Suspending Gender: The Politics of Indeterminacy in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body

Ellen E Berry

[1] Written on the Body is a painfully intimate first-person account of a Grand Passion, of love won and lost. It is related by an ungendered, unnamed, sexually plural, spatially dislocated, temporally unmoored, and—for a novel called Written on the Body—curiously disembodied narrator. The story told in the novel is a simple, even stereotypical, one. The narrator falls in love with a beautiful married woman, Louise, who, five months into the relationship, is revealed to have cancer. The narrator strikes a bargain with Louise's husband, Elgin, a doctor, who agrees to treat Louise only if the narrator abandons her. The narrator decamps for Yorkshire, without telling Louise, after several months departs again for London in a futile search for her, and returns north to face an uncertain future.

[2] There are sections of the text meant to suggest that the narrative action unfolds in a present moment—most notably the book's last few paragraphs. However, the bulk of the events are retrospectively narrated, with an often confusing relationship between chronological and narrated time, distant and more recent recollections. They also are filtered through the narrator's memory of such things as his/her previous (failed) relationships and colored by his/her efforts to convince the reader that the relationship inspiring this story is a singular one, is not like all the many others. The text is thus motivated by a logically impossible effort to demonstrate a negative, and the (il)logic of negation conditions and radically destabilizes the text as a whole. The simultaneously present and curiously absent position of the narrator is only one of the many paradoxes that pervade this text. These include its extremes of narrative, linguistic, and generic self-consciousness, undercut by the narrator's frequent lack of self-awareness or its paradoxical stance that critiques the cliches and conventions of romance while remaining in complicity with them. "I don't want to reproduce, [the conventions of romance] but to make something completely new," the narrator tells us (108).

[3] Written on the Body is largely a realist text set in a contemporary moment—a striking departure from the two fantastic novels that immediately precede it in Winterson's oeuvre, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. But it also is an experimental novel of the most literal sort. In it, Winterson poses the questions what would be the effects of a love story narrated by an ungendered, sexually polymorphous persona, and what would be the consequences of such a narrative stance for this most ideologically freighted of genres? Does Winterson's experiment succeed in liberating the love story from the constraints of gendered and heterosexualized scripts? Does rendering gender indeterminate and proliferating sexual categories—as the novel so painstakingly tries to do—necessarily prove transgressive in a more general sense? What is the critical force of a radically indeterminate text as it intersects with politicized reading practices and the identity categories they inevitably mobilize and foreclose?

[4] Because the narrator's sexual and gender identity so consistently are rendered undecideable, and because he/she comes to us through a series of masks, roles, performances, quotations, translations, Written on the Body, among its other effects, dislocates readers from easy or consistent identification or disidentification with the gendered positions held out by conventional romance plots—whether heterosexual or lesbian. At the same time, the extreme intimacy created by the first person point of view and compounded by the intimate confessional nature of the narrator's descriptions, invite, even demand, our sympathy—if not always our identification or approval. As is true of the narrator, we are positioned in shifting, frequently paradoxical stances and asked to hold them all as possibilities rather than as contradictions.

[5] Still, it is difficult not to be seduced and dazzled by the narrator's heartfelt lyricism, arch self-mockery and sheer linguistic inventiveness, as difficult as it is to disbelieve in Louise's physical re-embodiment at the end of the novel (as I am always reminded when I teach the text). In fact, though, the novel ends at a moment of nearly perfect undecideability, confounding our ability to close it—to know how the love story ends. Having returned from the unsuccessful trip to London to locate Louise, a trip in which he/she sees Louise's phantom around every corner, the narrator re-enters the cottage in defeat to find his/her friend, Gail Right, as at home as an old sofa (as the narrator might say). After recounting his/her failure, remorse and regret, the narrator presents a two-paragraph description of Louise standing in the kitchen door—which may or may not be materially true—and one paragraph describing the emotional impact of her (supposed ) re-embodiment: "The walls are exploding...I stretch out my hand and reach the corner of the world...I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields" (190).

