila is very fat and covered from head to foot in solid gold. Bunny Mix is a popular Romance writer, “her face was pale and her eyes were very black. A gash of brilliant red marked her mouth” (58) and she helps Noah to write the dialogue of Boating for Beginners. Jeanette Winterson uses physical mimesis to make the resemblance between the fictional Bunny Mix and the present Barbara Cartland striking.
The last character of the first group is Mrs Munde, Gloria’s mother, who cooks for Noah (16). Jeanette Winterson describes her as a fanatic in the novel (15). The second group comprises Gloria, Marlene Desi and Doris. Gloria is eighteen (1), she is not beautiful (1); she is unbalanced (16). Gloria can be said to reflect the author’s point of view. Eileen Wanquet points out that Gloria and Jeanette Winterson have the same relationship with their mothers, therefore there are both concerned with their personal development. Doris has been “hired by Noah to help with the arrangements” (23), was doing the dusting (23) is the “organic philosopher”(24), who comes in competition with Northrop Frye.
She follows the development of Gloria and says Gloria “I see you’re on the second stage” (48). She also leads Gloria to open her eyes: “I ‘m teaching her to be poetic while she teach herself to be analytic” (71) According to Eileen Wanquet: Marlene is a grotesque character, a case of mistaken identity or of metamorphosis, that is at one point linked to a “monstrous batlike creation” with “wings” (75). Her every appearance assures the reader of another juicy episode and language. She/he is an over-sensitive, neurotic transsexual (96), a man who has had breasts added a penis removed, but who is nostalgic for that penis, whining to have her “sleeping snake” back “for decoration”. 37) The Biblical characters become actors playing their own roles in their pre-written story. (…) It is clear Noah who masters the discourse. Because the revision of the Genesis is presented in a dialogue between Bunny Mix and Noah, Noah using the first person and Bunny Mix the second person singular. Noah revises Genesis for posterity, in collaboration with Bunny Mix (137-138). As Author, film director and inventor of the whole story, he is perfectly conscious of his power. Not only Jeanette Winterson re-writes the story of the bible using puns and metaphors, but she also succeeds in caricatures all the characters of the Bible, which make the reader laugh from beginning to end. We can say that fact and fiction interact.
Real life is a text and the language and discourse come first. History follows no divine plan. History is the great metanarratives of man history. Man is not progressing in a linear faction. For Eileen Wanquet, “ not only is linear time destabilised by a dizzying contortion, but space also is decentred”. And Linda Hutcheon adds that: “ Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to say that the postmodern’s initial concern is to de-naturalize some of the dominant features of our way of life; to point out that those entities that we unthinkingly experience as “natural” are in fact” cultural” made by us, not given to us. Even nature, postmodernism might point out, doesn’t grow on trees. 2) “The postmodern is not a degeneration into ‘hyperreality’ but a questioning of what reality can mean and how we can come to know it. ” Terry R. Wright says in the Genesis of fiction: modern novelists as biblical interpreters: “I chose Jeanette Winterson partly because she provides interesting answers to this question: why should you wan to read what I left out? (asks Gaffer in Michel Roberts’s novel, The Book of Mrs Noah, page 70), and partly because of the self-consciously allusive and intertextual manner of her writing which engages productively not only with the Bible but with the work of literary critics of the bible such as Harold Bloom and Northon Frye”.
Indeed, Jeannette Winterson puts on stage famous people like, Martin Amis (22), an English novelist, son of Kingsley Amis who was part of the group called the Angry young men; Cliff Richards, a pop song signer of the 1960s (28); Joan of Ark, a national heroine of France and a Catholic saint, or Mary Baker Eddy, the Founder of the Christian Science movement, (25); David Allen, who makes documentary films, James Thurber, a short story writer and a cartoonist; Thomas Hardy, a realistic novelist; Freud, the famous psychoanalyst; Hitchcock, a famous (81) Marilyn Monroe, a famous American actress (44, 72, 104), Northrop Frye (44) and Einstein, the famous scientist who invented the hydrogen bomb (100). She also refers to Bizet’s opera, Carmen (28); to famous magazines like Vague (60), the Socialist Worker Party Magazine (22), Social State Nineveh (12); to well known places like Pizza hut, a restaurant; Milton Keynes, a large town in Buckinghamshire, in the south east of England; soap opera like Dallas (100). Eileen Wanquet in Etudes Britanniques et contemporaines writes a good summary of the novel: Winterson not only resituates the events leading up to the Flood, but also shows how they were recorded for posterity, making both “fiction about story” and fiction about its own historically relative construction of history” (Connor 142-43).
