Frankissstein is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic with a big red kiss of a love story thrown in the middle.
As its title suggests, Jeanette Winterson’s new novel, Frankissstein, is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic with a big red kiss of a love story thrown in the middle. But it’s also much more. Rarely has a literary novel set across multiple timelines and concerning a number of characters both real and imagined worked so well. Frankissstein is at once a meditation on gender, a piece of historical fiction, a speculative thriller, a gothic drama and more. But, in keeping with Winterson’s body of work, which began auspiciously in 1985’s queer classic Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and has continued apace ever since, it is the love story that keeps one reading. It’s a literary love story, giving none of the cushy comforts of romance, but it is also erotic, dynamic and refreshingly current.
Frankissstein follows a number of characters, but our main allegiance is with Ry, a young transgendered doctor who comes into contact with the compelling and brilliant Victor Stein, a professor who has gained acclaim and influence with his work in the field of artificial intelligence. Winterson takes us back into time, giving us access to Mary Shelley as she created Frankenstein at the age of 18 (!) on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Telling Shelley’s story allows Winterson to introduce a number of historical figures, most notably Lord Byron and Alan Turing, but more significantly to ruminate on how brilliant and how prescient Shelley’s work was. In juxtaposing the writing of Frankenstein against a story of artificial intelligence and of gender (writing was, of course, a field even more dominated by straight white men in Shelley’s time), Winterson elevates both Frankissstein and, impossibly, Frankenstein itself. Winterson takes us to the past with the same incredibly gothic sensibilities that made her 2012 novella, The Daylight Gate, such an immersive experience, yet Shelley also seems uncannily precocious in both ability and in vision.
Winterson sets Ry and Victor Stein’s story in today’s London, and she doesn’t shy away from political commentary (part of the novel is set in a warehouse of cryogenically frozen bodies in the United States, allowing Winterson to comment freely on President Trump, among other things). Her most robust philosophical statements come through Stein, but it is Ry who gives us the most compelling vision of the future. Ry is a self-proclaimed “hybrid” who thinks and speaks eloquently on the nature of gender but also the nature of what it means to be human. This conflicts beautifully with the novel’s other major player, Ron Lord, a man-child and associate of Stein’s, who is also an aspiring pioneer in the field of sex robots. Winterson has done a fantastic amount of research on sex robots, and Lord’s sections are laugh-out-loud funny yet also profoundly educational. Our outrage over a woman who is made with a waist-to-breasts ratio so out of proportion that she cannot physically stand, that is able to spread her legs unnaturally wide and whose creator couldn’t be bothered to give her a clitoris should be erased by the fact that she is a machine. Or should it? Winterson brings up questions of transhumanism boldly through Ry, Stein and Lord’s sex dolls, and she does so inventively and in service of the plot rather than by preaching.
But again, it is Frankissstein’s love story I return to. Yes, because love is compelling. But also because it is so bold. Just as she broke down walls by writing about lesbian desire back in 1985, here in 2019 Winterson is writing about trans sexual desire in a gently educational way, but one that is true to Ry rather than to the audience’s need for understanding. It shouldn’t feel so revolutionary to see this in a mainstream release, and it certainly isn’t the first book to tackle the subject, but the way it is done, in a genre-smashing, time-traveling, gothic-futurist-political-satirical whirlwind of a novel, is nothing short of extraordinary.