CW: homophobia, transphobia, rape (on the page, plus other instances mentioned), misogyny, deaths of children (due to illness), unauthorized appropriation of severed body parts.
My Booker Prize adventure continues with a standout: Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. This was my sixth read from this year’s longlist, and my favorite so far!
In the novel, Mary Shelley waits out a rainstorm with her friends in 1816, participating in a challenge to create the most monstrous tale- the historical conception of her famed novel, Frankenstein. Alternatively, in Brexit Britain, Ry Shelley becomes acquainted with a couple of prominent men in robotics and AI. Victor is a scientist who believes artificial intelligence will become the next species at the top of the food chain- soon, and to the world’s benefit; meanwhile, Ron Lord is a businessman who’s found a lucrative career in selling sex bots to men. Each character’s career and personal interests circle around existential questions and also brush against matters of gender and identity.
“In some ways machines are easier to deal with. If I had just told machine intelligence that I am now a man, although I was born a woman, it wouldn’t slow up its processing speed.”
I might as well say up front that I loved everything about this novel, and that my existing love for Shelley’s original Frankenstein probably predisposed me toward complete enjoyment of Winterson’s homage. Though I do not think one necessarily needs to have read or really known anything about Shelley’s classic to enjoy Frankissstein, appreciation for the former will certainly improve your chances of appreciating the latter. The reason for this is that Winterson is not simply recreating or retelling Shelley’s gruesome story, but expanding upon it and paying tribute. Enough details from the original story and Shelley’s own background are provided alongside Winterson’s modern storyline that any casual reader should be able to pick up on the similarities, but the experience is likely richer for those entering Frankissstein with some prior knowledge. I certainly found it so.
The format of the book is a mishmash of pieces that are not divided neatly into chapters. The timeline bounces between a fictionalization of Mary Shelley’s real past (the sections I preferred) and Ry’s present romance with Victor. There is also a smattering of related-but-detached quotes that crop up between sections of the story. It is a rather confusing format that can seem a bit arbitrarily divided at times, but the effect fits the topic- monsters built from real humans (in this case, Shelley’s bio) and a spark of creation. The parallels are obvious, but seem stitched together in fragments rather than sculpted neatly as a whole- instead of a gripping plot, it’s a series of vignettes that study characters and themes. Nonetheless, every single narrative shift had me excited to see what would come next.
One of the biggest changes between Frankenstein and Frankissstein is the new novel’s focus on gender. Winterson further blurs the line between life and death that Shelley grays in her original work, but then takes matters a step further by using characters that represent and support non-binary gender identity and sexuality to further her narrative speculation on the possibility of uploading the human brain to extend life through computers; the central question being: to what extent is our “life,” our consciousness, connected to our physical bodies? If we could project ourselves into any body or machine, would we choose the forms we were born with, alter our bodies, or abandon biology altogether? I’m not trans, so I can’t speak personally about the accuracy of the coverage in Ry’s character, but I thought his identity as a trans person was considerately handled in a way that showed Winterson had done her research. I loved the gender commentary running through this novel, especially from the unique mortality angle that Winterson tackles it from. I’ve seen some criticism for Frankissstein‘s political commentary hitting a bit too on-the-nose, but I thought the way everything tied to Shelley’s original exploration of recreating life after death kept it fresh and morbidly engrossing. I have never felt more aware of my physical body and its doomed fate.
“Medically and legally, death is deemed to occur at heart failure. Your heart stops. You take your last breath. Your brain, though, is not dead, and will not die for another five minutes or so. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes in extreme cases. The brain dies because it is deprived of oxygen. It is living tissue like the rest of the body. It is possible that our brain knows we are dead before we die.”
The writing itself is excellent throughout- readable and engaging, and packed full of one-liners. I even laughed a fair amount. The future counterparts Winterson has provided for Lord Byron, Claire, and Polidori are hilarious and apt, and I loved seeing Victor as a part of this tale, right alongside his creator. Mary Shelley does seem slightly modernized (though it is worth remembering that her mother was a well-known advocate for women’s rights back in the late 1700s), but I think any liberties taken are clear and beneficial, a way of emphasizing how challenging Shelley’s life must have been and how the creation of Frankenstein, her own monster, might have haunted her. The account of her life depicted here is quite moving, as we see a young woman full of dreams weighted down with societal rules, responsibilities, and tragedies that would have been difficult for any person to cope with. The recap of her trials and tribulations provided in a first-person perspective brings Frankissstein to life.
Though I preferred the historical timeline right from the atmospheric beginning, I also appreciated the ways in which Ry’s conversations and experiences bring current political matters from the modern world into the text. Just as the scientific developments of Shelley’s time must have played a role in the creation and reception of her story (I’m flashing back to a college research paper, yikes), so too are the details of our time stamped upon Winterson’s.
“What is sanity? he said. Can you tell me? Poverty, disease, global warming, terrorism, despotism, nuclear weapons, gross inequality, misogyny, hatred of the stranger.”
Obviously, I don’t know Mary Shelley’s mind, but I really think this is a response to her work that Shelley would have been delighted to see. In any case, I know I am.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to reread this. I want to reread Frankenstein. I want to read so much more of Winterson’s work (how have I never read anything else from this author? I have been aware of her work and somehow just never picked anything up?!). I haven’t read enough of the longlist yet for a serious opinion of the whole or accurate ranking of my favorites, but I can confidently say that I will not be disappointed if this one wins. I certainly hope to see it shortlisted.
The Literary Elephant