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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The PowerBook

Jeanette Winterson

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To purchase The PowerBook

Title: The PowerBook
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 289 pages
Availability: The PowerBook - US
The PowerBook - UK
The PowerBook - Canada
The PowerBook - India
Powerbook - France
Das Powerbook - Deutschland
PowerBook - Italia
El powerbook - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine writing and neat flights of fancy, but not entirely satisfactory

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 28/8/2000 Victoria Glendinning
The Economist . 2/9/2000 .
FAZ . 26/7/2002 Stefan Welz
The Guardian B 2/9/2000 Elaine Showalter
The Independent B- 2/9/2000 E. Jane Dickson
London Review of Books . 7/9/2000 Jenny Turner
The LA Times . 5/11/2000 S. Salter Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. B- 19/11/2000 David Galef
The Observer A 27/8/2000 Kate Kellaway
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/11/2000 Brian Bouldrey
The Scotsman A 2/9/2000 Ali Smith
The Spectator A+ 9/9/2000 Teresa Waugh
The Sunday Times D 27/8/2000 Phil Baker
TLS . 1/9/2000 Kasia Boddy

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Some in raptures, some don't see what the fuss could possibly be about. Lots do mention that Winterson covers familiar ground here.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Winterson has her own unmistakeable voice, tuned to express her obsessional preoccupation with sexual passion raised to the power of revealed religion. (...) The whole book is a kind of chant. It is a playful addition to the Winterson oeuvre. Yet it is not a slight work so much as, homonymically, a work of sleight- - a word for which the Shorter OED gives six definitions, ranging from trickery to wisdom, all of which apply to The.PowerBook." - Victoria Glendinning, Daily Telegraph

  • "(Winterson's) reader has less need than she thinks for all those passages of gnomic dialogue and sonorous commentary." - The Economist

  • "Wintersons Roman zeugt von implodierter Erzählfreude. Zwar gibt es da noch die zahlreichen Geschichten, die an frühere Bücher der Autorin erinnern. Aber nur einige geglückte Bonmots über Liebe, Tod und Sex heben sich von der grauen Textmasse ab." - Stefan Welz, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The.PowerBook retells the same story of adulterous bisexual love that she has been writing throughout the decade. Her obsession with the romantic triangle takes place on a higher aesthetic and intellectual level than the obsessions of this year's popular fiction, but like any of the candy-coloured novels about relationships stacked on the tables of London bookshops, it is still literary junk food. Despite a capacity for exquisite erotic prose, high intelligence and an inspiring commitment to serious art, Winterson is becoming a mannered novelist with nothing to say." - Elaine Showalter, The Guardian

  • "In this instance, however, Winterson's grunting and straining after greatness is downright distressing to the reader. (...) By the time the world-class novelist gets to the bit where she's wondering if "it's the tension between longing and aloneness that I need", you can practically hear the virtual snores of her companion." - E. Jane Dickson, The Independent

  • "The.PowerBook is not methodologically new. Except that it isn't really a novel anyway. It's more like a set of short stories being marketed as a novel (.....) Except that it isn't even a set of short stories. It's more like a bundle of bits and pieces, nicely laid out, signed, numbered and bound in home-splodged cardboard and sold as an artist's book at a private gallery in the West End. It's a half-finished, collectors-only artefact which has somehow stumbled into mass-market circulation. It's close, in fact, to not being a book at all. Yet it keeps afloat, somehow. It just about prevails." - Jenny Turner, London Review of Books

  • "The Powerbook is a manifesto for bravery in love. (...) It contains beautiful writing but too much manifesto. One wishes more than ever that Winterson would resist her impulse to write, then explain, write, then explain." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(T)he taut lyricism of Sexing the Cherry and her other early novels has gone slack, and the jump-cuts don't work. (...) Despite the computer-age title, the novel's best parts are grounded in real characters and places." - David Galef, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The computer is, for (Winterson), a conceit, an invitation to explore, a way of making narratives come and go faster than the speed of light. It never holds her up or back. Her writing is graceful, jargon-free, light as thistledown. (...) Winterson writes with evangelical assurance, vaulting ambition, total control. Sometimes the book reads like a DIY bible. She is the only one with her hands on the keyboard." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "Certainly, it's Winterson's intention to pull the rug out from under the reader, to reawaken jaded senses. But with so much power taken away, where can a reader find his footing? Winterson wants you to be empowered by The Powerbook (.....) The reader, though, needs just a little bit more of a role in that interactive play. Still, Winterson is way ahead of most writers in finding new ways to tell a story." - Brian Bouldrey, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The.PowerBook is remarkably good-humoured, perhaps precisely because it lacks the grand gesturing of other Winterson fictions. It is not a coup de foudre, nothing so momentary or shocking or sudden; it is drawn to more subtle powers. It is light, stripped, meandering, rich and odd. It celebrates appetite simply, ceremonially. It is less aphoristic than other works of hers. Instead, crucially and with truly metamorphic consequence, Winterson allows for dialogue." - Ali Smith, The Scotsman

