Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

By Jeanette Winterson

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Magazine, February 2012

Isaiah Berlin split intellectuals into two groups: foxes, who know a great deal about many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing. But I wonder if there isn’t a third type, too, mysterious and misunderstood: the individual who knows a great deal about one thing—and that thing is herself. Narcissism has nothing to do with it. This is a specialty that usually signals deprivation: In the absence of other people, the self was all there was to study.

Such is the lot and genius of Jeanette Winterson. Her novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince a colossal stamina for self-scrutiny. In her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she returns to the source, her grim girlhood in a sooty English industrial town in the 1960s, to tell her story more forthrightly than she has before. But because this is Winterson, naturally she begins by taking a truncheon to the form.

From the first page, it’s clear that this isn’t mere memoir. It’s too stylish and stylized. Horror and camp commingle. Here’s our introduction to Winterson’s Gorgon of an adoptive mother: “She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father.”

Winterson is as concerned with aesthetics as authenticity. Style is king when you’re trying to wrest control of the narrative. And narrative, in the Winterson household, was contested territory. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against [my mother’s],” she writes. “Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives.” Continue reading