"Gut Symmetries," by Jeanette Winterson. Knopf. 240 pages. $22.
The poetry of physics has become the stuff of novels. Martin Amis dabbles in it. Alan Lightman revels in it. And in "Gut Symmetries," Jeanette Winterson embraces it with love.
Two of the characters in her new novel's love triangle are physicists, the third a poet, and she uses science, astrology and the Tarot to frame a fable enveloped in mysticism. When all the stardust is stripped away, however, the story is slender, even silly, built as it is on coincidence (or fate, which one character calls "a useful excuse"). But Winterson's verbal supernovas are a story in themselves.
She sums up the love triangle mathematically: "If you want to know how a mistress marriage works, ask a triangle. In Euclidean geometry the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees and parallel lines never meet. ..." Unfortunately, Euclidean theorems work only if space is flat.
"In curved space, the angles over-add themselves and parallel lines always meet.
"His wife, his mistress, met."
In such a story, the potential for anguish and amour is great, as girl sleeps with boy, wife dumps boy, girl meets wife, girl sleeps with wife, and girl and boy and wife seem unable to part. But mostly what we get is a kind of arcane attraction, haunted by only a ghost of emotion.
The characters' relationships are explained by the women's superficially different but symmetrical lives, which have been shaped in particular by their dreaming, yearning fathers. Winterson fancifully weaves together the tales of Alice and tStella, and her gifts for detail and whimsy are evident in these intimate biographies.
Though Winterson writes that "This story is a journey through the thinking gut," she is not just talking about symmetries of feeling. She is playing on the term GUT, Grand Unified Theory, any theory that might fully explain the energies, actions and attractions of the universe. She repeatedly suggests some great cosmic force at work.
Despite these theoretical riffs, the novel doesn't have the captivating simplicity and beauty of Lightman's "Einstein's Dreams" nor the compelling urgency of Amis' "Time's Arrow," both of which toyed with physics to great effect. It does have ambition, so much, in fact, that it sometimes seems as if every scientific theory and unscientific myth has some part in the drama. Winterson's ruminations on time and space are often engaging, but they have the adverse effect of luring us away from the heart of the story. The novel's universe cools as it expands, and energy-sucking entropy starts to take over.
"Gut Symmetries" is intriguing but, despite its name, eludes the gut. Instead, it teases the intellect and grazes the senses. Like the universe, it is a dazzling light show.
Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Maryland Poetry Review, the Miami Herald and Premiere magazine, among others.
! Pub Date: 4/06/97