Saturday, January 31, 2009

Grafting the soul

I thought I might become someone else in time, grafted on to something better and stronger.

The inward life tells us that we are multiple not single, and that our one existence is really countless existences holding hands like those cut-out paper dolls, but unlike the dolls never coming to an end. When we say, 'I have been here before,' perhaps we mean, 'I am here now,' but in another life, another time, doing something else. Our lives could be stacked together like plates on a waiter's hand. Only the top one is showing, but the rest are there and by mistake we discover them.

Escape from what? The present? Yes, from this foreground that blinds me to whatever may be happening in the distance. If I have a spirit, a soul, any name will do, then it won't be single, it will be multiple. Its dimension will not be one of confinement but one of space. It may inhabit numerous changing decaying bodies in the future and in the past.

Poisoned or not, the mercury has made me think like this. Drop it and it shivers in clones of itself all over the floor, but you can scoop it up again and there won't be any seams or shatter marks. It's one life or countless lives depending on what you want.

The future and the present and the past exist only in our minds, and from a distance the borders of each shrink and fade like the borders of hostile countries seen from a floating city in the sky. The river runs from one country to another without stopping. And even the most solid of things and the most real, the best-loved and the well-known, are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light.

--Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

As you can gather from the quotes above, in a novel brimming with mythology, fairy tale, history, and metaphysics, (in a year that I want to spend quite a bit of time on mythology), I was most taken by the metaphysics. The earthy giantess Dog Woman, who raised dogs for fighting in 17th century London and did not hesitate to kill hypocritical Puritans who crossed her path, often appalled me; her dreamy foundling son Jordan, a fantasist who sailed the world, did not.

But are the Dog Woman and Jordan of the 17th century the same characters as the ones who show up in present day London at the end of the book, the pretty young chemist camped in protest by the side of a poisoned river and the Nicolas Jordan who joins her there? Have souls transmigrated across the centuries or has one of the characters merely engaged in "rich imaginings"?

I'd prefer the transmigration. Unfortunately, there was something about Sexing the Cherry that made me feel like Eustace Scrubb who'd read the wrong books for the adventure at hand. How can I sprinkle the coal-dust over the milky invisible ink in Winterson if I've never read Orlando, or Angela Carter? I wondered early on if the entire book was supposed to be a celebration of the transportive powers of the imagination, but too often I found the commingling of the different genres more off-putting than engaging. For a short book, I checked to see how many pages remained way too often.

I'm looking forward to discussing this one much more than attempting to write about it.

Not Really About Sexing the Cherry

I’m trying to warn you that this post says very little about Winterson’s book Sexing the Cherry, so if you want a discussion of the actual book, as opposed to an analysis of my feelings about it, I would check out the other posts on this blog. There is just something about this book, and about Jeanette Winterson’s writing generally, that doesn’t sit very well with me, and I suspect this problem has more to do with me than with the writing itself.

To back up a bit, I first read Winterson during my very first semester in grad school when we were assigned her novel The Passion. I liked the book, and I decided to write a paper on it, one which made some connections between Winterson and Virginia Woolf and drew some conclusions about modernism and postmodernism. That was interesting, and I was pleased to be able to write about Woolf, whom I had fallen in love with just a couple years before. And then I read a couple other Winterson books, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body, and while I liked Oranges, I liked Written on the Body a little bit less, and then as time went on and I thought about Winterson now and then, I started to like her work less and less, and then I became profoundly ambivalent about it, and now after reading Sexing the Cherry I’m beginning to think Winterson is just not a writer who works for me.

I now think I was trying to like what I felt I was supposed to like, back when I read The Passion in grad school. I did experience some genuine pleasure in reading the book, but I felt some uncertainty about it too, and I didn’t listen to that part of my response because … well, because everyone else loved it and because it seemed so smart and hip. Winterson has a lot to say about our unstable identities, the uncertainty of space and time, the mixing of past and present, and all that stuff is so very postmodern, and I was all into postmodernism, and so of course I was going to like this book.