[6] While Winterson gives the illusion that we are experiencing the precise moment to which the entire novel has been leading, in fact it closes on a freeze frame of sorts in which presence and absence, reality and fantasy co-exist, a point of what Brian McHale calls ontological flickering. The novel's final pages then are equally about negation, loss, distance, and disembodiment and reunion, affirmation, presence. Perhaps this is a moment of perfect desire—whether it describes a fantasy projection on the narrator's part or not—and thus a fitting end for a postmodern love story as well as a fitting "resolution" to the narrator's central dilemma: how to reconcile the passion of new love (the "holiday") with the comfort of a long-term relationship (the "homecoming"). While the novel may be impossible to close definitively, the ending nonetheless does act as a "culmination" of sorts for the many kinds of indeterminacy, undecideability, ambiguity and contradiction (strategies of the negative) that pervade the novel, of which the narrator's undecideable gender is only the most notorious. In this way, Winterson, paradoxically, both proves the remarkable tenacity of inherited scripts and, at the same time, remakes the love story as a site of paradox, as an experience of limits.

Reading Indeterminacy

[7] While many critics of the novel have focused on the consequences of the narrator's indeterminate gender and sexuality, Winterson takes pains to render the text indeterminate in many other ways. These strategies include—most overtly—self-conscious statements on the narrator's part about the unreliability of memory as well as his/her recognition of his/her own emotional unreliability. How can the narrator (not to mention the reader) be assured of his/her own long-term fidelity to Louise when the physical relationship has ended at five months and the narrator has never had a relationship lasting longer than six ("I'm addicted to the first 6 months," he/she tells us [79])?

[8] First person narration also always raises the possibility of the narrator's unreliability. In Written on the Body, this fact is compounded by direct statements of self-doubt on the narrator's part along with contradictory statements that suggest his/her unreliability, or, at the very least lack of self-awareness. For example, early on in his/her account of the relationship with Louise, the narrator wonders, "Have I got it wrong, this hesitant chronology" (15) and shortly thereafter directly addresses the reader: "You're wondering if I can be trusted as a narrator" (24). Accused of fabrication by Inge ("You're making it up") the narrator wonders "Am I" and later asks him/herself "Did I invent Louise? Is memory the more real place?" In a lengthy description of Louises's husband, Elgin, the narrator states, "I can't be relied upon to describe Elgin properly," a statement perhaps meant to reassure the audience of his/her veracity in all other matters but one that has the opposite effect (92).

[9] That the narrator lacks self-awareness—even is emotionally obtuse—is reinforced by discrepancies between his/her accounts of relationships and the reported reactions of other characters in the text. He/she may resist being "read" and known by Louise and others ("never unfold too much, tell the whole story"), but, in fact, the novel suggests that he/she is something of an open book. For instance, early in the novel, when the narrator is ending the relationship with Jacqueline (to take up with Louise) she asks "'What are you going to do?'" to which the narrator responds, "'It's for us to decide that. It's a joint decision." Astutely, Jacqueline responds, "'You mean we'll talk about it and you'll do what you want anyway'" (58). Later in the text, a friend, trying to console the narrator over the loss of Louise, remarks insightfully "'At least your relationship with Louise didn't fail—it was the perfect romance'" because unfinished and therefore capable of the narrator's infinite idealization of it (187).

[10] Most obviously, the narrator's relationship with the appropriately named Gail Right, is focused around her truth-telling, her kindness to the narrator and her insights into his/her relationship with Louise. Unlike the narrator, Gail is aware of her own flaws; she is the essence of comfort and as insistently embodied as Louise is sometimes ethereal. "'I know,' "she tells the narrator, "'that you think I'm a fat old slag who just wants a piece of something firm and juicy. Well, you're right. But I'd do my share of the work. I'd care for you and be a good friend to you and see you right. I'm not a sponger, I'm not a tart. I'm a good-time girl whose body has blown'" (149). Gail also becomes the agent of the narrator's dawning awareness that perhaps she/he has been wrong in his/her actions toward Louise. ''You made a mistake,'" Gail tells the narrator. "'You shouldn't have run out on her....She wasn't a child....You didn't give her a chance to say what she wanted. You left....The trouble with you is that you want to live in a novel'" (158-9). Later, near the end of the novel, as the narrator confesses his/her failure to find Louise, he wonders "Did I invent her? (189). Gail replies, "'No, but you tried to....She wasn't yours for the making'" (189).

