Frankisstein - Jeanette Winterson
Well, she’s done it again, hasn’t she? Jeanette Winterson has rarely written anything I haven’t truly loved, but I was concerned about Frankissstein. Not only does it have possibly the worst title ever written and a front cover that resembles a teen romance (although I kind of love that), its blurb also boasts of an exploration of gender. The latter sounded some strong loud alarm bells. How our heroes have fallen in the last few years, maybe none so far as our white feminist icons of the late 20th century. The “gender issue” (also known as accepting the humanity of a group of people) has revealed the major blind spots in the understanding of cis-white-women writers, rendering “second wave feminism” more and more a dirty word. Not Jeanette, please not Jeanette. Of course, I needn’t have worried. Jeanette, who rose to prominence writing from a queer, working class perspective, has always felt more on the pulse than your average writer amongst the greats. Although the depiction of Ry, her transmasculine non-binary protagonist may be written clunkily (more on that later), he is depicted with what feels like genuine love and an attempt to understand and expand the understanding and empathy of her readers (On further research, I discovered that Jeanette Winterson’s godchild came out as trans which fuelled her desire to understand trans and non-binary perspectives, which probably underpins the love with which Ry is so clearly written).
Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson 5/5
Set across two different eras, Frankissstein weaves together a fictionalised account of the historic Mary Shelley during the writing of Frankenstein, with an entirely fictional modern day (or near future) storyline with characters based on those of Mary Shelley’s life and writing. Doctor Ry is our Mary Shelley, Ron the vulgar sex-bot enthusiast is Lord Byron, Claire the sex-bot and Claire the evangelical Christian are Clair Claremont, and Dr Stein is Victor Frankenstein (and maybe also Percy Shelley???). The parallels make just enough sense to be felt, but are not so rigid that they make the story predictable. Just as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein pondered the big questions of morality within science, of the possibility of the creation of life through technology in a world on the brink of scientific and industrial revolution, so Frankissstein addresses the same issues within our current technological situation. Could technology render us immortal? Can AI replace humanity? Further it? Enhance it? Alongside these questions Winterson weaves another, one of the link between artist and art, between creator and the created. What is our responsibility to our creations? Or to the world in which we create? A third perspective later introduced is that of a doctor in an asylum, who tends to a patient who claims to be Victor Frankenstein, the fictional creation of the real Mary Shelley. By writing in this third thread, Winterson forces us to look at what we perceive the creation of life to be; at what point does art become reality, at what point do we become morally responsible for our creations?
As a philosopher, this book was a wet dream. It does a lot: philosophy of art and aesthetics, exploring the relationship between art and the world, brain-in-a-vat type explorations of whether we can exist simply as a mind, mind/body dualism, existential questioning of our connection to the body and the world around us, and with that an exploration of gender and identity and its link to our physical being versus our internal understanding of ourselves. As a great lover of literature Frankissstein also appeals, for Winterson begins every chapter with relevant lines from the literary greats, and drops references throughout her writing without force, as if drawing together the threads of many minds into one coherent train of thought. Shakespeare is mentioned often, Camus, Hobbes, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Plato; religious texts and legend from Greek, to Norse, to Arthurian, are all placed side by side. As is often true in her writing, Winterson’s clear devout love for literature is very much felt. This book is written by a reader, for readers. And yet, there’s something there for the mathematician, and for the lover of history. Within the account of Mary Shelley, we have a moment with the historical mathematician Ada Lovelace, and in Ry’s modern world there is a running thread on the work of Alan Turing and I J Good. Frankissstein is crammed to the brim of history, research, questions, answers, interdisciplinary sharing of thought and understanding. Reading this book feels like the breakthrough I had during my A levels when I realised that it’s all linked; that what I was studying in philosophy had influenced what I was studying in politics, had influenced what I was studying in English Literature, had influenced what I was studying in philosophy and so on. The excitement I felt then when I finally got that the world is not separated into different areas, that it’s all linked and crossed over like some homogenous web of knowledge permeated every aspect of my life. This book feels like my brain (it’s probably my mercury in Gemini) constantly seeing the links, one thought bouncing off into another, new tangents bubbling off before the previous thread had finished.
Frankissstein does so much that it really shouldn’t be coherent. Surely it’s too much for one book? It surely can’t work? It does. The previous paragraph might have scared you off, but I assure you there is nothing dense or daunting about Frankissstein. Winterson writes with apparent ease to create the luscious, poetic, romantic, and gothic inner world of Mary Shelley. The modern world, through Ry’s eyes, is told with wit and irony. Self-aware in its use of clichés such as the mad scientist, and vulgar American sex-bot enthusiast, Frankissstein balances out the heavy with levity. Winterson’s love of Shakespeare is seen in the repartee between Ron and Clair (her modern world equivalents of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont), who replicate Shakespeare’s clowns and fools, lightening the mood and bringing comic relief. I say this as someone who struggled to get through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because it felt like walking through dense mud with nothing to hold onto – Frankissstein is a fun and easy read.
My only qualm is one which I stated in my introduction – Ry’s experience of gender identity is at times very clunky. He is quite clearly written by a cisgender person, albeit an empathetic and enthusiastic one. While I know it is accurate that transgender people are rudely asked personal biological questions frequently, Ry’s own expression and inner monologue about his gender identity are often overly medical and biological. Ry doesn’t read like a transgender person, but as a character being used to explain the experience of transgender people to cisgender people. Ry’s character isn’t so bad as to make Frankissstein not a good read even for transgender people, but I acknowledge that it might make the read less enjoyable. I imagine it is similar to myself, a cisgender woman, reading Nabokov or F. Scott Fitzgerald: I have to gloss over the way they write women, yet I can still enjoy the book overall, although its enjoyment might be lessened had they written more plausible female characters. I debated lowering my score for this book due to this, but I felt it was dishonest to do so. From my limited and subjective perspective, Frankisstein is one of the best things I’ve read this year, a near-perfect sci-fi romp, ridiculous, heart-breaking, hilarious, outrageous and moving. I understand why some may think otherwise, and they may be right to do so, I just can’t not love it.