Monday, September 22, 2008
Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
"What are the characteristics of living things? At school, i biology I was told the following: Excretion, growth, irritability, locomotion, nutrition, reproduction, and respiration. This does not seem like a very lively list to me. If that's all there is to being a living thing I may as well be dead. What of that other characteristic prevalent in human living things, the longing to be loved? No, it doesn't come under the heading Reproduction. I have no desire to reproduce but I still seek out love. Reproduction. Over-polished Queen Anne style dining-room suite reduced to clear. Genuine wood. Is that what I want? The model family, two plus two in an easy home assembly kit. I don't want a model, I want the full-scale original. I don't want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new. Fighting words but the fight's gone out of me."
Written on the Body is unlike anything that I've ever read. The narrator is not given an age, a gender, a name... What we know of the narrator is simply how their life has been defined, shaped, and changed by their romantic relationships over time. These relationships have been with both men and women, but the relationship that the book focuses on is the narrator's relationship with Louise, a fiery art historian married to an oppressive doctor named Elgin who controls Louise while going off on his own adventures to cavort with prostitutes.
The narrator acknowledges what s/he is doing to Louise's marriage and has no patience for adultery, however, points out that it's not s/he that's doing the cheating and is therefore somehow free of the ethical burden that goes along with this. The narrator for selfish reasons elevates their relationship over the marital relationship of Louise and Elgin, saying:
"When I say 'I will be true to you' I must mean it in spite of formalities, instead of the formalities If I commit adultery in my heart then I have lost you a little. The bright vision of your face will blur. I may not notice this once or twice, I may pride myself on having enjoyed those fleshy excursions in the most cerebral way. Yet I will have blunted that sharp flint that sparks between us, our desire for one another above all else." The narrator wants Louise, and the reader, to believe that regardless of how their relationship came to be it will not end with transgression.
The narrator vows to be true to Louise and goes to great measures to prove their love in the most irrational ways, wrecking friendships, handcuffing his/her arm to a chair at the library, being fired from work... Louise becomes the be all and end all of our narrator's life, the one consuming interest in passion in a way that is pathetic and pitiful. Why is it that people seem to not love enough or love so much that it's not love at all anymore, but obsession?
The twist in their love affair is that Louise has cancer and only Elgin, who has done advanced research on her particular brand of Leukemia, can save her. Our three main characters squabble over how to handle their precarious situation and in the end, it seems to me that all of them lose. I'll spare you the ending in case you care to read it.
While the plot is not wound together very tightly and I had some issues with the structure of the second half of the book, I have to say that overall I enjoyed reading Written on the Body. Christopher pointed out in his review of Sexing the Cherry that Winterson writes about ideas more than anything else and beats them to death. I found this to be true but could overlook it because I found her writing style to be lyrical and poignant. While I did not agree with everything that the narrator had to say, I found him/her to be painfully self-aware and insightful.
I don't know what to say about the narrator being genderless. Given that Winterson is usually pigeonholed as a LGBT writer (primarily due to her novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit), it was easy for me to fall into thinking that the novel was about a lesbian couple. Throughout the book, though, more passages than not made the voice seem to belong to a man. Do men and women love differently? Would I have reacted to the novel in another way if I had a physical description of the narrator?
This is as much a text about the human body as it is a text about two people trying to find their place. What happens to the body when it becomes a desired object, what happens when the T cells become problematic, what happens when something full of life gradually transitions into a state of decay?
"Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn't know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book."