[11] The gap between the narrator's self-fashioning and others' assessments of him/her is responsible for a good deal of the humor and pathos (sometimes bathos) in the novel. Winterson further emphasizes the narrator's complexity and unreliability through the text's restless associative structure which seems motivated by a futile desire to recapture the absence at its core: the body of Louise. This mimics the structure of memory itself, which is notoriously unreliable as it selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies people and events from the past. At times, it's simply a visual or aural association that triggers the narrator's memory. For instance, the narrator glances at a sea shell and this reminds him/her of Louise's "shell of a marriage" to Elgin (59), which, several pages later transforms into shell as a metaphor for lovemaking.

[12] At other times the narrator's musings—typically about past lovers—become long digressions, which have the effect of delaying the story we most want to hear: the account of the narrator's relationship with Louise as if the narrator is resisting turning Louise into a memory, a narrative like all the many others. For example, early in the text the narrator recalls renting a room with Louise, "to try to be together for more than dinner or a night or a cup of tea behind the library" (13).This memory leads to an elaborate digression on marriage and fidelity (complete with an imagined dramatic scenario) and the relationship with Bathsheba (who has cheated on the narrator) (14-17). After returning to the story of Louise in the rented room, the narrator again spins away to the stories of former girlfriends, one who liked to make love in unusual places, and, one, Inge, the anarcha-feminist who draws the narrator into her extreme plans to blow up a men's bathroom. These abrupt time and place shifts also make it difficult to know where we are in the recounting, hard to separate Louise from all the others, even though this difference is precisely what the narrator is so insistent that we see.

[13] The unstable, imprecise—even duplicitous—nature of language adds to the narrator's difficult and painful self-assessment (and ours of him/her) as the narrator tries to build up positions of authority in language which language itself calls into question. In one of the novel's most significant scenes (and, interestingly, one of the longest uninterrupted reported interchanges with Louise in the whole book), the narrator declares (after their first night making love), "'Louise, I Iove you'" to which she replies "'Don't say that now. Don't say it yet. You might not mean it'" (52). The narrator remembers him/herself "protesting with a stream of superlatives, beginning to sound like an advertising hack. Naturally this model had to be the best the most important, the wonderful even the incomparable...The more I underlined it the hollower it sounded" (52). After confessing to feeling emotionally out of control (again) Louise replies "'So you try and gain control by telling me you love me. That's a territory you know, isn't it? That's romance and courtship and whirlwind. I don't believe you [don't want control]'" The narrator, looking back on it from the present (from the physical absence of Louise), has to admit that Louise was right to mistrust him/her at the time—that he/she had been lying [to him/herself, to us as readers, to Louise]. "If in doubt be sincere. That's a pretty little trick of mine....I regretted telling her those stories about my girlfriends. I had wanted to make her laugh and she had laughed at the time [of the early friendship]. Now I had strewn our path with barbs. She didn't trust me. As a friend I had been amusing. As a lover I was lethal" (53).

[14] The narrator, a proper modernist, knows that "a precise emotion," his/her singular love for Louise, "demands a precise expression" (le mot juste). Yet he/she is frequently forced to admit that linguistically he/she is often "trapped in a cliché every bit as redundant as my parent's roses round the door" and to wonder "why...I collude in this misuse of language" (15). The more this clever wordsmith and translator, this linguist of love, struggles to be truthful and precise, the more he/she is forced to admit that "I love you" is always a quotation, always filled with the history and intentions of others. And if every utterance—even the most heartfelt and authentic—always arises from the already said, one can never be new or original, and the narrator will never be able to recover in language the singularity of Louise. The narrator's modernist desire also suggests a properly postmodern performance anxiety, a sense of inadequacy and belatedness in the face of the weight of inherited literary tradition. Of course, the singular ineffability of love combined with the overwhelming need to express it in language has been a literary trope for centuries. As Carol Siegel astutely puts it, this paradox suggests that love, to the degree that it remarks the failure of representation, is perhaps one of the earliest manifestations of our own modernity (Siegel, email exchange, 12 April, 2007).