Noah and God are going to collaborate on “ manuscript that would be a kind of global history from the beginning of time…” the first two volumes” of which are entitled “Genesis” and “Exodus” the narrator explains that Noah had decided to “dramatise” the first two books, using his sons as actors and bringing in a famous writer of romantic fiction, Bunny Mix, “to add (…) romantic interest (20), adding that “a film company would be putting the whole thing on camera, not just the play itself but the making of the play” (20). Indeed, the story is repeatedly cast in language of the world of cinema, theatre and advertising. (…) Thus Winterson’s rewriting of the Flood presents the events it relates not as real facts, but as a story of the making of a film about a play about a book. (…)God will force Noah to “rewrite the world” (124). Furious because he hadn’t been consulted about the film and hasn’t got a contract (90). God decides to flood the world “for real” (90), telling Noah: “We can change the book, put it out under a new cover” …(91).
Whereas the ark was in reality made out of fibre-glass, Noah writes that it was “made of gopher wood” (137) and, with the deliberate aim of deceiving future generations, he actually gathers bits of wood and “plant(s) them on top of Mount Ararat” (151). In Boating for Beginners, the metafiction can be summarized in three acts: the written, the play and the making of the play. The chronological order of the events is upside down, which can be juxtaposed with Eileen Wanquet ideas: The main story is framed by an epigraph and by an epilogue and it is introduced by a reflexive paragraph on twelve page. All three are situated at the same metafictionnal level, set off from the main narrative, marked by italics and realistically rooted in the Britain of the 1980s. The story telling is thus historically situated after the Creation and before the Flood.
Winterson further manipulates time and space, by anachronistically setting the story of Noah in a different historical period; namely a highly capitalistic twentieth-century society. Thatcher’s Conservative Britain of the 1980s with its marked return to laissez-faire economics merges with the Middle East, both past and present. The whole novel refers to contemporary preoccupations like plastic surgery, which highlights our current obsessions with beauty; the frozen food; sexuality and social games. Everything is mixed in Boating for Beginners, all these things have been carefully and cleverly hinted by Jeanette Winterson to make us think and not believe everything in the novel.
She warns us against the real truth; her novel is not a message but an enigma, which as a reader you have to find. In our modern history, we tend to take what history and science tell us for granted. But Hayden White argues that History is different from science, consequently the reader is not gullible and his cultural background enables him to deconstruct the novel. Therefore, history has a lot of similarities with fiction. Jeanette Winterson highlights the fact that we are made by fiction. In Boating for Beginners, Noah says “if we‘ve got a new world we can tell them anything. (…) Who’s to say we’re lying? ” (110-11). Winterson wants to points out that a text is a anguage, we have the image of a theatre and a play. As John Berger (1972a: 47) put in: “men act and women appear. ” Hayden White argues that “I believe, the historian performs an essentially poetic act, in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear the specific theories he will use to explain what ‘was really happening ‘in it. ’(1973:px). Jeanette Winterson ardently defends the poetry of myth: Myths hook and bind the mind because at the same time they set the mind free: they explain the universe while allowing the universe to go on being unexplained; and we seem to need this even now, in our twentieth century grandeur.
The Bible writers didn’t care that they were bunching together sequences some of which were historical, some preposterous and some downright manipulative. Faithful recording was not their business; faith was. They set it out in order to create a certain effect, and did it so well that we’re still arguing about it. Every believer is an anarchist at heart. (66) The re-writing of the Bible is also deconstructed in the novel when Paula Youens, the illustrator of the book, makes a parody of hieroglyphs . For Hawthorn, “Hayden White makes it quite clear that stories are always imposed by human beings on events in the world”. That is also the main idea of Jeanette Winterson in this novel. That’s why the bible is compared to romance .
