The Hogarth Shakespeare series is off to a fantastic start: Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time captures the weird intensity of The Winter’s Tale (my thoughts on the original are here and here), mirroring Shakespeare’s plot and characters while also functioning as a stand-alone novel in its own right. King Leontes is transformed into Leo, the rich, entitled CEO of a London-based company called Sicilia; his wife is the beautiful singer MiMi; Paulina morphs into Leo’s aggressive personal assistant Pauline; and Xeno is Leo’s old school friend, former lover, rival for MiMi’s affections, and video-game designer based in a fictional Louisiana city called New Bohemia.
Winterson manages the abandoned-baby aspect of the plot using a BabyHatch – one of those dropboxes that some hospitals make available so that new mothers who feel that they have to abandon their babies can do so in a safe way. When MiMi delivers the baby – whom Leo assumes is Xeno’s – Leo sends his gardener, Tony, to deliver the baby to Xeno in Louisiana. Xeno never answers his door (as we learn later), so when he can’t find Xeno Tony panics a little and puts the baby in the BabyHatch at the hospital, using a pen to prop the hatch open so he can come back and get her later. However, some thugs become aware of the fact that Tony is carrying a large amount of cash, which was supposed to go to Xeno along with the baby, and they kill him before he can return. Tony is the equivalent of Antinous in the original, and the mobsters are the “bears” that “pursue” and eventually kill him. More in a moment on what happens to the baby.
When I read The Winter’s Tale, I interpreted Leontes’ sudden insistence that his wife Hermione was having an affair with Polixenes as a psychotic break of some kind – and I think that’s how I would have set it up if I were trying to modernize the play. However, I like the way Winterson did it better: she set up a situation in which Leo and Xeno have a long friendship, dating back to boarding school, where they were not only friends but lovers. Leo insists that he is not gay; the adult Xeno is openly gay in other areas of his life but is always closed-mouthed and non-committal around Leo. Once, when they were bicycling together as boys, Leo dared Xeno to cycle right along the edge of a canyon. Xeno did so and nearly died when he misjudged the edge and fell. Leo was the one to speed back to town on his bike and get help, but the two never talked about the incident, and we learn through Xeno’s interactions with others in the novel that he still resents Leo’s dare. Also, when Leo was pursuing MiMi, they split up after a fight and had no contact for a year, and then Leo sent Xeno to Paris to find MiMi, give her a cheesy note, and persuade her to come back. Xeno does so – successfully on all counts – but in the process he and MiMi develop a strong emotional bond that never goes away, even when Leo and MiMi marry. The salient point from all of this summary is that Leo and Xeno have a number of unresolved conflicts and resentments between them, in spite of their friendship. Leo envies Xeno’s closeness with MiMi, and Xeno resents the near-death encounter on the edge of the canyon, plus the fact that Leo seems to see him as so non-threatening that he used him to win back MiMi. And of course, the fact that they are ex-lovers adds complexity to their friendship. All of these details help to make Leo’s overreaction plausible, although he still comes off as a deeply angry and suspicious person.
On the New Bohemia side of the Atlantic, we meet Shep (a stand-in for the shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, of course; the novel actually opens with him) – a nightclub owner and piano player – and his adult son Clo. Shep is the one who found baby Perdita in the BabyHatch. There is a long story attached to this incident, of course, involving the fact that on the night Shep sees the baby in the hatch (actually, there is a light on in the hatch to indicate that a baby has been left there, which reminds me of the light at Krispy Kreme that lets passers-by know that the doughnuts are fresh, but let’s not think about that connection too carefully) he is also grieving his wife on the one-year anniversary of her death. She died at that same hospital, and Shep was the one to cut off her oxygen and smother her with his hand. He did it because she was suffering and would not recover, and he does not regret that action exactly, but his own role in her death and in the proximity of her suffering compounds the grief he already feels. He sees the baby as a sign that God has offered him a chance to redeem himself. He raises Perdita, and the next time we see Perdita after the sixteen-year gap of time, she is part of a loving but simple family and is a talented singer like her mother.