But … there’s something about Winterson’s writing that doesn’t work for me, and I’m trying to pinpoint what it is. It has something to do with the fact that her books seem like they are written for the sake of the ideas rather than for the sake of the characters or plot, and I’d prefer it if they all fit together seamlessly. But this can’t be the entire story, because I do like idea-driven novels very much, and if the ideas are interesting enough and the writing is good, I don’t mind if characters or plot are sacrificed. And, actually, Sexing the Cherry has some great, memorable characters (I liked Dog-Woman quite a lot) and is mainly lacking plot, and plot is most often the last thing I care about in a book.

Another factor is that I’m not really fond of the fantastical, magical-realism stuff in Winterson’s work. I’ve read some Rushdie and Garcia Marquez, and now that I think about it, I felt the same sense of queasy uncertainty when I read them. Yes, they are smart, yes, they are great writers, and yes, they are important, but no, I can’t say I love their work. I guess — and I kind of wish I didn’t feel this way — that I want realism to be realism and fantasy/science fiction/fables/fairy tales to be their own thing. Generally I’m all for people breaking the rules, but it appears there are limits to my tolerance of disorder and rule-breaking and boundary-crossing and genre-bending.

And then there’s the mean-spirited, grouchy, cynical side of me that doesn’t like the light-hearted, playful, celebratory tone of the book. The moments I liked best were the darker ones — the passages about how Dog-Woman and Jordan misunderstand each other or the descriptions of religious violence. I wasn’t so fond of Jordan’s fantastical travels or the twelve princesses or the speculations about the fluidity of identity and the centrality of love. And I don’t really like the prettiness of the language either.

But here I’m starting to go off the deep end a little bit, and you can see how I just don’t get along with this book and should probably just stop now. I do understand, in an abstract, detached kind of way, how other people can like it; maybe this is just one of those matters of taste, kind of like the way I don’t like potatoes but I understand that most people do, and I’m fine with that.

Sexing the Cherry

I was excited when we chose this book because Jeanette Winterson is a writer I had wanted to read before but I’d often heard her writing could be difficult to get into, so I figured being able to discuss this with a reading group would hopefully give me a greater understanding.

The story is set in the seventeenth century and its two main characters are the Dog Woman, a gigantic and fearsome creature, and Jordan, the child she rescues from the Thames.

In a creative tale that mixes time travel, fairy tales, historical events and a touch of magic, Jordan follows his dreams and travels the world with Tradescant, one of the gardeners of King Charles II court.

“Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle. These are the journeys I wish to record. Not the ones I made, but the ones I might have made, or perhaps did make in some other place or time.”

The novel is told in alternating chapters and while I preferred the narrative of the Dog Woman because it was so unexpected and bold, one of my favorite sections was when Jordan meets the 12 princesses. This is Winterson’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm story with a feminist perspective. Unlike the Grimm story, where it is up to the Prince to choose a princess, here the young women decide their fate.

The women in this novel are no simpering misses, instead they are powerful and assertive. The Dog Woman recounts tales of sexual adventure in the same manner as brutal acts she has committed.

Truly, I think the Dog Woman will go down as one the most memorable characters in fiction that I’ve ever come across. While I can’t say I loved this story, I’m definitely glad I’ve finally read it. I found it ambitious and grand for such a slim novel.

Cross posted at Bookgirl's Nightstand

Sexing the Cherry

It was with a little trepidation that I approached this month's Slaves of Golconda read, Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry. I don't always work well in the abstract; it's generally a struggle for me. Give me a nice straightforward story any day of the week and I'm happy. I mean what do I do with a story where Winterson "fuses history, fairy tale, and metafiction into a fruit...of memorably startling flavor" (so says the NYT)? I must say that in this case I was pleasantly surprised. It was all so wonderfully over the top, completely outrageous (at least that's how it felt when reading it) that it was sort of thrilling to read something so different than what I'm normally used to. What Winterson does with language is marvellous, but what I liked most were the visual images she created. It was at times completely far fetched, but at the same time so totally vivid I found myself lost in the story (but in a good way). Where does someone get the imagination to do that?

