The PowerBook Emily Banner Book Lovers

book The PowerBook

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 52 ~ September, 2001

Yesterday, as I was considering how to begin my review of The
, a friend spotted the book on my coffee table. “Jeanette
Winterson!” she exclaimed. “She’s a great writer.” I agreed, and we
got to talking, and we found that we had both been disappointed by
Winterson’s recent work. My friend then picked up The
opened to a page at random, and read aloud:

You are a looking-glass world. You are the hidden place that opens
to me on the other side of the glass. I touch your smooth surface
and then my fingers sink through to the other side. You are what
the mirror reflects and invents. I see myself, I see you, two, one,

“That could be a quote from any one of her novels,” I observed.

“Exactly,” said my friend. And I realized what had been bothering me
all along.

Jeanette Winterson is a formidably gifted writer, and I mean
formidable in the sense of inspiring respect and awe, but also in the
sense of difficult to overcome. Because her great strengths –
which include a keen intellect mixed with an affinity for new ideas, a
facility with language, and the ease of a born storyteller – can
also work against her, as I’m sorry to say they do here.

The PowerBook is a loosely constructed work that centers on
Ali, a writer who bears no small resemblance to Winterson herself. In
the evenings Ali turns on her computer and spins out stories, moving
as freely through history, legend, and geography as she does through
cyberspace, looking for the lover she keeps writing about. This lover
appears sometimes as “she,” sometimes as “you,” and sometimes as any
of a host of famous or invented characters (Guinevere to Ali’s
Lancelot, Paolo to Ali’s Francesca, etc.) from the world’s wealth of
“great and ruinous lovers.” Sometimes this lover drops out of the
novel entirely, and it’s hard to tell if we are still reading about
Ali or just tripping through yet another story that is unconnected to
the rest. As a whole, the novel has all the cohesiveness of the world
wide web – a comparison Winterson invites, via repeated
references to the internet and her computer – wherein a mighty
conglomeration of stories and facts coexist, and what you think is an
innocent click may take you someplace altogether different from where
you were before. As Ali warns, “‘If I start this story, it may change
under my hands.'”

This is a risky thing to do with a novel, but Winterson has taken
risks before and they’ve paid off. Sexing the Cherry and The
both mix magical realism with historical and contemporary
romance, and Written on the Body is a love story told by a
first person narrator whose sex is never revealed. All of these are
marvelous books, the more so for their flouting of narrative
conventions. They are expertly written and tightly structured, and the
risks they take are integral to the stories they tell. Not so with
The PowerBook
. Here the writing soars in places only to seem sadly
amateurish in others; here there is no structure to speak of, and only
a sketch of a plot. And the conceit of designing a book to mimic the
world wide web, while an interesting idea – and while it could
justify the disparate elements that make up this novel – seems
incidental to The PowerBook‘s central love story. True, the
story of Ali and her beloved can be seen in every tale The
tells us, but it can also be seen in any Winterson

There are moments of self-reference in The PowerBook in which
Winterson acknowledges this. At one point Ali’s lover asks her what
her new book is about, and she replies:

“Boundaries. Desire.”

“What are your other books about?”

“Boundaries. Desire.”

“Can’t you write about something else?”


As a description of the author’s oeuvre, this is admirably succinct.
(Earlier in the novel, Ali offers alternative love stories for someone
who isn’t enjoying hers, suggesting first Romeo and Juliet, then
Wuthering Heights, then Heat and Dust, and finally The
.) Knowing that she’s repeating herself, however, does not
absolve Winterson of repeating herself. She may be among the best at
writing about passionate love in multifarious settings, but she’s done it
so often before that she’s verging on self-parody.

The PowerBook does have some genuinely great spots. There are
sections where you can be swept away by the storytelling, and passages
that shine with real compassion and insight. The pieces of history,
folklore, myth, and pop culture that get incorporated into the novel
are a fascinating collection of human moments, and one senses that the
world can never be boring with Jeanette Winterson in it.

One also senses, though, that Winterson has gotten lax with herself.
With another year of revision, and more stringent standards on the
part of her editor, The PowerBook might have been a superb
novel. As it is, it’s an interesting mess.

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Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.