It’s totally legit to suddenly review an old book from 1989! I reread Sexing the Cherry recently because it has crazy effects on my brain and I wanted to feel that craziness again. Now I think it’s time to write about it.
Sexing the Cherry is a weird and fucked up novel. It’s a literary acid trip. I first read it when I was 20, and it caused my mind to go to another place and never come back. A friend of mine had recommended it to me, and she was reading it in a university course as an example of postmodernism. Most of her classmates hated it because it was so weird and they didn’t get it. I was very intrigued by the titillating title and by the fact that this book was also on display in my university library as a “queer” book. It certainly is queer, in both senses of the word.
Jeanette Winterson likes to play with the concept of storytelling. She doesn’t just tell a story in a normal way, she turns storytelling into a theme and an art form and then she explodes your idea of what it means to tell a story. Sexing the Cherry is basically a series of paragraphs that are all exquisitely written and rich in philosophy, but they don’t necessarily relate to each other in any understandable way. The narrator is never reliable, and you don’t even always know who is narrating. A lot of the stories the narrators tell are completely preposterous, as if she’s testing you to see what you will believe, but her preposterous stories are so imaginative and superbly written that you don’t care that it’s not real. It becomes real because her writing skills make it real.
Right on the second page she lays out what I believe is the main point of the book, which is this: the real story is what’s written between the lines.
“Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle. These are 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. I could tell you the truth as you will find it in diaries and maps and log-books. I could faithfully describe all that I saw and heard and give you a travel book. You could follow it then, tracing those travels with your finger, putting red flags where I went.
For the Greeks, the hidden life demanded invisible ink. They wrote an ordinary letter and in between the lines set out another letter, written in milk. The document looked innocent enough until one who knew better sprinkled coal-dust over it. What the letter had been no longer mattered; what mattered was the life flaring up undetected…till now.
I discovered that my own life was written invisibly, was squashed between facts… (p2)”
This is exactly the thing for my INFP brain. “INFPs often drift into deep thought, enjoying contemplating the hypothetical and the philosophical more than any other personality type. Left unchecked, INFPs may start to lose touch. . .and it can take a great deal of energy from their friends or partner to bring them back to the real world.” (This sums up my life.)
When Winterson first explained to me that the real story is what might have been, or what’s written in invisible ink, my brain exploded. And then she went on to describe all sorts of fantastic and magical things and I knew all of them could be true, even though they were impossible.
I have said that this book doesn’t present a coherent plot. There are all sorts of plots going on, and it’s up to you, the reader, to decide which ones are true, and also to decide what truth even is. The basic bits of plot that I can be sure about is that a woman named the Dog Woman adopts a son named Jordan, and he likes boats and travels the world. Both the Dog Woman and Jordan take turns narrating in the first person, but near the end a couple of new narrators appear out of nowhere and you never really know who they are. Also, the book jumps to different time periods just for fun, and Winterson is quite clear that time is not what we think it is. In this postmodern world, time is whatever you want to make of it.
What is clear in this book is the themes. The themes are storytelling, love, sexuality, gender, history, and time. I would also add another theme, and you won’t see this one in an official study guide, but misandry is also a recurring topic.
I have already talked about the storytelling theme. The themes of love and sexuality are entirely separate. Love is presented as a disease of the mind, something that should be prevented at all costs, and something that which will cause suffering and erratic behavior in those afflicted with it. The Dog Woman worries more about her son’s heart than his physical safety. He travels by sea to other lands but the real danger he’s in is because of his love for a dancer.
Sexuality is often represented as grotesque, ugly and incomprehensible—especially male sexuality. There is one glorious bit of lesbian sexuality in the section on the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Supposedly, each of the twelve princesses married a prince, but one of them found that her husband was a woman. She describes her relationship in beautiful terms, and it’s far different from the horrid descriptions of male sexuality.
“I never wanted anyone but her. I wanted to run my finger from the cleft in her chin down the slope of her breasts and across the level plains of her stomach to where I knew she would be wet. I wanted to turn her over and ski the flats of my hands down the slope of her back. I wanted to pioneer the secret passage of her arse. When she lay down I massaged her feet with mint oil and cut her toenails with silver scissors. I coiled her hair into living snakes and polished her teeth with my saliva.” p49
She describes their love and then states “The man I had married was a woman.” I’ve always been in love with that sentence. The husband I married is a woman, too. 😉
The theme of gender comes up a lot—she switches the sex stereotypes among the two main characters. The Dog Woman is large, strong, violent, and frightening. Her son Jordan is much softer, and he is able to pass as a woman just by dressing as one.
The Dog Woman is described as freakishly large, and also disgusting in multiple ways. Interestingly, she’s not large because of being fat. She’s large because she willed herself to be a powerful person, despite her sex.
“I wasn’t fat because I was greedy; I hardly ate at all. I was fat because I wanted to be bigger than all the things that were bigger than me. All the things that had power over me. It was a battle I intended to win. It seems obvious, doesn’t it, that someone who is ignored and overlooked will expand to the point where they have to be noticed, even if the noticing is fear and disgust.” p128
The Dog Woman describes going to the circus and finding an elephant on a scale. Groups of people would stand on the other side of the scale to try to weigh down the elephant. The Dog Woman is so fat that when she steps on the scale, the elephant flies into the air so fast and far that it becomes just a tiny point in the sky. She comments hilariously, “It is a responsibility for a woman to have forced an elephant into the sky.” p18 This is the way she treats gender. She states the exact opposite of society’s ideas about women, sometimes matter-of-factly, and sometimes with a hint of humor.
I’m not going to explore the themes of history and time, just because those aren’t themes I’m particularly interested in. Moving right along to the final theme that I’ve named, which is misandry.
I’ve said that Winterson describes male sexuality as grotesque. She really likes to describe pious men who preach against lust but then go to the brothel to engage in buggery and bestiality in secret. She also wrote a hilarious scene in which a random man in the street asks the Dog Woman to fellate him.
“Put it in your mouth,” he said. “Yes, as you would a delicious thing to eat.”
I like to broaden my mind when I can and I did as he suggested, swallowing it up entirely and biting it off with a snap. As I did so my eager fellow increased his swooning to the point of fainting away, and I, feeling both astonished by his rapture and disgusted by the leathery thing filling up my mouth, spat out what I had not eaten and gave it to one of my dogs.” p37.
This makes me laugh every time. She mocks men many times throughout the novel, although I have to note that she treats the male character Jordan with respect.
I don’t have quite the same reaction to the book now as I did when I was 20. I’m more jaded now and I’m getting pretty tired of postmodernism. After a relentless tide of “reality is whatever you think it is” coming from trans activists, it’s not as much fun anymore pondering those weird ideas. But there’s so much in this book that I love that I still enjoy reading it today. I can enjoy the grey area between what is real and what is made up, as long as it’s in a work of fiction, and I know I’m just reading it to go on a fun mental ride.