This is a very slim novel, but chock full of action and imagery. In 1630 an infant boy is fished out of the Thames River by the Dog Woman. It seems only fitting that he should have an appropriate name but neither Thames nor Nile will do. So Jordan it is. Now the Dog Woman once had a name, but she's forgotten it. She's an interesting character, a giantess who breeds dogs (thus her name) and can outweigh and unseat Elephants (I imagined an elephant sitting on a seesaw type seat and when the Dog Woman sat down on the opposite end the elephant flew into the air) and has pox marks on her face so large that they provide a home for fleas. She's a lusty character full of life and a die-hard Royalist (must say here I felt a bit bad for the Puritans). As disturbing as her appearance may be, don't be fooled, she's a mother with a mother's caring heart.

Jordan and the Dog Woman take turns narrating the story, which is like one of those Chinese boxes that folds in on itself and can be opened and righted once again. The Dog Woman is firmly grounded in the reality of the 17th century set against a background of the tumultuous and bloody Civil War, while Jordan travels through time and space telling us of the fanciful and fantastic. The story really is part historical fiction, and fairy tale, as well as a meditation on time and space with a fair amount of philosophy thrown in as well. Winterson is obviously interested in accomplishing a variety of things, and no doubt this can be read from various viewpoints and on different levels-- including ecological and feminist (and maybe even a few others). I imagine this must be a veritable feast for a literary critic or an English major, but since I'm neither I just enjoyed the colorful ride and will leave the peeling back of layers to the professionals.
Some of the scenes really stuck me and I think will stick with me for some time to come. Jordan attends a dinner party where the family wouldn't allow their feet to touch the floor. So looking through doors you see no floors but bottomless pits with furniture "suspended on racks from the ceiling."

"To dine here is a great curiosity, for the visitor must sit in a gilded chair and allow himself to be winched up to join his place setting. He comes last, the householders already seated and making merry, swinging their feet over the abyss where crocodiles live. Everyone who dines has a multiplicity of glasses and cutlery lest some should be dropped accidentally. Whatever food is left over at the end of the meal is scraped into the pit, from whence a fearful crunching can be heard."

There is also a city that floats above in the clouds.

"The city, being freed from the laws of gravity, began to drift upwards for some 200 miles, until it was out of the earth's atmosphere. It lay for a while above Africa and then began to circle the earth at leisure, never in one place for long, but in other respects like some off-shore island. The citizens had enormous poles made to push themselves off from stars or meteors, and in this way used their town as a raft to travel where they wanted. They did not know it, but when every person pushed with their pole, they created a vacuum that sucked up anything in its wake. The force was very powerful, and all over the world there are stories of entire picnics that have disappeared from checked tablecloths, and small children who have never been seen again."

As you can see this is a very playful story and in many instances laugh out loud funny. It's not a book that's really very easy to write about as there is simply too much going on. If you're still curious to know more, however check out the excellent posts here to get some other perspectives. If you've read Sexing the Cherry please feel free to join our discussion. I think I may have to check out Jeannette Winterson's other work.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

The Fine Art of Grafting

If the number of page points I stuck in Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry is any indication of how much I liked the book, well then I liked it very much. It certainly made me think. And I very much enjoyed the playfulness of the text as well as its humor.

The title does not refer to some sort of sexual slang or innuendo. It actually refers to determining the sex of a cherry tree. The fine art of grafting--a method of asexual plant propagation in which two plants are joined together--is at the root (excuse the pun) of what the book is about. Grafting is practiced for many reasons, one of which is hardiness. For instance, if you want a fruit tree or a rose that is not particularly hardy to your growing zone, you might try grafting. The root stock of a hardy version--for instance in MN I might choose a rugosa rose for my rootstock because it is hardy in below zero weather--becomes the base for a rose that is not very hardy here--a delicate tea rose perhaps. The resulting plant is a tea rose growing on the roots of a rugosa rose. The roses are tea roses and the plant is considered a tea rose. The grafted plant is two halves that require the other half in order to survive. The flower bearing canes of the tea rose need the hardy rugosa roots so it can survive the winter. The hardy rugosa roots need the energy and nourishment provided by the leaves of the tea rose. Cut the two apart at the graft and both halves will die.

