The Books: “Sexing the Cherry” (Jeanette Winterson)

71E1270Z0HL.gifDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson

A strange and wonderful book. I haven’t read it in years, and just flipping thru it this morning made me want to pick it up again. It’s truly bizarre … with elements of history (it’s set during the reign of Charles II in a pestilential London) mixed with straight-up fairy tale (princesses flying out of their bedroom windows at night). There are dual narrators. One is a semi-horrible yet benign woman named The Dog-Woman – a fat filthy character who has a throng of dogs living with her … and the other is her foundling son, Jordan. Jordan (if I am remembering correctly) has wanderlust – and has a small boat, he rides around on the Thames watching the sun rise. He befriends a man who is somehow in service to the King – and this man was responsible for bringing the first pineapple to England. This sort of thing makes Jordan dream of other places, other worlds. Could he get there without actually traveling? Much of his travels appear to take place in his own mind – but again, with Winterson, you can never be sure.

Jordan has fallen in love with someone from afar – a dancer – and he has set his heart on finding her again. His search takes him far and wide, and it seems that he must be just day-dreaming, he can’t actually believe that princesses fly out of their windows at night, can he? But in this world of pestilence and fire, of brand new fruits like pineapples, of time seeming like something that is fluid as opposed to fixed – anything is possible.

Like I said, much of the detail is lost to me, although I remember the structure quite well. It was mesmerizing to me the first time I read it. I know just where I was. I bought it in a beautiful bookshop across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. We were in a cute little town and there was an outdoor cafe. I had been living in a van for 2 months. (No, I was not trying to be like “Ooh, I was homeless once” Jewel.) I was, myself, outside of time and space. At least it felt that way. For 2 months, I had no address but that Westfalia, all my stuff was in boxes in my parents attic – and it’s quite an interesting (and at times disorienting) position to be in. You are unmoored. No way back because where would you go?? We were near the end of our unmoored journey and things had gotten very bad for me. I was reaching what I call the “wordless time” – when everything slowed to a standstill, and pretty much stopped – until the damn Westfalia broke and I found myself shouting at cops in Woodland Hills, California, and showing them my empty wallet and how I couldn’t pay for the tow. And within a month, I had moved to Chicago. Sight unseen. Broken up with my boyfriend of 4 years, leaving him behind in San Francisco … wondering what the hell had happened to his girlfriend. I’m not saying that Sexing the Cherry had anything to do with my descent into wordless paralysis. I just know that I read it right before I went under. It’s a vivid memory. The book is a small book, not even 200 pages, but it sucked me in. I read it in a day, probably. There are no rules in the book. I found that refreshing. I was sick of rules. Rules were killing me, strangling me. I couldn’t play by the world’s rules. They didn’t “fit” for me. I was losing it. Sexing the Cherry swoops into 17th century England – and there are times you feel you are reading historical fiction – with the civil wars and trials and all that … and then there are times when reality unhinges itself, and anything at all can happen. You are in a Swiftian world, like Gulliver visiting the floating island in the sky land … these alternate realities have their own rules they must obey. Things are logical – yet they are also fantastical.

I found that such a refreshing point of view, after being so trapped in logic nothing but logic. To me, ONLY logic makes no sense at all. I need the fantastical in order to breathe. Seems that Winterson understands that. I love her sensibility.

Here’s an excerpt. You’ll see what I mean about not being sure what is real and what is not. It is clear, from a couple of words, that Jordan is daydreaming about visiting this place – but the description of this town is so detailed, and goes on so long, that it takes on the trappings of something that is real, and actual. If there is anything I truly love about Winterson’s writing – it is THAT ability of hers.

I know many people find her to be one of the best writers about love that is out there. That is true. But for me, that’s not the hook (although I recognize her skill in that area). For me, the hook is the magical-reality thing that she does, weaving in illusion with down-and-dirty fact – seamlessly … making you question things, and also making you succumb, like a good reader should, to the logic of the fairy tale. Because, in the end, there is NOTHING more logical than a good fairy tale. It’s Winterson’s fairy-tale esthetic that gets me every time. Love it.

EXCERPT FROM Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson

The shining water and the size of the world.

I have seen both again and again since I left my mother on the banks of the black Thames, but in my mind it is always the same place I return to, and that one place not the most beautiful nor the most surprising.

To escape from the weight of the world, I leave my body where it is, in conversation or at dinner, and walk through a series of winding streets to a house standing back from the road.

The streets are badly lit and the distance from one side to the other no more than the span of my arms. The stone crumbles, the cobbles are uneven. 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 shattering 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 defence on the grounds that the words no longer belonged to them. Years had passed. Was it their fault if the city had failed to deal with its overheads? The judge ruled against the plaintiff but ordered the city to buy her a new mop. She was not satisfied, and was later found lining the chimneys of her accused with vitriol.

I once accompanied a cleaner in a balloon and was amazed to hear, as the sights of the city dropped away, a faint murmuring like bees. The murmuring grew louder and louder till it sounded like the clamouring of birds, then like the deafening noise of schoolchildren let out for the holidays. She pointed with her mop and I saw a vibrating mass of many colours appear before us. We could no longer speak to each other and be heard.

She aimed her mop at a particularly noisy bright red band of words who, from what I could make out, had escaped from a group of young men on their way home from a brothel. I could see from the set of my companion’s mouth that she found this particular job distasteful, but she persevered, and in a few moments all that remained was the fading pink of a few ghostly swear-words.

Next we were attacked by a black cloud of wrath spewed from a parson caught fornicating his mother. The cloud wrapped around the balloon and I feared for our lives. I could not see my guide but I could hear her coughing against the noxious smell. Suddenly I was drenched in a sweet fluid and all returned to lightness.

‘I have conquered them with Holy Water,’ she said, showing me a stone jar marked with the Bishop’s seal.

After that our task was much easier. Indeed I was sorry to see the love-sighs of young girls swept away. My companion, though she told me it was strictly forbidden, caught a sonnet in a wooden box and gave it to me as a memento. If I open the box by the tiniest amount I may hear it, repeating itself endlessly as it is destined to do until someone sets it free.

Towards the end of the day we joined with the other balloons brushing away the last few stray and vagabond words. The sky under the setting sun was the colour of veined marble, and a great peace surrounded us. As we descended through the clean air we saw, passing us by from time to time, new flocks of words coming from the people in the streets who, not content with the weight of their lives, continually turned the heaviest of things into the lightest of properties.

We landed outside the , where the dons, whose arguments had so thickly populated the ether that they had seen neither sun nor rain for the past five years, welcomed us like heroes and took us in to feast.

That night two lovers whispering under the lead canopy of the church were killed by their own passion. Their effusion of words, unable to escape through the Saturnian discipline of lead, so filled the spaces of the loft that the air was all driven away. The lovers suffocated, but when the sacristan opened the tiny door the words tumbled him over in their desire to be free, and were seen flying across the city in the shape of doves.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Sexing the Cherry” (Jeanette Winterson)

  1. The Books: “Sexing the Cherry” (Jeanette Winterson)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf for the Daily Book Excerpt: Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson A strange and wonderful book. I haven’t read it in years, and just flipping thru it this morning made me want to…

  2. Mark says:

    “To me, ONLY logic makes no sense at all.” I love that!

    It reminds me of another quote… I can’t remember who said it (maybe Picasso) but it was something to the effect of… “Computers are useless. They only give you the answer”

  3. The Books: “The Passion” (Jeanette Winterson)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf for the Daily Book Excerpt: The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson The Passion is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s one of those books, too, that I can read, and read…

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