Review: Written on the Body

written-on-the-bodyThis book was required reading for two of my college lit courses: one for modern women authors and other titled “queer theory”.  The former because Written on the Body was written by Jeannette Winterson in 1992; the latter because the unnamed narrator is of an undefined sex and gender. The obvious question: how can you write 190 pages in close, first person narration without indicating whether the speaker is male or female? So much in our society carries the understanding of being “for women”, “for men”, it seems unbelievable that a character won’t imply a preferred identity through their choices. In creating this ambiguity, Winterson is careful to never push her narrator too close to conventional ideas of masculinity or femininity.

Written on the Body is a love story detailing the narrator’s love for a married woman, Louise. However, the narrator carries on romantic relationships with both men and women. Many would assume the narrator’s sex based on Louise’s, but by having lovers of both sexes, the reader is denied this easy cue and forced to confront homosexual love even if they’d rather push it aside.

So many claim to not put people into boxes: male or female; straight or gay, but it seems normal to ask (in the beginning): what is s/he? But Winterson is masterful; writing alternately in the voice of a man and a woman. The narrator does things that are stereotypically feminine, but also things that are stereotypically masculine. The only consistent element is the narrator’s overwhelming love for Louise. Very quickly, this is all that matters.

In writing without a clear sex/gender, Winterson strips love of the usual boxes and frees it from the usual cliches. It runs boundless through her lyrical prose where she dissects its effects on the body, mind, and heart. During a break in the plot, she takes several parts of Louise’s body and pairs their anatomical definitions with poetic declarations of love:

“THE CLAVICLE OR COLLAR BONE: THE CLAVICLE IS A LONG BONE WHICH HAS A DOUBLE CURVE. THE SHAFT OF THE BONE IS ROUGHENED FOR THE ATTACHMENT OF THE MUSCLES. THE CLAVICLE PROVIDES THE ONLY BONY LINK BETWEEN THE UPPER EXTREMITY AND THE AXIAL SKELETON.

I cannot think of the double curve lithe and flowing with movement as a bony ridge, I think of it as the musical instrument that bears the same root. Clavis. Key. Clavichord. The first stringed instrument with a keyboard. Your clavicle is both keyboard and key. If I push my fingers into the recesses behind the bone I find you like a soft shell crab. I find the openings between the springs of muscle where I can press myself into the chords of your neck. The bone runs in perfect scale from sternum to scapula. It feels lathe-tuned. Why should a bone be balletic?” ( 129)

This section of the book is stunning. Winterson offers a version of love that revels in physical minutiae and imperfections to ask the question of how well we can know another through their body. How close can you come through adoration and physical intimacy with another person? In a culture that exults in sex to the point of desensitization, this careful study of the body is miraculous and nostalgic. The narrator runs her hands over Louise’s skin and ponders the stories of her scars, the nerves under her skin, and the impulses in her brain. It is a rare scene of true physical intimacy– a closeness through touch and sexuality that, in spite of being a physical exploration, is about connecting beyond the body.

“I know how your hair tumbles from its chignon and washes your shoulders in light. I know the calcium of your cheekbones. I know the weapon of your jaw. I have held your head in my hands but I have never held you. Not you in your spaces, spirit, electrons of life.” (120)

Most importantly, all this conversation of gender and love takes place within a fully realized story. Louise is fleshed out alongside her husband, Elgin. There are plenty of humorous anecdotes, flashbacks, and plot points. There is more action, more conversation, than you would expect for a novel with a genderless narrator. You would think this level of ambiguity could only exist in a vacuum, but it exists within the modern world.

I would give this a 5 for the beautiful writing. It is infinitely quotable; there is something worth including here on every page. I’ll prove it:

“Frank had the body of a bull, an image he intensified by wearing great gold hoops through his nipples. Unfortunately he had joined the hoops with a chain of heavy gold links. The effect should have been deeply butch but in fact it looked rather like the handle of a Chanel shopping bag.” (93)

BUT, there is much about this work that could be labeled experimental and there are times when it is more about the writing than conveying a story. As much as I love the break when the body is dissected for its beautiful language, there is also a part of me that does not like being pulled so far from the direction of the story. It is only because the language is beautiful that this book escapes being called “gimmicky”. It’s a fun conversation piece and it provoked some of the more interesting debates in both classes when it was read.

Overall: 3.7. Very pretty, but more experimental than I like.

Translation: If it’s assigned to your class, don’t grouse. I’d track down a borrowed copy and read it some rainy weekend.