[15] The narrator's extreme self-consciousness and lack of faith in her/his ability to use language with precision—how can I know that I mean what I say—mirrors the reader's confusion over the narrator's veracity, which, combined with our frequent spatial and temporal displacement causes the narrative itself to become epistemologically unstuck in textual space—the infinite regress of the negative. This pervasive sense of instability is reinforced again by the narrator's thematic tacking between that which is deemed real, authentic, sincere, present, and singular on the one hand and that which is considered a sham, inauthentic, reproduced, translated, simulated and virtual on the other hand. For instance, shortly after leaving London and arriving in Yorkshire, the grief-stricken narrator ruminates on the fundamental characteristics of living things and wonders about the difference between love and reproduction. After stating that he/she "has no desire to reproduce," an activity associated with reproduced Queen Anne style furniture and the model nuclear family, the narrator declares "I don't want a model, I want the full-scale original. I don't want to reproduce I want to make something entirely new" (108).

[16] Yet the more these seemingly secure oppositions are asserted, the more they blur into one another. For example, in one of several accounts of his/her relationship with Bathsheba, the narrator recounts "Telling the truth, she said, was a luxury we could not afford and so lying became a virtue....Telling the truth was hurtful and so lying became a good deed" (17).

[17] In the early days of the relationship with Louise, the narrator recalls that he/she and Louise "were in a virtual world where the only taboo was real life. But in a true virtual world [an oxymoron?] I could have gently picked up Elgin and dropped him forever from the frame" (98). This comment directly follows the narrator's lengthy speculation on the future of love in an age of virtual technology in which "As far as your sense can tell you are in a real world...of your own choosing. ...You will be able to try out a Virtual life with a Virtual lover. You can go into your Virtual house and do Virtual housework, add a baby or two, and even find out if you'd rather be gay. Or single. Or straight....And sex? ....Courtesy of the fibreoptic network the virtual epidermis will be as sensitive as our own outer layer of skin" (97). Although the narrator strenuously rejects this vision, in fact isn't virtuality MORE real than language because it more convincingly creates the fiction of embodiment—what the narrator longs for? Wouldn't virtuality as a mode of representation convey more of the illusion of presence, be closer to the real thing the narrator so desires (here Louise's body)? Where and what is the real thing in love? This commentary may also reflect the narrator's postmodern anxiety over the waning of print culture in the age of a new medium as well as the belatedness of the very genre he/she's writing in

[18] Whatever else it is, Written on the Body is a virtuoso performance of gendered indeterminacies at the level of behaviors/roles, the literary conventions of romance—both heterosexual and homosexual—and the metaphoric level of language. Most obviously, the narrator relates his/her relationships with both women and men (although the former outnumber the latter). Although unnamed he/she is referred to variously as Lothario (a character from Nicholas Rowe's The Fair Penitent who seduces and betrays the female lead) but also Alice (in Wonderland, B. Toklas?), a boy scout, Lauren Bacall, and Christopher Robin. Analogously, in some of the relationships the narrator recounts he/she occupies a more passive traditionally female role (e.g. "I was Judith's bottom;" Bathsheba gives the narrator emotional clap). In others the narrator occupies more conventionally male ones—the lover as back door man or a "tweedy big-game hunter." In fact, these romantic relationships seem determined less by sexual object choice, the conventions of gendered behavior or an alignment between gender and sexual behavior than by the narrator's ongoing vacillation between the desire for sexual excitement and risk (" a voluptuous exile freely chosen"in search of "the never-sleep non-stop almighty orgasm) and the desire for comfort and emotional safety. For instance, after relating the story of intense lovemaking with a married woman—and her return to her husband—the narrator concludes "such things lead the heart-sore to the Jacqueline's of this world but the Jacqueline's of this world lead to such things. Is there no other way? Is happiness always a compromise?" (74).

