Eating a hundred golden pippins in a single afternoon was the act of self-indulgence and dubious taste to which Jonathan Swift attributed the madness of his latest years. Sexing the Cherry is ripe with Swiftian tropes, from the Brobdingnagian heroine who makes men seem like Lilliputians, to the setting of the tale-within-a-tale on a flying island lightly adapted from the Laputa of Gulliver’s Travels. Fishiness, rather than juicy fruit, is Jeanette Winterson’s theme. In her first novel, The Passion, a lesbian had webbed feet: here, the malaise has spread inexorably upwards and a lover has turned into a mermaid.
Before Winterson read English at Oxford she worked as a beautician in a funeral parlour, and both of these experiences find their way into her writing. Sexing the Cherry is littered with corpses in various stages of dismemberment and literary necrophilia is the odour of the day. There are scents of Süskind’s Perfume in the gamy atmosphere, for in this ideologically sound creation reeking armpits are de rigeur. What this has to do with the Hopi Indians is not immediately apparent, but we are asked to gaze at our navels and ponder the meaning of life: ‘Matter, that thing the most solid and well-known, which you are holding in your hands and which makes up your body, is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light. What does this say about the reality of the world?’
These metaphysical meditations blossom into miniature essays in philosophy, sectioned off from the story with subheadings such as ‘Paintings 2’, ‘Time 3’ and ‘Hallucinations and Diseases of the Mind’. To help us make sense of all this a graphic designer has been hired, decorating the typeface with perky little emblems to alert us to the gender of the narrators: an unzipped banana when a man is about to speak, and a tough-looking pineapple for the heroine. By the end of the novel the banana is not so much split as cut off in its prime, its tip dangling nervously, which we gather is something to do with aerobics, the mercury poisoning of rivers and the rejuvenated greening of postfeminism.
Meanwhile the giantess, called DogWoman, has found a baby in the mud of the Thames: ‘What was there to call him, fished as he was from the stinking Thames? A child can’t be called Thames, no and not Nile either, for all his likeness to Moses…When a woman gives birth her waters break and she pours out the child and the child runs free. I would have liked to pour out a child from my body but you have to have a man for that and there’s no man who’s a match for me.’ Which is where the banana comes in. The child, now named Jordan, is taken to see raree-show where this exotic fruit is put on display. To everyone else it looks like oriental’s genitals, but Jordan sees a vision of a tropical island and grows up to be a landscape gardener in Wimbledon.
At times these imaginative flights work brilliantly, and if you like Angela Carter you’ll love this. There’s a prince who turns into a frog, twelve dancing princesses and a lesbian Rapunzel trapped in a tower of her own making, with a sense of feyness which nicely captures the spirit of Emma Tennant’s Wild Nights. Surreality is squeezed from sources as diverse as the essence of medieval folklore to the technicolor symbolism of Sinbad the Sailor which, combined with Chaucer’s House of Fame, provides the prop of a golden eagle who swoops off with one of the narrators. A uniped bounds from the Mappa Mundi into a land where men’s heads do grow beneath their shoulders; the nasty beasts of Chaucerian rumours are scrubbed from the clouds by cleaning women who go up in a balloon; in a house with no floors the inhabitants perambulate on a web of Heath Robinson trapezes. In this playground of postmodernist fiction every image has either an ancestor or an analogue, and it is one of the advantages of the genre that they don’t have to be acknowledged.
In seventeenth century Southwark, which provides the landscape for the bulk of the narrative, historical accuracy – is skittishly parodied and periods blended. together. John Trade scant appears on the prow of a ship muttering about Henry the Eighth, Charles the First is beheaded and Puritans frequent brothels with their penises strapped to their legs with bandages. DogWoman herself has a clitoris the-size of an orange, which may or may not be an allusion to Nell Gwynne but doesn’t add a lot to one’s sense of character. It is like being dosed with magic mushrooms and forced to watch non-stop Fellini, as the gallery of grotesques are wheeled on and do unspeakable, sometimes incomprehensible, things to each others’ bodies.
When we get to the reincarnations things get really difficult. DogWoman, it is suggested, becomes the owner of a dance studio off the Fulham Road, turning aerobic-crazy women into whirling dervishes, while Jordan joins the Merchant Navy and falls in love with a scientist who is camping somewhere in England and exposing herself to the environmental equivalent of a video nasty. The climax is all very meaningful if you can bear with it; my only plea is that, as we all fret about the ozone layer, our editor does not reassign me to monitoring sewerage outlets.