What strikes me about reading Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry some time ago is my immediate reaction to it. However acclaimed, formally innovative, deconstructive and politically correct Winterson’s novel is, I still found myself not liking it that much. Imaginative and well-written, yes. But perhaps way too garish for me is all I can I think of now. That doesn’t mean all the clashing sounds and colors don’t have their charms, as these two paragraphs demonstrate.
The people who throng the streets shout at each other, their voices rising from the mass of heads and floating upwards towards the church spires and the great copper bells that clang the end of the day. Their words, rising up, form a thick cloud over the city, which every so often must be thoroughly cleansed of too much language. Men and women in balloons fly up from the main square and, armed with mops and scrubbing brushes, do battle with the canopy of words trapped under the sun.
The words resist erasure. The oldest and most stubborn form a thick crust of chattering rage. Cleaners have been bitten by words still quarrelling, and in one famous lawsuit a woman whose mop had been eaten and whose hand was badly mauled by a vicious row sought to bring the original antagonists to court. The men responsible made their defense on the grounds that the words no longer belonged to them. (17)
The author, as old Barthes would say, is indeed dead and language, Winterson adds, “always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.” The novel’s grotesque characters are entertaining; and so are certain portions of the narrative, like the part where one of the protagonists – of this patchwork of seemingly disparate multiplicity of narratives that barely gel, yet present itself as a novel – barged into a World Bank boardroom and throw the Gucci-clad executives in a sack. They were “discussing how to deal with the problem of the Third World. They want to build dams, clear the rain forests, finance huge Coca-Cola plants and exploit the rubber potential.” And then the Pentagon, where the same character smashes “smash through the maximum security doors, past the computers, the secrets, the army of secretaries, and burst into a band of generals…” who she lectures on how their own statistics “show that, if three per cent of the Defense Budget were spent on the poverty problem in the United States over the next ten years, there would be no poverty problem…,” and thereby making Winterson’s critical agenda clear.
But notwithstanding the problematization of gender, identity, time, space, Sexing the Cherry seems to bathe in a pessimistic premise that finds no hope in the viability of any struggle for change or emancipation from the dominating limits of the present order. The woman ends up alone struggling on her own against the powers that be that pollute the Earth and destroy the environment. She becomes an idealized hero who gives up “what’s comfortable in order to protect what they believe in or to live dangerously for the common good.”
It comes as no wonder that she begins to frame these travails as fantastic tales of exploration and adventure set during the 17th Century ascendance of the British Empire, thus tracing how
[e]very 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. (10)
Yet at the end of the novel I still get the impression that what one is left with is the endless and slippery flight of signs, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The future and the present and the past exist only in our minds, and from a distance the borders of each shrink and fade like the borders of hostile countries seen from a floating city in the sky. The river runs from one country to another without stopping. And even the most solid of things and the most real, the best-loved and the well-known, are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light. (144)