  • "The sparkling originality of Jeanette Winterson's new novel, The.PowerBook, is all the more enjoyable for being, despite its extraordinary flights of fantasy and a rich mixture of literary and historical references, entirely unpretentious. This writer may sometimes have been accused of showing off, but if she is doing so here, it is with such wit and subtlety and so much for the reader's pleasure that it is a joy." - Teresa Waugh, The Spectator

  • "This mystic grandiosity is not matched by the quality of the writing. It is ordinary, even banal, while constantly reaching out towards half-baked aphorisms, paradoxes and profundities (.....) There are brief flashes that are as good as Winterson's earlier work, but they are few and far between. On the run or not, Winterson has lost her way." - Phil Baker, The Sunday Times

  • "The.PowerBook, as its fashionably dotted title suggests, uses the language of computers, but thankfully, apart from the chapter headings, this is all rather lightly done. Some of the images are obvious (...) But other formulations are less predictable" - Kasia Boddy, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Titled The PowerBook, and with chapters such as "OPEN HARD DRIVE", "SEARCH", and "VIEW AS ICON" (as well as "EMPTY TRASH"), Jeanette Winterson's novel suggests that it completely embraces the new technological world order. Indeed, the only surprise is that there isn't an ON/OFF switch somewhere, or that it doesn't come solely in e-book form. But never fear, Winterson is a traditionalist and all she is really looking for is an excuse to tell her stories. Form is largely window-dressing, and The PowerBook turns out to be reassuringly (and in some respects, disappointingly) old-fashioned.
       This is a novel told in the ether of the Internet, narrated by Ali (or Alix), a writer at a keyboard. Contacted by e-mail Ali will conjure up stories for you and send them to your computer. "What happened to the omniscient author ?" one of the characters asks. "Gone interactive" is the reply (in one of the book's cleverer exchanges). The stories are not mere fabulations: those they are intended for figure in these made-to-order stories. Readers say what they desire -- but art is as unpredictable as life, and so they often get something that is completely different from what they anticipated. Ali's art is transformative and, at least in some ways, liberating.
       The writer also figures prominently, as Ali's own story is recounted, the novel alternating between possible realities and inventions -- with fact and fiction lapping over another, like water-waves coming from two separate directions.
       Winterson covers familiar territory in both the stories and Ali's apparently autobiographical accounts. From fables with princesses to autobiographical scenes from childhood (adopted by stern religious folk who own a Muck Midden) to sexually ambiguous seductions to the art and craft of writing, Winterson offers scenes and sentiments (especially about love and passion) that would fit almost as easily in her other fictions. As Ali explains (when asked about a work in progress):

"What is it about ?"
"Boundaries. Desires."
"What are your other books about ?"
"Boundaries. Desires."
       Familiar or not, these stories -- or scenes, or even mere pictures -- are often small marvels. Winterson is a writer of considerable talent, and she conjures up many wonderful things. From a neat early episode of tulip-smuggling (by Ali, in 1591 -- Winterson's characters, like her stories, insist on timelessness) to life at Muck House or an overview of Spitalfields Winterson offers some fine nuggets here.
       Sexual ambiguity takes on another dimension in The PowerBook as well, though Winterson is more successful with tried and true variations (such as the tulip-smuggling) than that which masks itself merely behind the anonymity of the Internet. Even the narrator's identity is coyly disguised at first, behind layers of anonymity:
"Who are you ?"
"Call me Ali."
"Is that your real name ?"
"Real enough."
"Male or female ?"
"Does it matter ?"
"It's a co-ordinate."
"This is a virtual world."
       Which gets us to part of the problem -- not the virtual world (Winterson handles that well enough, long used to the virtual world of art), but rather the dialogue in the book. There is a lot of dialogue, including a great deal of lovers' repartee (as Ali finds and loses and follows passion and love), almost all of it clipped speech that is too clever by half. Winterson aims for poignancy but rarely achieves more than pretentiousness. This bedroom banter and these lovers' declarations get mighty hard to take, and Winterson's book is decidedly at its weakest in her framing story of Ali's search for love and passion. Everything else -- the variations of reminiscences as well as the invented tales and the observations -- is generally solid, but love (or at least the discussion of love, of which there is a great deal) pulls it down.
       The PowerBook is, nominally, a novel and the pieces do fit together in some larger whole, but it is an uneasy fit. Like a hypertext pasted in an album, perhaps. Winterson can write exceptionally well and much of what is on offer here is maddeningly good, but they are perfect fragments adrift in the muck. The author should have spent less time with the cut-and-paste feature of her word-processing programme and concentrated on the writing. When she does that she can still dazzle -- as she does, occasionally, here. But there is a lot to be said for a more fully formed story (and not a mere agglomeration of stories and story-bits) -- what used to be known as a novel. And if Winterson means to turn away from that, to show the potential of the new, well, she fails in that regard as well. The PowerBook challenges the approach to art and writing (as Winterson's books almost invariably do), but it is almost completely indifferent to the influence or possibilities of modern technology, Ali's cyber-fiction notwithstanding.
       The PowerBook is a short read, and worthwhile, but it never really comes together.

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The PowerBook: The PowerBook - the play: Reviews: Jeanette Winterson: Other books by Jeanette Winterson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959. She won the 1985 Whitbread Award for best first novel (for Oranges are not the only Fruit), the 1987 John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and the 1989 E.M.Forster Award, among others.

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