Monday, November 05, 2001

Jane Smiley and Jeanette Winterson

I want to talk to you this morning about two very different authors, both contemporary but so different in style and content. Though both have written several novels, I am going to talk about only two, a relatively old book by Jeanette Winterson (published in ‘85) and a quite new one by Jane Smiley (published in 2000). The Winterson novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was her first, and it won the prestigious Whitbread prize for first fiction. Jane Smiley’s latest book, Horse Heaven, once again establishes her brilliance and her intense preparation.

I recently reread Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit because I am using it as supplemental reading in a philosophy of religion class. Although philosophers concern themselves primarily with the question of the role of reason in establishing religious beliefs, and thus concentrate primarily on the so-called proofs for the existence of a god or gods, it seems clear to me that questions about the social, moral, and political consequences of religious beliefs are far more important in the long run. And while it is of some value to talk in the abstract about the opiating effects of religious beliefs, about the ways in which they can induce a kind of moral lethargy or blindness, it is often far more effective to look at the effects of religious self righteousness on an individual or community. Jeannette Winterson, like the heroine in her coming of age novel, grew up in a obsessively religious household with a mother far more concerned about the converting of the black heathen in Africa than about cultivating tolerance for those around her. Again like the real Jeanette, this little girl is groomed to become a missionary and go forth, not so much to do the lord’s work, as to do her mother’s work, to enlarge the mother’s already much inflated vision of herself and her goodness.

The book is written in a fanciful and rather childlike manner and would seem simply a well drawn comedy caricaturizing a religious sense of being chosen were it not for the horrible effects it has on the little girl. The heroine, also (and not coincidentally) named Jeanette, seems to be turning out just fine in the cookie-cutter image her mother has for her until poor Jeanette discovers that she has unnatural passions, i.e., instead of being drawn only to Jesus, or, at worst, to boys, she is drawn to girls! Jeanette is, to say the least, confused over the reactions of her mother, the preacher, and the congregation. She is convinced (as she should be) that to the pure, all things are pure, and certainly the intense love she has for her girlfriend is good and pure. She knows in her heart that there is a spiritual dimension to her love and that the physical and spiritual blend perfectly; neither girl takes advantage of the other, neither disconnects body and spirit. But, of course, the reactions of her mother and the religious congregation are ones of fear and outrage. Jeanette is essentially kidnapped and forced into a kind of brainwashing session, denied food and sleep as the preacher works to exorcise the devils in her. Her girlfriend is spirited away, shamed and convinced (as Jeanette is not) that her desires have, indeed, been devils working inside her.

Although her mother and the preacher believe that the exorcism has taken and Jeannette is allowed back into the congregation, she knows from the outset that the sickness is not in her. When she again ‘slips’, allowing her very natural affections their way, she is ostracized completely, excommunicated and pronounced impure—quite literally turned out by her mother and shunned by almost all who were her family in her small community.

Initially, while Jeanette lingers in ecclesiastical quarantine, her pastor (staggered by the immensity of the problem and feeling incapable of dealing with such a gargantuan issue) turns the problem over to the council. They, in their divinely guided wisdom conclude, “The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teachings of St. Paul, and allowing women power in the church.” But of course, strong, uppity women, descendants of Eve—therein lies the problem.

Fortunately, the little girl in the story, much like the real Jeanette, is a strong and uppity woman who sees that the real problem is in the contemptible self-righteousness of the religion, the ignorance and fear and closed mindedness. She leaves her home, her religion, and the family who adopted her behind and moves on into the larger world.

You will quickly see as you read this little book why it is such an appropriate aid in helping students to see some of the ways in which religion, while claiming to be the holder of the moral torch, instead so often invites moral blindness. Though it is not quite as charming as I remember it on first reading, it is an excellent book, and short enough to be ideally suited to the busy city reader.

I will not say much about Jane Smiley’s newest novel, Horse Heaven. While I enjoyed it a lot, and take it to be another proof of Smiley’s enormous talents as a writer, it is a very long and complicated novel with literally dozens of characters that must be kept in mind. In A Thousand Acres and Barn Blind, Smiley showed us that she knows farm life intricately, just as she shows us equally clearly how well she understood university life in the seventies with her hilarious and perceptive Moo. Horse Heaven is a book about the racing of thoroughbred horses—about training them, owning them, loving them, even communicating with them. Like Iris Murdoch, Smiley does not hesitate at all to talk through the eyes of animals, and at least I as a reader had no doubts at all that I was getting the real scoop as I listened to the horse-talk.

There are some interesting undercurrents about the utter shallowness and frivolity of the rich in this novel and of the contempt for the ignorant rich owners by horse trainers and others involved with the rearing and racing of the horses, but the focus really is on the magnificent horses. It is so clear that Smiley knows what she is talking about, and that she has spent literally thousands of hours around racetracks and racehorses.

I doubt that Old Mole listeners are much into horse races; I know I certainly was not until I read this book. But I found myself fascinated by the Breeders Cup in late October, knowing as I had not before, that this is the king of horse races for those in the know, eclipsing the Kentucky Derby, and what is referred to as the Triple Crown. Breeders, owners, trainers and the devotees key towards this set of races (I think eight races, all held on the same day in New York). I found myself unable to keep in my seat as I watched these races of different lengths, on different turfs, and with horses from all over the world. Certainly, Smiley has opened a new window for me, and now I know what horses would say if they could talk.

Would I recommend this book? Well, certainly I would to Smiley fans. She is one of the really great writers of our times, and she has the political and social savvy required of great writers. Still, this is a very long book, almost six hundred pages, and because of the staggering number of characters and complexity of events, it needs to be read in quite a concentrated period of time—not over the weeks or months needed by many limited-time city-readers. So, take a look at it if you can, save it up for a vacation, or perhaps just put it on your ‘maybe’ list.

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