What does this have to do with the book? Everything really. The book takes place in two time periods, London during the reign of Charles II, and the current day. And the characters, both Jordan and the Dog-Woman are alive in both. The book plays with time too, but that would require an entire other post to talk about. Sticking to the idea of grafting, the character of Jordan in old London and the character of Nicholas Jordan in modern London, can be seen as a graft. Which is the root and which is the plant is arguable because Jordan might be all in the imagination of Nicholas and Nicholas might be the part of himself that Jordan goes in search of.

It doesn't really matter which Jordan is what part of the resulting grafted plant. It only matters that together, the two halves make a whole. One can make speculations on the necessity of imagination for survival as well as the need to integrate soul and body, or the shadow self, or the practical self with the dancing part of the self. If the book can be said to have a plot, this, to me, is it: the journey to become a whole person.

There are so many elements in this book that make it interesting; time, as I mentioned, fairy tales, myth, and fantasy. There is also the element of the quest and the hero. It is a complex book that is written in a deceptively simple style. It is not without its faults. Some moments seem forced and the character of Dog-Woman is too educated for her class and station in life in many respects and too ignorant in others (can a woman who breeds dogs for a living really not know anything about sex?). But the faults are minor chaffings easily ignored in the overall scope of the novel.

Feel free to join in or follow the discussion at our new discussion forum.

Cross posted at So Many Books

Some Thoughts on Sexing the Cherry

It’s quite shocking to think that I first read this book back in 1990 when I was a mere 21 years old. It was always going to be interesting to return to it, as the passage of time can alter impressions so much. When I first read it, Jeanette Winterson formed one corner of a triumvirate of favourite authors, the other two being occupied by Anita Brookner and Julian Barnes. Barnes has stayed with me over the long journey of my critical apprenticeship, but the two women have both fallen away and it’s many years since I read a novel by either of them.

In 1990, I was dazzled by Winterson’s inventiveness. Sexing the Cherry is a slim novel, a mere 140-pages, but they are so full of event and imagination that it would be hard to digest more. It’s a tale of many strands and layers but at its heart it returns to London in the 1660s where the Dog Woman, a monstrous giantess, finds a young orphan boy, Jordan on the banks of the Thames and adopts him for her own. Together they embark on a life of adventure, the Dog Woman proving herself an adept ally for the soon-to-be deposed King, her natural talents for violence and loyalty put to use in slaying many a dissenting voice and in doing her best to alter the course of history. Jordan, by contrast, is a dreamer, and his destiny lies in magical voyages to impossible lands where he searches for love and the truth about time and space. In the later stages of the novel these characters find ghostly doubles in the future, in the form of Nicholas Jordan who devotes his life to the Navy and an unnamed woman whose vigilante actions to protect the environment (a theme that Winterson will return to in The Stone Gods) make her at once both heroine and madwoman. It’s typical of the topsy-turvy logic of the novel that these characters in the future are pale imitations of the Dog Woman and Jordan in the past. Winterson delights in turning everything on its head, not least the normal plot progression of a narrative. Sexing the Cherry is full of interpolates stories, mostly based on the principle of the fairy tale, but with morals and messages that are subversive. The Twelve Dancing Princesses, for instance, indulge in every kind of gender-bending activity you could dream up, and then some. There’s so much packed into its pages that this book can make your head swim, with its bawdy, rambunctious rewriting of history and its fragmentary, choppy progression through a wild range of stories and narrators, not to mention its fascination with the fantastic nature of time and space as seen through the veil of quantum physics. I think it’s a book that wants to set off sparks, rather than one that can be understood by coherent principles, and with that thought in mind, I’ll mention just a couple of points that occur to me.