[19] In the relationship with Louise the narrator believes he/she has found both holiday and homecoming. And while some critics deplore the apparently stereotypical nature of the relationship (the allure of the beautiful dying woman, the power imbalance suggested in the narrator's metaphors of exploration and conquest) in fact, Louise is also insistently bi-gendered in her behaviors (if not in her physicality). She is the aggressor in initiating the relationship with the narrator (who states "I wanted you to possess me" 51) and the narrator as often as not refers to her using masculine metaphors as feminine ones. She is a knight in shining armor (123), cocked and ready to fire (136) a Roman Cardinal (to the narrator's choir boy) (136). In relation to Louise, the narrator is a child (80), an anchorite, and, in an amazingly gender indeterminate description, "Lover and child, virgin and roué....I was as shy as an unbroken colt. I had Mercutio's swagger....I quivered like a schoolgirl" (81-2). As a man of science, Louise's husband, Elgin, is both powerful and authoritative—enough to make the narrator abandon Louise—and feminized (his small stature, his passivity, his penchant for masochism) and we're told that Louise marries him because she knows she can control him (34). The narrator's relationship with Elgin—which is extensively described—might be read as a power struggle (complete with a physical fight) between men for Louise's own good. Or, in leaving Louise, the narrator could be put in a feminized position of selfless renunciation. Or his/her leaving Louise could be read as a failure of commitment and an act of cowardice—perhaps more stereotypically male. The novel contains multiple references to mirroring and twinship between the narrator and Louise—suggesting an image of perfect mutuality from a lesbian romance. But the narrator also has what can only be described as a fear of castration dream the night before he/she first makes love to the powerful Louise, suggesting a Freudian fear of the devouring woman (40).

[20] As I hope these descriptions begin to suggest, Winterson takes great pains simultaneously to mobilize and prevent stereotypical identifications or disidentifications on the reader's part, to suspend gender. The various permutations of gendered behaviors and sexual desires that circulate throughout the text force the reader to remain flexible as we are asked to position and reposition ourselves in relation to the narrator's desire and our own. These positions foreground the radically unstable nature of gender, the multiplicity of ways that sexual desire may be mobilized and expressed, and the fact that desire itself always exceeds the categories we have to express it.

Reading Indeterminately?

[21] In her article on Winterson's version of what she calls the "lesbian postmodern," Laura Doan suggests that in her fiction Winterson politicizes the postmodern cultural domain and postmodern textual strategies "by collapsing binaries and boundaries, demanding the reconfiguration of gender constructions and deregulating heteronormativity through the genesis of pluralistic sexual identities" (Doan, p. 141). In so doing, she "mobilizes and animates a feminist political strategy of resistance, forcing and enforcing new mappings of the social and cultural order and providing alternatives to the weary boundaries and binaries of heterosexual patriarchal capitalist culture" (Doan, 154). Thus, she concludes, Winterson enacts in fiction Judith Butler's theoretical call for "a thoroughgoing appropriation and redeployment of the categories of identity themselves, not merely to contest 'sex' but to articulate the convergence of multiple sexual discourses at the site of identity in order to render that category permanently problematic" (Butler, 128). While Doan does not include Written on the Body in her analysis of Winterson's sexing of the postmodern, the above quotations suggest an even more precise description of the strategies at play in this novel, if not the spectacular consequences that Doan sees arising from such strategies.

[22] I find it surprising, then, that so many feminist critics of the novel work to close down rather than leave circulating the indeterminacies of the text in favor of readings that effectively reinstall boundaries and binaries—albeit in the name of advancing progressive political agendas—in the act of calling for and celebrating their dissolution. If identity is rendered "permanently problematic" are politicized reading practices—especially those that depend on varieties of identification, naming, and closure—still possible? More specifically, why do critics who acknowledge Winterson's radical questioning of the stability of gender and sexuality in Written on the Body so consistently compel these identities to cohere under the name "lesbian"?

[23] Because Winterson has always been an out (and outspoken) lesbian author, and because the award-winning Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was frankly autobiographical, there has been a strong critical investment in foregrounding both autobiographical and lesbian approaches to her subsequent texts. This is not withstanding Winterson's own later rejection of the term lesbian writer and her insistence that she is a writer who happens to be a lesbian. In "The Erupting Lesbian Body," written just two years after the publication of Written on the Body, Cath Stowers aims to reclaim a consistent lesbian aesthetic that she finds running throughout Winterson's work, thereby counteracting approaches that, according to her, have bracketed consideration of Winterson's lesbianism. While Stowers is careful to stress that her approach constitutes only one possible reading of this text, she moves quickly from an acknowledgment of the narrator's gender ambiguity and bisexuality to an assertion that this narrator fulfills "distinctly lesbian aims"(Stowers, 91). Stowers charts a trajectory in the narrative in which the narrator moves from "masculinist" models of conquest, possession, and penetration to "radical relations of reciprocity" with Louise, (Stowers, 93). The ending of the novel (and the re-embodiment of Louise) in particular portrays the "erupting of lesbian desire" as the excess in patriarchal heterosexual narratives, a desire that "detonates male paradigms, rupturing male models of travel, gender, desire, and fracturing patriarchal systems of signification" (Stowers, 98).

