Some theory derives from thoughtful interrogation of texts or the world or somesuch. Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault – they all read deeply and their writing led others to think intensely about good stuff like identity construction or the postcolonial condition or why Henry James was probably gay. Much as I bitched and moaned about reading that theory, it opened up my approach to life and – more importantly – to literature.
But, then there are those fiction writers who you could swear read way too much theory before they wrote. They write these books that make you wonder, “Was this author intentionally trying to write something post-modern?” Sexing the Cherry is one of those books. It’s a paint-by-numbers postcolonial text that leads me to believe Jeanette Winterson composed it with a volume on Homi Bhabha by her side.
It’s as though she had a checklist of appropriate postcolonial themes. Gender-bending? Check: there’s the requisite princess who marries a woman disguised as a prince. Fluid sexuality? Check: the prostitutes are screwing the nuns and the men all come in to stick it to corpses in the brothel. Colonial power echoing in today’s corporate structure? Check: modern mercury in the river is cleverly juxtaposed with seventeenth-century prudes who try to stifle women and sexuality.
We’re all supposed to feel wicked smaht because we can follow Winterson’s pace and point of view shifts. Look! Bright, shiny language! Words are the star attraction, except, of course, it’s really the author who is front and center. When Jordan, a seventeenth-century man on a quest for a dancer who doesn’t exist, joins a street cleaner who captures old conversations floating above the city, we are supposed to all faint with excitement over our ability to decode Winterson’s point about words leaving a trace. Well done! We’re all so much smarter than Oprah’s book club readers!
Someone really ought to tell Jeanette Winterson that she’s not half so clever as she thinks she is.