The literary genre of romance is made fun of with cliches of a beautiful heroine called Naomi (41) falling in love with a rich and handsome man in an idyllic place, the obstacles are overcome and the happy ending closes the text: “he took her hands”. “Will you marry me just as soon as it dries out” (41). In other words, the novel is a pastiche of romance where Bunny Mix falls in love with Noah, a “spherical man”. As Linda Hutcheon explains in Ironie, Satire, parody, “parody is not necessarily mocking and a target is not always the previous text, which only helps as a mean to criticize contemporary society and turns it into what she calls “ Satire Parody””.
For Eileen Wanquet, both ‘historiographic metafiction ’ and ‘new baroque ” use fantasy and frivolity to make serious comments on the world and that they are but the “two” side of the same coin”, perhaps typifying one of the main directions taken by contemporary fiction “at the crossroads”, to use David Lodge terms. And Christy L. Burns adds that: Winterson goes on to criticize believers who are too literal in their claims, but here she focuses on the “faith” derived from the more fantastic elements of literature, which “binds’ the mind without limiting it to only the purest fact. Winterson fantasy in to her critique of contemporary desensitization the reader’s own “real” political and social context. She achieves this by disrupting the reader ‘s escape from reality, persistently haunting her characters’ voices with references to reading, writing, and the impact of art. The challenge of traditional discourses is one of Jeanette Winterson’s battlefields.
In this way, the people who write the genesis will be the people in power. Winterson deconstructs patriarchy and reveals the secret function. She is challenging the one truth. She highlights the fact that three girls will survive and challenge the truth. Generally speaking everything comes from the people in power. Noah is the master of manipulation. Here the women like Doris, Gloria, Marlene and Desi are put on side. In patriarchal society woman like Bunny Mix is accepted and recognised because she is not disturbing and most of all she is superficial. Jeanette Winterson criticises the patriarchal society. The text shows how the “jarring witnesses ” is disturbing. Winterson uses a feminist discourse in her novel.
The novel has a plot, which includes Noah, his sons and his son’s wives and a subplot depicted by the “jarring witnesses,” which includes Gloria, Desi, Marlene and Doris. The feminist discourse can be seen in the way she gives Gloria the chance to grow up. It reminds me of the allegory of the Cavern by Plato, Gloria realises that the world cannot be resumed by popular romance, what she has often read. At the end of the novel, we realize that Gloria evolves from a “coarse” (36) to a “fully rounded person (55). In the whole novel, the point of view of Gloria is inexistent and she is passive. For example, she has to be a zookeeper to comply with her mother’s will. At the beginning, she is not autonomous and ill-at-ease in society. When she begins to work, she starts to be self confident and fends for herself.
What is also surprising in this novel is the way she criticises the realistic novel. Traditional novel are always concerns with binary opposition between good and evil, reason and passion. Jeanette Winterson deconstructs this binary vision and criticises Charlotte Bronte (132), when she makes allusion to “inspiring saga about a cripple and his nurse”. This novel is not an omniscient narrator voice, there are several characters with different point of views. All the voices interrelate with one another without a particular order. The “jarring witnesses” are not included in the official discourse. Many feminists have perceived the bible as a founding of female oppression. That is to say the women have a secondary role.
For Eileen Wanquet, “In the Creation scene Noah makes the three wives, Sheila Desi and Rita, wear false nose, wigs and teeth. (50-51) to be as ugly as possible (51), so they remind the spectators of the witches in Macbeth. Women’s exclusion from the biblical discourse and their secret survival are also farcically illustrated. The women are not told about the flood, but are knocked over the head and taken along by force (140). (…) But Desi manages to outwit her husband, discovers the secret plot and warns Gloria, Doris and Marlene. The four rebels prepare a counter survival act, to avoid a future with those “lunatics” (115). It is these women who unmask the version of the Genesis.