[24] In establishing her reading, Stowers focuses on the rejection of a particular set of behaviors on the narrator's part—desires for conquest and possession—and the advancement of others (equality in the relationship with Louise) in order to establish the narrator as lesbian. Similarly, in her careful narratological reading of the novel, Ute Kauer argues that Winterson's goal in Written on the Body is to "deconstruct clichés about love, gender, and specific male or female behavior" (Kauer, 45). Yet, while she notes the narrator's embrace of such roles as the cool male hero, she feels it necessary to "prove" that the narrator actually is female. In making this case, she cites as evidence the facts that "male" myths are more frequently satirized, ironized and deconstructed in the text and that the narrator demonstrates more sympathy with women than with men in scenes such as the one in the clap clinic (Kauer, 46-48).

[25] Lisa Moore invokes the image of what she dubs the "virtual lesbian" to refer to Winterson's imagination in her fiction of "a lesbian body without a liberatory political agenda" (Moore, 104). As other critics have done, Moore notes the ways that the text "insists upon a deferral of fixed sexual identities" through its careful structuring of the narrator's gender ambiguity, (Moore, 105). Yet she insists that the text's indeterminacy is "accomplished in and through linguistic and representational conventions drawn from lesbian culture" (Moore, 109). For instance, in citing the virtual reality passage—which I argued earlier is meant to suggest an imagination of all sexual and gender possibilities in a future virtual world—Moore nonetheless reduces these possibilities to the lesbian fetish object: the dildo. In a careful reading of an early scene recounting the narrator's relationship with Inge, the anarcha-feminist, Moore demonstrates the ways in which Winterson codes the narrator as lesbian even as she acknowledges the ways in which Winterson "appropriates the experiences and investments of a wide range of behaviors and identifications, variously gendered and sexualized beings in a structural enactment of Virtual Reality" (Moore, 110). Yet she concludes that this "postmodern pastiche...nonetheless allows for the grand romantic obsession of lesbian fiction..." (Moore, 110). With her conception of the virtual lesbian, Moore tries to reconcile Winterson's postmodern experimentalism and her lesbianism. Nonetheless, she also tends to reinstall the lesbian as stable identity category even as she acknowledges the bodily moments in Winterson's work "that don't add up to recognizable identities," moments "we [critics] have been trained not to acknowledge" (Moore, 123).

[26] Leigh Gilmore directly confronts the ways in which Written on the Body mobilizes and frustrates readerly expectations about how and whether a lesbian author writes a lesbian text in order to explore what not-naming reveals about gender, sexuality, and the modes of signifying them in fiction. Among other things, Gilmore claims that the novel "provokes anxiety" precisely because what is absent from it is "the signifying chain of identity that presumably corresponds to a material reality in which identity coheres through the progressive, motivated, and linked signification of sex, gender, sexuality" (Gilmore, 123). Autobiographical readings of the text reduce this dissonance and anxiety by compelling the narrator's identity to cohere under the name lesbian—a "grid of intelligibility already in place" (Gilmore, 128).

III. What's Indeterminacy Got to Do with It?

[27] In her article on the "emotional politics" of reading Written on the Body, Lynne Pearce helps to explain some of the critical dissonance and political anxiety generated by the radical indeterminacy of Winterson's text. She notes that "what presents itself as critical and political judgment and discrimination [on the part of critics of the text] is often concealing a far more messy and desperate struggle between text and reader," a struggle involving "emotional engagements of a quite different order to the readings of texts made out of particular theoretical frameworks and interpretive communities" (Pearce, 29). Pearce's article details her own movement from being an enchanted fan in love with Winterson's writing to being a frustrated and disillusioned one, conveying through her own example "the lengths the reader is prepared to go to protect her relationship with a special text or author" (Pearce, 37). Processes of projection, disavowal or misreading, while, arguably, always part of critical practices are more likely to occur when, as Pearce puts it, "there is something more at stake than simple accuracy or inventiveness of interpretation" (Pearce, 33), the advancement of and personal identification with a particular set of political values for instance. And such processes are even more likely to become evident when a radically indeterminate text is involved that consistently manipulates, frustrates, and accommodates multiple readerly desires and that continually undercuts the grounds for stabilizing any single interpretive stance.

