30 January 2013

Carrying the Weight: Jeanette Winterson's Atlas

In 2005, Jeanette Winterson published Weight. The second book I read in 2013, I felt a sense of relief at reaching something in my to-read list based on Greek mythology. Weight is a slim volume with wide margins, but it more than makes up for that in content.

I enjoy novels that include context at the beginning, so here: Winterson was contacted to write this as part of a series that includes writers such as Margaret Atwood and David Grossman, simply called “The Myths series.”

Winterson chose to retell the story of Atlas. Having read three of her novels, I was definitely prepared to find something slightly weird. Fewer people know about her work than they should, as is the case with many women speculative writers—but conversely, I try not to think about her more recent work because its philosophy is highly disturbing, much like a fun house mirror, and starts the mind wandering in bottomless directions. (The Stone Gods kept me awake for hours after I finished reading it. It’s one of those books that just leaves you staring at the ceiling wondering, Why?! And you don’t realize it’s going to be that kind of book until halfway through.)

In the introduction, Winterson claims that she framed the work as an exploration of loneliness (page xiv). In this context, Atlas proves the perfect prisoner. He must hold up the entire Kosmos alone, suspended in nothingness.

Winterson draws on the physical cosmos in her writing, much in the same way that many modern polytheists show images of the breathtaking beauty of the universe to illustrate points. There is a certain sublime quality in science that lends itself quite beautifully to myth and religion. Winterson recognizes this. She holds the two ideas in her head at the same time. Atlas holds up the Kosmos, but the Earth is spinning around the Sun, which in turn hangs in an uncertain place in our rapidly-expanding universe.

To me, Herakles is the most exciting piece of the novel. Whereas we know that Atlas is isolated and take that isolation for granted, Herakles comes to relieve Atlas of his burden, if only for a short time—and he suffers. Or, “His body was as strong as Atlas’s, but his nature was not. Hera was right about him there. Herakles's strength was a cover for his weakness” (p. 59).

In Weight, Herakles holds up the Kosmos, where all he must do is wait for Atlas to return. Winterson's Herakles doesn't do that very often: he distracts himself with pleasure and heroism. Standing still, he cannot help but move his mind in directions he hasn't quite fathomed and experiences an existential crisis.

Herakles also masturbates while talking to Hera in one scene.

I highly recommend reading this book. Winterson has actual mythological fluency and an understanding of philosophy, which means that she succeeds where a lot of other writers don’t during myth rewrites.


Anonymous said...

Thanks! Once I finish some of my other books, I'll check this out.

Grace said...

I think I should read this book, thanks Kaye...