Review by Anna Hollingsworth, 6 August 2019
If Dr Frankenstein’s creation took the form of a book, Frankissstein is what I imagine it would look like. There’s a transgender doctor harvesting body parts for a rogue researcher, there’s a Welsh sexbot investor, and there’s Mary Shelley making love and writing her way across Europe with Percy, Byron and her stepsister in tow. Frankissstein is built up from an unlikely combination of bits and pieces from a scifi present to a literary history past, with pure comedy thrown in; yet somehow Jeanette Winterson gives it all an electric shock, and — in the most glorious post-modern way — it all comes alive.
The novel is structured ingeniously as a thematic parallel between Shelley and her Frankenstein on the one hand and today’s AI era on the other. The former storyline follows the creation of the would-be classic novel in a sort of pop culture re-imagining of the Shelleys’ and Byron’s romantic writing community. I couldn’t help seeing parallels with the 2017 film Mary Shelley: both works draw a biography with strong feminist strokes that update it to the current discourse. How accurate this is is for historians to determine, but it certainly is a gripping solution for a novelist.
Winterson goes further still, as her other, modern storyline introduces today’s Dr Frankenstein, Victor Stein, an AI scientist working with cryonics. He cherishes a great vision of uploading brains into non-physical immortality and creating eternal minds free of bodily constraints. These endeavours are told through Ry Shelley (Ry from Mary, not Ryan), a doctor who supplies Victor with body parts and grapples with their transgender identity. Just as Mary and Percy make love as she writes about creating life, Ry and Victor’s work is interspersed with bouts of lust, more out of Victor’s bodily curiosity than emotional attachment.
I confess that I had my doubts about Frankissstein: it felt like a mad author-scientist was throwing a random selection of ingredients into an industrial mixer, looking away and crossing their fingers that something coherent and readable would emerge. To my amazement, whether this was Winterson’s method of choice or not, it works.The end result showcases simply laudable dexterity from Winterson, moving from one genre to another with breathtaking agility. She’s a brilliantly laugh-out-loud comic writer:
“s Donald Trump getting his brain frozen? asks Ron
Max explains that the brain has to be fully functioning at clinical death.
Winterson creates a near-slapstick effect by mouthing out snappy lines through the misogynist investor Ron — not unlike President Trump in his bluntness — Claire, an American evangelical Christian, and another Claire, Mary’s stepsister whose emotions tend to overflow with her drink. The characters are somewhat dubiously caricaturist, but it all works as the dialogue doesn’t miss beat. The comic effect is all about honest laughter at silly jokes about all too recognizable stereotypes.
The real strength of the novel, though, comes from how it plunges from all the laughter into bleak seriousness, often without warning. In one of the most harrowing scenes, Ry is sexually assaulted in a men’s toilet and is left ask themselves who they are, and if they can ever be what they want and live in a body they want.
This, in essence, is what the novel is all about. The characters navigate their way through some of most fundamental questions of identity and being human: what do our bodies mean to us? Can we determine who we are? Is non-materiality freedom? Does the mind trump matter? In a way, everyone — from AI-believer Victor to sexbot-cuddling Ron — is a modern Prometheus stealing fire and trying to create their vision of humanity with it.
We aren’t where the Dr Frankensteins want us to be quite yet: it’s not possible to create life from an assembly of human parts. But it is possible to create a breathtakingly philosophical and funny novel from an assembly of genres, as Frankissstein proves.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape, 2019), 978-1787331402, 352pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link, free P&P in the UK.