[28] In the end, Pearce argues in favor of an interactive process of interpretation between text and critic/reader that allows us to understand the "emotional residue" that escapes interpretive frameworks found in "the gap between what the reader/critic thinks she is doing and what she actually does" (Pearce, 31). One gap manifested in the above readings is that between a theoretical call for undermining "the sanctity and security of the lesbian as a category of being" (Wiegman, 5), as Robyn Wiegman puts it, and the continuing political needs for visibility and recognition within lesbian feminist communities. Because Winterson has achieved international acclaim as a writer, critical insistence on naming the lesbian in her texts undoubtedly stands in for larger desires for recognition, among them a desire not to relinquish the public naming of lesbian identities. These practices suggest that part of the emotional residue Pearce describes is the desire called feminism, a desire that causes us to read with an investment in identifying signs of a more liberatory political future and expanding the sites where representations of such a future might be glimpsed.

[29] Gilmore suggests that Winterson's refusal to name and stabilize the signifier lesbian means that the narrator's identity "persists [only] through and as the absence of Louise" (Gilmore, 133). The novel is about reading this and other absences generated through its complex resistance to conventions of autobiographical, gendered and sexual representation, a resistance that pushes the text to the limits of representation itself. This suggests another critical anxiety arising from an encounter with Written on the Body, an anxiety provoked by all limit texts: their refusal of critical mastery. Much of our critical sophistication is undone by such texts. In part, this explains a preference within politicized reading communities for realist works that most easily support practices of identification, clear critique, closure, and particular allegories of reading. Deconstructions of novelistic form and stable identity—including critical identity—can be exhilarating in theory, but psychologically unsettling in practice. Limit texts stand as a reminder of this fact and help to guard against too easy a conflation of theory and its enactment in any single text and too easy an assumption that deconstructions of stable identities always produce utopian outcomes.

[30] It's been said that one of the most important functions of art is its power to make manifest the complexity of our desires in front of works. Pearce's reading of Written on the Body highlights the emotional residue—her feelings of anger and frustration—that escapes critical categories, and Moore alludes to moments in the text that don't cohere into recognizable identities, moments that "we [critics] have been trained not to acknowledge" (Moore, 123). This suggests that encounters with the novel also leave behind something like a textual residue. While the narrator, in my opinion, fails to capture the singularity of Louise, what Winterson brilliantly captures in the novel is the narrator's singularity and complexity, a particularity that exceeds the critical categories—including my own—that seek to name it and so stabilize and render it typical. I suppose in the end this essay is, in part, a plea for recognition of the value of paradox, indeterminacy, and other strategies of a negative aesthetic. Such a recognition might well be a means of confronting our own feminist non-knowledge, of facing our (not always feminist) desires in the face of limit texts.

Works Cited

Doan, Laura, ed. The Lesbian Postmodern. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Doan, Laura, "Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Postmodern." In Doan. The Lesbian Postmodern, pp.137-55. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Wiegman, Robyn. "Introduction: Mapping the Lesbian Postmodern." In Doan. The Lesbian Postmodern, pp.1-20. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Moore, Lisa. "Teledildonics: Virtual Lesbians in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson," pp.104-27. In Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn, eds. Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Gilmore, Leigh. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Grice, Helena and Tim Woods, eds. 'I'm Telling You Stories': Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

Pearce, Lynne. "The Emotional Politics of Reading Winterson," pp. 29-39. In Grice and Woods. 'I'm Telling You Stories': Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

Kauer, Ute. "Narration and Gender: The Role of the First-Person Narrator in Written on the Body," pp.41-52. In Grice and Woods. I'm Telling You Stories': Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

Stowers, Cath. "The Erupting Lesbian Body: Reading Written on the Body as a Lesbian Text," pp. 89-101. In Grice and Woods. 'I'm Telling You Stories': Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.