It took a while for me to get comfortable with Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. Although the first page of the book welcomes you with a gem–Why is the measure of love loss?–and then an entire quotable paragraph a few blinks away–
You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. (p.09)
—one gets I got overwhelmed soon enough. Is there such a thing as “too much lyricism”? I like to think so, yes–especially when I’m bombarded with it page after page after page. Metaphor after metaphor after metaphor had me saying WTF one too many times.
But I ended up liking it. It took a while for me to do so, but I liked it well enough. Which puzzles me, really.
In the novel–and I use that loosely, mind you–we have the Unnamed, Un-Gendered Narrator, a person intent on loving and lusting and obsessing, although one who confesses that, he/she is “addicted to the first six months.” Following a string of lovers (I once had a boyfriend, I once had a girlfriend) and a partner named Jacqueline, UUGN meets Louise, the beautiful and very much married Louise. [I would be remiss in my duties as (as what exactly?) whatever–if I didn’t talk about the significance of gender in this piece. UUGN’s anonymity–his/her vagueness–allows the reader to examine what exactly gender means, the expectations attached to it. My own image of UUGN flickered from that of a woman, to that of a man, over and over. But I didn’t mind. In fact, that was one of the things I loved about this book.]
Heartbreak abounds. Of course. The measure of love is, after all, loss–weren’t we warned? Heartbreak and ruminations and manifestos and wistful This Is What Love Is declarations.
Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid. (p.09)
You never give away your heart; you lend it from time to time. (p.38)
It tends to lean toward the surreal, this narrator’s monologues. Philosophical, yes, but I like my dose of philosophy delivered with restraint. There’s just too much. One paragraph, the lover is an olive, the next she is a field, the next she is a sun and the narrator weeps because of this.
Wait a minute, I groaned at the page. Are you kidding me? There’s beautiful language, and then there’s language that glares at you under direct sunlight. (I do not know where that metaphor came from.) It succeeded several times, but unlike the drunkenness I felt with the lyricism of, say, Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Winterson’s novel manages to be both dense and vague. It’s a veritable Attack of the Metaphor, that we hardly see what is really being talked about.
And UUGN keeps repeating,
It’s the clichés that cause the trouble.
[Let me talk about the evolution of my preferences when it comes to language and narrative–until a couple of years ago, I was a staunch supporter of the Faulkner side of the argument: the lyric over the plain-spoken, the “poetic” over the “prosaic.” I devoured Wilfrido Nolledo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short fiction, Isabel Allende. I was in love with language, fascinated with how these authors presided over controlled chaos. And then I discovered Raymond Carver. And Lorrie Moore, and Alice Munro, and Richard Yates–and now Hemingway is on my shelves. I’ve developed an appreciation for more direct storytelling, an expertly pulled-off Tell Than Show. Does this mean I now scorn upon a well-executed field of purple prose? No, I still love my Nolledo and my Faulkner (although Allende has taken a backseat, sorry). Do I now valiantly raise sparse prose on the pedestal? Only if done well. I like to think I’m still figuring myself out.]
But, like I said, I ended up liking it. Generally speaking. Which tells me that I will always look favorably upon the author’s glee with the treatment of the language, no matter how many times I grimaced while holding the book.
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LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT A QUASI-SPOILER: A note to those who have read this before–that very last page? That second to the last paragraph that actually stands for the novel’s long-anticipated conclusion? [Winterson really made us wait for it, didn’t she?] What really happened? Did they get back together? Or was it all in the UUGN’s head? Email me, I am baffled. :| I don’t care if it’s supposed to be as ambiguous as the UUGN’s gender–I just want a consensus, haha.