As it turns out, recovering from flu is more exhausting than it seems — something about watery eyes, raging fevers and runny noses fits in here. Of course I won’t mention that here because I’m classy like that — so I’m posting this book review three weeks late. Apologies from an invalid lady on the delay! For the uninitiated, you can read Part One and Two here.
It shouldn’t surprise you too much when I say I can’t easily tolerate misogynist writers or their ‘critically’ acclaimed works — my pesky gendered brain raises its head at the most inopportune moments! — and I have flung many books on the wall the moment the narrative gets too dudely for me; when the ‘unsexed’ narrator played by the
White Male Default Human insists on me achieving a series of mental orgasms because the dudely protagonist lifted a finger or sneezed, when women are devoured whole under the pretext of being ‘universal’, ‘progressive’ and when they’re written with the intensity of lightly buttered toast to shed Lady Insights On The Resident Douche are a few of my feuds with such writers and their works. In brief, this LadyBrain is fatally allergic to anything even remotely dudely. In such books, the Body is heavily inscribed with invisible meanings and norms that almost always further heteronormativity — patriarchy is so predictable! — here the body becomes a site of conquest, possession and most importantly, a sort of a Tabula Rasa, waiting to be inscribed upon. This Body is almost always feminine or made feminine, either by blatant submissiveness or misogyny, reserving the spot of the creator or sculptor for the Default Human or the occasional case of the Lady acting ‘tough’ (read: Dudely) and veritably focusing agency and action on the male-identified characters in the narrative.
This is mainly the reason I stray away from books that focus on the Body alone, it scares me how easily it can be consumed and made into an object, with a few well-placed phrases and words. I remember being moved to tears by just reading Toni Morrison’s description of Sethe’s scarred back in Beloved to the extent that whenever I see a knotted tree trunk, I can only think of her. Can you see People Of The Olde Interwebes why reading about the Body is often triggering and a stressful subject position for me to take? But somehow, Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Written On The Body’ came nowhere close to the trauma I expected. In fact, it has carved a permanent niche on my skin. Perhaps that bit about the Tabula Rasa is true after all!
Winterson’s ‘Written On The Body’ is many things: duplicitous, experimental, sentimental and often just plain genius. What disturbed me for quite a while was the way the text tackled the Body; here again body is presented as an empty canvas, waiting to be marked and written upon — see how the body is shown as having little to no agency as it waits to be filled with words and meanings? — as the tittle too suggests. As a rule of thumb, this book was supposed to embody all that made me cringe, right? As it turns out, the real problem isn’t the agency-less body as much who inscribes it or how it is done. Salman Rushdie or Amitav Gosh may write about the Body in hyper-real terms, jumping from genres of fantastic realism to a situated anthropological realism, but inevitably the question of the Body is left open to be completed with the MaleGaze, that ultimately the Body is for taking, not negotiating. When I finished the book for the first time, I did consider that I may be biased to Winterson’s words simply because we share feminine identities; and it could be wholly true if I were to believe various MRA blogs telling me the Very Real And Serious Dangers of Misandry. But I digress. Besides, on close second reading, the blurring of these very roles of the Masculine and Feminine, of the Inscriber and the Inscribed, the Oppressor and the Oppressed makes this text a wonderful experiment of words and senses. This is not to assume, there is no re-writing or any overt passivity in the text, rather each action is open to alternatives, there is potential for the words to turn in and around on themselves. The narrator’s sex isn’t fixed, there is a constant rewriting of words, meanings, traditional expectations for the genre of romance and even masculinity itself. The narrator says, “Written on the Body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places, the pampliest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled away from prying eyes, never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book“. The text itself breaks into dialogs, lists, announcements, biological facts; reminding me constantly how all genres break and make each other.
Here the Body not only becomes a space for re-writing, it is given space to re-write itself. More often than not, merely pointing at patriarchal conventions of writing and being aren’t enough, there has to be a re-allocation of the dominant and masculine narrative — possibly why I can only admire Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from a distance — and resist it, than just weaving the narrative around it. This ReWritten text has to set up the Other as ‘normal’ to the struggling Self, without making the Self abnormal; it has to build and break walls without locking oneself in. And ‘Written On The Body’ both delights and disturbs in all of these tropes. The narrator calls hirself Adam, Don Juan, a boy scout, Mercutio, and “a private dick”; but also that she compares ‘herself’ with a convent virgin, Alice In Wonderland, and the girl in Rumpelstiltskin who is supposed to be able to spin straw into gold but can’t. S/he reads playboy and women’smagazines; pees standing up and sitting down. S/he draws hunting analogies and war analogies but also eats when depressed, grows flowers and buys them for ‘herself’. The narrator engages in physical violence with women and men, actions that can be interpreted as traditionally masculine. At the same time, the narrator plunges into emotions, almost in a trance or to a masochistic extent, notices details in furnishings and appearance, and is anarchy feminist. There is a strong image of castration when the narrator feels insecure though admits to wearing stockings to work. The narrator starts off as being an explorer of Louise’s body — conscious metaphors of Colonising the Body — and then reveals hir own subject status under her will. Winterson purposely juxtaposes coitus with ‘invasion’ and conquering. At one point, the narrator offers to come ‘inside’ of Louise’s body and battle her cancer cells and the stance zie takes is invasive. But then, carefully and slyly Winterson calls the narrator’s Body to turn on itself, turning the invasion on the Self, almost consensually does break into the old dance of making and re-writing. While some spaces engage in the violent impulse to delimit feminine space, there is always a re-negotiation of the very belief that this space under question was ‘feminine’ or not. The text may follow the patriarchal plot of ‘going after’ the ‘fallen angel’ till we realise at the very end that this ‘going after’ was all a monologue in the narrator’s head, and the ‘angel’ has already saved herself.
The Body becomes a dam, of experiences, meanings and ultimately of love. Winterson starts her novel with, “Why is the measure of love loss?” and I couldn’t help but ask, “Why is the measure of Body the space it occupies?”.
Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson is an experimental, post-modern novel; hovering on reclaiming lesbian space in heteronormative writing and yet manages to remain ambiguous about its boundaries of being queer.