In The Winter’s Tale, the truth about the links among the characters starts bubbling to the surface in the interminable Act IV, scene iv, when highborn and lowborn characters alike attend a sheepshearing feast, which is about as exciting as it sounds. Winterson updates this scene by setting it at Shep’s 70th birthday party (at Fleece, the bar he owns – get it, Fleece?). Perdita invited a boy she likes, Zel, who turns out to be Xeno’s son. Zel has very little contact with Xeno, who “became weird” after a traumatic event sixteen years ago – i.e. when his best friend Leo chased him around a car park (hee hee British English) and tried to kill him (again), forcing him to flee London for his life, leaving behind not only Leo but also MiMi and Pauline, with whom he was very close. Ever since then, Xeno has been living in his isolated house, more or less as a recluse, designing commercial video games for profit but spending the rest of his time working on a private video game that involves major world cities, a trapped angel, Leo, MiMi, and lots of feathers (this sounds odd, but it is actually woven well into the plot and managed beautifully). Xeno does show up at Shep’s birthday party, though, because he goes looking for Zel at the auto mechanic shop where he works and is told to look for him at Fleece.
My only real complaint about this novel is that Winterson hammers home a bit too hard that this is a novel about time. Time is in the title, of course, and the effects of the 16-year gap on all the major characters is clear, but at times – especially near the end – she just lays it on a bit too thick. We get it. One example is the fact that much of Shep’s birthday party is taken over with a semi-ridiculous subplot involving a DeLorean (the TIME machine from Back to the Future, get it?). This episode takes a while to wade through and is never integrated into the rest of the plot. I guess something had to happen to make this scene as tedious as the original. Later, though, some of the guests start to reminisce about the night when two mobsters killed Tony Gonzalez (Leo’s gardener, the one who brought Perdita to the baby hatch). Everyone remembers it because it was a major news event at the time, and Shep and Clo remember it especially well, of course, because they were involved. Xeno also remembers the episode as well, because as a frequent houseguest of Leo’s he knew Tony Gonzalez well, and also because he knew that Leo was sending Tony with the baby but assumed that if he hid out long enough Tony would just bring the baby back to London. Xeno hadn’t counted on the baby hatch. So, over the course of the scene, the truth largely comes to light. Perdita and Zel, who soon fall in love, go to England to meet Leo. Perdita is put off at first, but soon – because Shakespeare gave this weird genre-bending play a comic ending – the family is reunited and everyone – including Shep and Clo, who fly over to London and are included in the festivities – is happy again. In The Winter’s Tale, Hermione is turned to stone during the whole 16-year gap of time. Winterson manages that little plot hurdle by having MiMi go to Paris and go into a period of stasis. She just lives, eats, and goes for walks by the Seine; she doesn’t sing or have contact with other people (with a few exceptions) or do anything productive until she learns from Pauline that Perdita has returned. I liked my idea of sending her to a luxury Botox clinic for 16 years better – but I guess I can’t have everything.
This is the first book of Winterson’s that I’ve read, and I loved it. It is lyrical in a woman-book sort of way, but I wasn’t annoyed by it. Even though I knew more or less where the plot was going, I felt caught up in the suspense of wondering how the characters would learn one another’s true identities. There are sadly insightful lines (like “Forgiveness is a word like tiger – there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is” ) and effective pop culture allusions (like “There’s the world hanging in space. There’s Superman beating the speed of light – turning all his love into speed and light – and forcing time to defeat itself. He’s spinning the world so the water is pulling back into the dam and the rocks are anchoring their rockiness back into the cliff face. Slowly the red car rises from the ravine, the metal body undents, the windscreen unshatters.” [92-93]) and evidence that even assholes like Leo have deep thoughts, as when he holds up postcards of the Mona Lisa and L’Origine du Monde and says to MiMi, “‘These two images put together explain why men find women so threatening. The world comes out of your body and…’ – he was waving the Mona Lisa at me – ‘we have no idea what is in your head.’” . And yes, there are way too many reminders that in this novel time is plot, character, setting, and theme – but that’s okay. I enjoyed this novel and am very excited about Hogarth Shakespeare’s plan to publish ‘cover versions’ of all of Shakespeare’s plays by bestselling authors in the upcoming years. Next up is Howard Jacobson’s reworking of The Merchant of Venice, and I can’t wait.