Thus Boating for Beginners uses surprise and laughter to deconstruct this bedrock of civilisation that has privileged the masculine over the years with the aim of given a different version of the same story, of “rewriting wrong” (Connor 198). It illustrates that imagination has the power to disrupt tyranny of a reality, fiction is more truth revealing than History or myth, which “explain the universe while allowing universe to go on being unexplained” (66). “The challenge to patriarchy must also be a challenge toe established modes of representation and writing, in so far these always evolved under and therefore been contaminated by patriarchy” (Gibson 174). (…)The target of the novel is not only the male model of the self, which relegates women to the role of the other.
It also attacks feminists who try to imitate men, thereby lapsing back to masculine symbolic, resetting the trap of rigid gender identities. What Winterson seems to propose is a radical change in perception, a liberation from the very notion of either/or. (…) The novel is implicitly ethical, because by comically and baroquely challenging a whole life-style founded on what Ostriker call the “Ur-text of patriarchy” , by showing how we should not be and live, Winterson is specifically addressing the question of how men and women should be and live. Therefore Eileen Wanquet enhances that: The Ark a caricature of patriarchal capitalist society, is in reality a technically sophisticated and luxurious yacht, filled with useless aterialistic objects, like games, alcohol, televisions sets, cars, one-armed bandits, all of which represent the superficial civilization of a childish, irresponsible, selfish, dishonest, and petty group of men. The type of woman let on the Ark is represented by Bunny Mix, the writer of Harlequin romance, who is caricature of femininity as male construction. Her name is a combination of that given to a hostess in a Playboy Club and “of myxomatosis,” the disease so fatal to rabbits: by collaborating with men, she has contributed to murdering her own kind. It is a way to question traditional conceptions like time and space. The real world is a mixture of references in order to stress that the world come to us through the words and the text. Everything is textual; the fact that reality is discourse and ideology.
As far as Eileen Wanquet is concerned: “More generally and fundamentally Jeanette Winterson denounces all forms of tyranny- of totalitarism, fanaticism, of fundamentalism- all monologic discourse (see Reynier 26) and all belief in a unique legitimating Truth. She unmasks what Rene Girarg, in Des Choses caches depuis la fondation du monde, calls the “victimization” process set up in Biblical discourse, whereby scapegoats and marginal groups are unjustly condemned in order to ensure the survival of a dominant group. Thus historical discourse is comically shown to be partial and selective. Finally we can say that She takes into account Lacan’s idea.
Lacan thought that man was made through language that means the language precedes man. Jeanette Winterson deconstructs the myth of the Bible and proves that there is not one truth, everything can be and must be always questioned. What can be History with a capital “H”, if every historians study not only the fact but also the “jarring witnesses”: will it be a world of Utopia or are we still living in Orientalism world? Bibliography: ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA (Hardcover – Jan. 1, 1961) BURNS, Christy L. Jeanette Winterson’s Recovery of the Postmodern Word. Contemporary Literature, vol. 37, No. 2 (Summer, 1996), pp 278-306 EDMUND, J. Smith. Postmodernism and Contemporary Fiction. London: Batsford, 1991. GALLIX, F. Genres et categories du roman Britannique contemporain, Paris, Armand Calvi, 1998, p. 169-186. HAWTHORN, Jeremy. Cunning Passages: New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and Marxism in the Contemporary Literacy Debate. New York: Arnold, 1996. HOLTON, Robert. Jarring Witnesses: Modern Fiction and the Representation of History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. HUTCHEON, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2002. LODGE, David. T LYOTARD, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984, reprint 1997. REGARD, Frederic. L’ecriture feminine en Angleterre. Paris: PUF, 2002. REYNIER,Christine.
Jeanette Winterson, Le Miracle Ordinaire. Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, Pessac 2004. WILLIAMS-WANQUET, Eileen. Jeanette Winterson’s Boating for Beginners: Both New Baroque and Ethics. Etudes Britanniques contemporaines numero 23, 2002. ——–Towards Defining “Postrealism”, a Re-Writing of the Bible as “Parodic Satire”: Jeanette Winterson’s Boating for Beginners. Journal of Narrative Theory 36. 3 (Fall 2006): 389-419. WHITE, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973. WINTERSON, Jeanette. Boating for Beginners (1985), Minerva, 1990. https://www. jeanettewinterson. com/