The character of the Dog Woman owes a great deal to the giant, Gargantua, who was created by the French author, Francois Rabelais in the seventeenth century. Gargantua was also caught up in political battles and used his huge strength to literally destroy the opposition, but at the same time he is a comedy character, a vehicle for cartoon violence and toilet humour. Rabelais knew what he was doing when he employed a giant in his narrative. On the one hand he was a crowd pleaser for his audience of readers, and on the other, he could carry subversive messages about the state of government in France that would have been extremely dangerous for him to express clearly. If he had said what he thought, the Catholic church would have chopped his head off, and so it was a good plan, not to mention a real laugh, to have a ludicrous figure like a giant embody his message. Rabelais’s Gargantua is an example of what’s known as the ‘carnivalesque’, a style of literature in which chaos and humour present an opportunity to challenge dominant beliefs and turn all hierarchies on their heads. The carnival is the place of madcap entertainment that brings everyone together to celebrate common humanity. Hence the toilet humour, as people in Rabelais’ time thought that the lower half of the body was special and sacred, as it was the place of all fertility, the origin of the world. Bawdy jokes weren’t just rude, they reminded people that kings and peasants have excretion in common, and that the circle of life is a wonder and a marvel. We’ve rather lost that sort of belief nowadays, but Winterson’s use of a female giant is a good way to poke fun at a few shreds of taboos that cling to the female body.

Alongside the carnivalesque, Winterson’s novel appeals also to the modern genre of magic realism. This kind of narrative grew mostly out of Latin America in the work of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende. It concerns stories where fantastic and extraordinary events occur all the time, without anyone blinking an eyelid. Instead, magic suggests itself as a natural phenomenon, arising out of the real world as if it had been hidden inside it all along. Like the carnivalesque it’s always been seen as a way to challenge authority, or to rewrite history, including voices that would otherwise have been silenced. In the dictatorial regimes of Latin America, it was easy to see where the subversion was headed, but when magic realism crossed over into Europe, that sense of straining against the unreasonable restraints of an unjust political system was missing. Other sorts of confinements became the target. I was thinking about this as I was reading along and wondering what Winterson’s text rubbed up against, what constraints it was trying to loosen. And because of my recent interests, I found myself most caught up, in this reading, in the relationship between the Dog Woman and Jordan, the most realistic, natural and touching part of the narrative.

Their story is one of real love and tenderness, and also one of the inevitable misrecognition that lies between mother and child. ‘I want to be like my rip-roaring mother,’ Jordan declares, ‘who cares nothing for how she looks, only for what she does. She has never been in love, no, and never wanted to be either. She is self-sufficient and without self-doubt…. I think she loves me but I don’t know. She wouldn’t say so, perhaps she doesn’t know herself.’ Yet we, who are privy to the Dog Woman’s inner thoughts, know how she cares for him, and witness the wrench she feels when Jordan leaves for his thirteen-year long sea voyage. When finally he returns, washed up on the shores of the Thames for a second time, she is there, faithful as ever, to meet him. ‘I wanted to tell him things, to tell him I loved him and how much I’d missed him, but thirteen years of words were fighting in my throat and I couldn’t get any of them out. There was too much to say and so I said nothing.’ And in this way they remain loving, and tender, and unknown to one another.

The sense that we are more than the bodies in which we dwell, more than the span of time and space we occupy, more than anyone on the outside, looking in, could guess, is a recurrent theme in the book. The loving side of the Dog Woman is one example of the important parts of the self that remain hidden, the other is the imagination, where anything and everything is possible. Jordan’s voyage may ostensibly be to strange and wonderful lands, but he knows the real discovery he wants to make is to find himself. ‘Are we all living like this?’ Jordan wonders. ‘Two lives, the ideal outer life and the inner imaginative life where we keep our secrets? And poignantly he concludes ‘and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God.’ The magic in this novel concerns the extraordinary capacity of the imagination to create new worlds, and the elastic sense of space and time that governs our experience of existing. Inside us, I felt Winterson was saying, we have an infinite capacity, and our external appearance betrays us with its one dimensionality, its boring obviousness. Sexing the Cherry takes us on its own journey to the outer limits of possibility, to remind us that the marvelous is only ever a brief flexing of the imagination away, and that we all have secret lives we need to explore and experience fully to be at peace.