Jacqueline and ‘Normal’

“I wanted the clichés, the armchair. I wanted the broad road and twenty-twenty vision. What’s wrong with that? It’s called growing up. Maybe most people gloss their comforts with a patina of romance but it soon wears off. They’re in it for the long haul; the expanding waistline and the little semi in the suburbs. What’s wrong with that? Late-night TV and snoring side by side into the millennium. Till death us do part. Anniversary darling? What’s wrong with that?” (Winterson, 26)

This passage comes at a point in Winterson’s text where the narrator has just met Jacqueline and is trying to decide whether a relationship with her is what she wants and/or needs. Jacqueline is different from anyone the narrator has previously been with: “She worked nine to five Monday to Friday, drove a Mini and got her reading from book clubs. She exhibited no fetishes, foibles, freak-outs or fuck-ups. Above all she was single and she had always been single. No children and no husband” (26). Jacqueline is strikingly normal and mundane, and as the narrator considers their past relationships, they find themself wanting to test the waters of normalcy. They are thinking in circles, considering what they want, what they need, what they should want, and how being with Jacqueline will be different. Deep down, however, they know a relationship with her will never be fulfilling. The repeated question “what’s wrong with that?” clues the reader in to the narrator’s anxieties around long-term commitment and their fear of an unsatisfying relationship, and shows that they are questioning whether they can really be happy with Jacqueline. The narrator seems to be trying to convince themselves that “growing up” and settling into a comfortable, clichéd relationship isn’t actually that bad; however, the way they imagine that relationship reveals a different story, as they describe a loss of romance, growing old with their partner, and having nothing more exciting than late-night TV and anniversaries to look forward to. The relationship becomes stagnant, unchanging, and boring. “What’s wrong with that?” the narrator asks themself. Nothing, except that a stagnant, boring relationship is at odds with what they really want. 

When considering this passage alongside ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘queerness’ as imagined by Warner and Rubin, it becomes apparent that the narrator is trying to reconcile their queerness with the desire to conform to given norms. Though the narrator’s gender and sexuality are never revealed, they fit into several categories in the “outer limits” or “bad/abnormal/unnatural” section of Rubin’s sexual hierarchy. They are unmarried, promiscuous, and their sex life is focused on pleasure rather than procreation; regardless of their gender, they have had relationships with both men and women, and thus can also fit into the category of homosexuality. Jaqueline, on the other hand, seems to fall into more of the “good/normal/natural” categories, though not entirely. Her sexuality is rather complex, as she is introduced as “the mistress of one of [the narrator’s friends] the confidante of both… She traded sex and sympathy for £50 to tide her over the weekend and a square meal on Sunday” (25). She therefore fits the “commercial” and (potentially) “sadomasochistic” categories in Rubin’s sexual hierarchy. Yet the narrator believes a relationship with her will be calm, clichéd, and normal, to the point of boredom. There is no passion between the two of them, and once together, their sex life becomes stagnant (28); it doesn’t seem too much to assume, considering the boredom and lack of romance, that it is private and vanilla as well. The narrator wants to try this calm, mundane kind of relationship with Jacqueline, seeing it and her as a welcome respite from the affairs they have had in the past. The problem is, the narrator is lying to themself on some level. They insist that they want “the clichés, the armchair,” when in reality, they will eventually become bored and frustrated with Jacqueline and her mundanity and leave her, choosing Louise and queerness over Jacqueline and normalcy.

Born to Die

What is the point of movement when movement indicates life and life indicates hope?  I have neither life nor hope.  Better than to fall in with the crumbling wainscot, to settle with the dust and be drawn up into someone’s nostrils.  Daily we breathe the dead” (108)

Perhaps the most obvious syntactical choice in this passage is the structure of the first sentence.  The “x begets y begets z” form instantly implies unflagging forward motion. Word choices such as “fall” and “drawn up” conjure the idea of a cycle, and the narrator’s repetition of words such as “life” and “dead” lead me to believe that ze is referring to the circle of life.  To live, we must breathe.  However, the narrator makes the point that the air we breathe, the key to life as many would argue, consists of the dead.  That image in and of itself it wonderfully poetic.

While my explication of the passage could end there, with that dark yet beautiful image, I think that it connects really well to Judith Halberstam’s piece called “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.”  Halberstam introduces to us the idea of “queer time” (1).  The heteronormative timeline is generally considered to play out as follows: birth, school, job, spouse, kids, retirement, and finally death.  However, Halberstam poses the idea of “queer time” that breaks this timeline, as it focuses on “other logics of location, movement, and identification” rather than “reproduction” (1).  The narrator actually addresses this idea in a passage soon after the one I chose to analyze, listing the “characteristics of living things” that she was taught in school.  In fact, ze goes on to say, “I don’t want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new” (108).

Halberstam’s idea of “queer time” allows us to eliminate reproduction from the list of “characteristics of living things” that exacerbate the narrator (108).  In fact, of all the aspects of life that “queer time” allows us to move around or eliminate, birth and death are the only two constants.  We will all be born, and our lives will all push forward until we die, our dust mixing into the atmosphere to sustain the new life to come.  Beyond that, it is fair to say that nothing else is constant.  We our slaves to our own desires, but our own desires are just that; our own.  Just as desires vary from person to person, so should the characteristics and timelines of our lives.   Perhaps if the narrator was able to read some of Halberstam’s work, ze would struggle less with how zir own wants and desires don’t fit into the supposed timeline we’re all supposed to follow.