Saturday, January 31, 2009

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.


Anonymous said...

Love your comparison of the book to Chinese boxes! Such a good metaphor. Wasn't the suspended dinner party a fun scene? Just reading it made me feel a bit vertiginous and my feet were firmly planted on the ground!

Danielle said...

Stefanie--I think she has a thing about heights and water. She comes up with the best visuals--I wonder if all her books are like this?

Iliana said...

I was also hesitant to read this novel before so I was happy it ended up being our choice.

It was interesting that although I love magical realism, I did find it a bit hard to get into at first because it was so over the top but I had to just suspend all notions of what a story is supposed to be like and then I could get into it.

Danielle said...

Iliana--It's not at all like a regular novel, is it. You pretty much have to suspend everything you expect from a book when you read something like this.

litlove said...

I loved the way you wrote about this! And I also very much enjoyed those images you picked out. I liked the elephant being thrown out of its seat, and the city whose sky was so full of words it had to be scrubbed clean. Those were the kind of moments I enjoyed best, alongside the relationship between Jordan and the Dog Woman. Those really vivid bits were lovely.