Boating for Beginners
188 pages • Minerva • 1985
Boating for Beginners is Jeanette Winterson’s second published novel. It is unlike any of her other works. Written in six weeks, and published only three months after Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, it tells the story of what happens after a hand reaches out of the sky to give a leaflet to boating magnate Noah declaring “I am that I am, Yaweh the unpronounceable”. In a press conference on board his most luxurious cruiser, Noah announces that the One True God had revealed himself because mankind has not sorted himself out: “it was still false gods and socialism”. To explain it all Noah and the Lord collaborate on a history to show that the Unpronounceable had been there from the beginning, and it would be issued starting with Genesis, or How I Did It.
Noah then tours Ur of the Chaldees with the Glory Crusades to preach a life more simple in the name of the Lord. A pregnant woman called Mrs Munde is drawn in by the teachings, and when her daughter is born she names her Gloria. Five years later Noah retires from public affairs and Mrs Munde is employed as his cook. The story of Boating for Beginners is set thirteen years later, eighteen after the Unpronounceable first made his presence known. Gloria is on the verge of becoming a woman, an adult, which is a metaphor for the meaning of the book itself.
Gloria’s life up to this point has been not one of her own making. She is the product of an overbearing religious mother who has a passion for the novels of Bunny Mix, a romance novelist. “She had written almost one thousand novels, all of which had the same plot, but she was clever enough to rotate the colour of the heroine’s hair and the hero’s occupation so that you never felt you were reading the same book twice in a row.” It is with Bunny Mix that Noah sets out to dramatise the first two books of the Lord’s story that would then tour the country and be captured on film. It is as part of this venture that Gloria finds employment.
Boating for Beginners is, in a way, mythology for beginners. It is the process by which the everyday is transformed into the eternal that is its subject. The fact that Noah accidentally creates God out of a toaster and a Black Forest Gateau is Winterson’s comedic take on this very process. Noah is the book’s Dr Frankenstein, and his creation is a tetchy creature who resorts to living in a cloud. Noah is first and foremost a businessman, and so when the caper with the Unpronounceable begins he sees an opportunity to make money. The pressures involved in making a film test Noah’s already uneasy relationship with his creation. It is then that the Unpronounceable declares to Noah that he will flood the world. That way he can start again with the story rewritten and no one to contradict it.
Gloria’s discovery that her mother is a dupe, and that Noah and Bunny Mix are frauds, propels the book toward its conclusion. Although the Ark Noah creates is built of fibreglass he brings along some gopher wood for the benefit of future archaeologists. Boating for Beginners is in fact prefaced with a quotation from story printed in the Guardian which reports that archaeologists found remains in Turkey believed to be from Noah’s Ark. That such remains could be used to prove a story, that this is a false corollary, is the object of Winterson’s satire.
Boating for Beginners is fast-paced, funny, and has an edge of madness to it. Not all of the jokes work. The references to Martin Amis and Northrop Frye are like a literary version of a Dad joke, by which I mean there is a certain cringe-worthy factor. It is a book that Winterson herself all but dimisses. “It’s fun but it doesn’t matter,” she has said of it in an attempt to separate it from the canon of her work. It may not be as sophisticated as Written on the Body, or as creative with its genre as The Stone Gods is with its sci-fi roots. That said, it is more than just fun, and its own madcap way is as serious a work as anything else Winterson has written.
“Noah admitted that the Unpronounceable had some explaining to do, but they were collaborating on a manuscript that would be a kind of global history from the beginnings of time showing how the Lord has always been there, always would be there and what a good thing this was.”