Saturday, November 17, 2007

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

jeanette winterson written on the bodyI suppose in some ways I pride myself on enjoying books but rarely needing them, and more rarely still needing to read a particular book. Written on the Body is a book to be needed, a book which creates your need for it as you move through the pages.

Well, until the ending, which I find rather flags in such a way that one's need for the book terminates approximately in time with the narrative, perhaps a little before. Then again, I was reading the last few pages on a crowded bus packed with Harvard kids down to New Haven for this year's iteration of The Game. (I attended. I've never seen so many college kids confused—the scoreboard, which is laid out kind of strangely, didn't help, but it was clear most of them rarely watch football. Not that that is an indictment, just a comment.)

Disregarding the ending, however, a few thoughts:
The celebrated sexual ambiguity of the narrator is, I was somewhat surprised to note, remarkably natural. Not to such a degree that a hypothetical uninformed reader wouldn't pick up on it, but certainly to the degree that Winterson must have intended—it's a nagging question on every page, with every gesture and every clothing choice (those "recycle" shorts—more likely a woman's or a man's?), but it's an insistent, and not irritating, nagging.

The real charm of the novel is that it exposes the complexity of desire only by playing up its simplicity. Bodies are desired as such, and people are desired as such, and not as representatives of their gender. The title, then, suggests that the body exists underneath gender categories, as we exist underneath a layer of mostly dead or soon-to-be-dead epidermal cells. That's a grotesque metaphor, but if I read her right, Winterson supplies it. Desire is written on the body, but gender is something that comes between. One might even go so far as to call it a disconnect or a discontinuity between two people, between two bodies. We tend to think (and often to laugh) about the differences between the sexes as something ineradicable, natural, and universal—a universal bifurcation. Even as radical a notion as gender performativity assumes difference is foundational. Winterson asks us to imagine a simple unity at the core of desire. It's frightening.

Written on the Body is certainly not a mere roman à thèse or Tendenzroman (do we have a word for that in English?) but it is nearly one—it does encourage the reader to take it as such. Although it professes indifference toward its implications, it at times begs too hard some rather obvious gender studies-type questions.

Yet it is beautiful because of its aching passion for simplicity, for oneness, and ultimately for wholeness. It is both naïve and progressive, retro-romantic and utopian—and its conflicts box you in. Or they did me, and I think they trap readers especially. Winterson introduces her titular metaphor thus:
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.
The last sentence is beautifully ambiguous. There is the simple, obvious meaning—Louise has taken the words off the narrator's body and turned them into her own words, making a book. But there is also the more etymologically subtle sense—it may be a stretch, but contextually it works—trans + latus (4th principal part of fero) is to bear across—Louise is interpolating or consuming the narrator as well. We tend to think of translation as a conversion of words and not a consumption of them, an enclosing of them into our own book. We enter into a mutual translation with Winterson's novel then—we translate her novel into our book, and her novel translates our desire into itself.

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