At an advanced stage of a prolific career, Jeanette Winterson has had a surge of inventiveness. Frankissstein, her playful reanimation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic, gamely links arms with the zeitgeist. It’s a book about artificial intelligence and gender fluidity that also harks back to themes Winterson has been writing about for the past 30 years: love and desire, transformation and the unwritten meanings of the body...Thankfully, Winterson’s prose is more animated by curiosity than by any particular agenda. She throws together disparate characters in a way that’s reminiscent of AM Homes, while her puns and send-ups of contemporary culture have a lot in common with Ali Smith. Winterson, I think, writes with a great deal more snap. It’s fun to be in her company. And I wasn’t expecting fun. I was expecting something self-conscious (the less said about the title, the better) and self-important.
Jeanette Winterson’s playful and inventive novel is alive to this and nowhere trapped, and it comes close to Adam’s idea of connectivity. There is a merged ocean of thought within it; ideas slip between characters and time frames. It stands against the prediction that such a merging of self and other would undo the necessity of literature. Frankissstein reincarnates as it evolves, each part deepening the part before it.
All writers revisit the same themes through their career: the perspective, Graham Greene said, is like a shadow moving across a lawn. Like Greene, Winterson combines earnest concerns with page-turning energy. Frankissstein is serious fun.
Taking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as her starting point, Winterson’s bold novel asks old questions about the body’s possibilities in a provocative new way. She brings together compelling characters, including a professor of artificial intelligence and a designer of sex dolls, to explore topical ideas of non-biological being.
Perhaps Frankissstein is meant to be satire then, a novel inhabited by ribald characters, in which disbelief should be suspended – though surely not when Winterson is attempting a serious examination of gender fluidity. She has certainly done her research on the possibility of humans transcending their physical form, yet this novel is too historically grounded to be an utterly contemporary story, neither funny nor reflective enough to work as satire, and its structure is chaotic. Tonally, the closest comparison is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but without a Tim Curry to be confused and amused by. In the exclamation mark-laden conversations I was even reminded of the experimental literary agitator Stewart Home.
Winterson has long been interested in the politics of identity, and is good here on the way our aspirations and anxieties about AI tap into ancient and eternal human dreams of perfectibility. The narrative patterning is also, initially, highly satisfying. Doubling and interconnectedness proliferate everywhere, from the macro (overlapping anxieties about the impact of both the Industrial Revolution and AI on skilled workers, on the body, on the soul) to the micro (the characters in both time frames eat wine and cheese in moments of intimacy). One half of the book is saturated in the restless melancholy of the Victorian Gothic, the other in the ruthless sterility of Silicon Valley. After a while, however, the novel’s clever hardware starts to feel gimmicky... The penultimate scenes in Victor’s underground lab feel like a cheap horror flick.
[W]hile Winterson has lots of fun finding cute references and echoes across her narratives and centuries, it doesn’t do to expect too literal parallels. Often, they are crunchy instead. Having a trans character positioned as the architect of their own body (“I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.”) at first seems to sit uneasily with the idea of Frankenstein’shorrific cut-and-spliced monster. In fact, Ry’s doubleness sits closer to Shelley’s growing recognition of the intertwined essential nature of her own creations: that Doctor Frankenstein and his monster are themselves dual, doubled. If this sounds heavy-going, it’s really not. Frankissstein is also gleefully Gothic, taking us into a world of underground nuclear bunkers, scampering severed hands and spooky preserved heads. And throughout, Winterson’s approach is light and comic – although in truth, some of the satiric dialogue, especially Ron on his sex-bots, is too crude to be convincing... [T]he novel is overstuffed; you can sometimes feel the research bursting its stitches. Her characters also too often become clumsy mouthpieces for theories or contentious “takes” on a controversial topic. But the breezy way she handles the sheer number of complex ideas is also frequently dazzling, and ultimately means that this enjoyably audacious novel has no problem coming to life
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In her new reworking, Jeanette Winterson takes formal as well as thematic inspiration from Shelley’s work. Frankissstein shares with its source text an intricate narrative structure and a preoccupation with both the origins of life and the things that make life worth living. It is no pale imitation though. This is a riotous reimagining with an energy and passion all of its own that reanimates Frankenstein as a cautionary tale for a contemporary moment dominated by debates about Brexit, gender, artificial intelligence and medical experimentation.
Don’t let that terrible title put you off. This artificial intelligence (AI) love-story-of-sorts is a clever comic romp that teases at the nature — and future — of life, death and what it is to be human, without ever being ponderous... The brushwork is often as broad as the humour, but, as the storylines mesh, there’s also shade: our fantasies stem not just from hubris and vanity, the author suggests, but grief and loneliness, too.
In a nutshell, first-rate beach fare.
[W]hat sort of a novel is this? Historical, sci-fi, postmodern, or, as it promises on the front cover, a love story? Answer: none of the above. It’s a true Frankenstein’s monster, a hybrid of all of them, but it’s missing the spark of life. Instead we have a classic case of the “informative debate novel”. If that sounds a little dull, well, it is... Novelists have to be alchemists; there has to be some hocus-pocus, some transformation of base research materials into fictional gold. Unfortunately for Winterson, Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, is concerned with very similar territory, but McEwan is mage to Winterson’s cheap conjurer... McEwan hooks you in with enough story and interest for you to agree to a bit of necessary lecturing. When medicating their pets, people often hide the pills inside a tasty piece of cheese. Winterson’s novel needs more cheese.
Winterson has long been interested in physical hybrids and fictional border crossings. In Sexing the Cherry (1989) she used the grafting of cherry trees as a metaphor for the idea that “we are multiple not single”, each human life really being many lives “stacked together like plates on a waiter’s hand” with only the top one showing. Frankissstein develops this idea, not only by using twin narrative timeframes that work like sounding boards for each other, but also by suggesting that modern life confuses many traditional distinctions, such as those between male and female, real and artificial, even life and death. If this sounds rather solemn, like a patchwork of essays on the postmodern condition that Winterson has cobbled together, the good news is that Frankissstein is very funny. There has always been a fine line between horror and high camp, and this is another boundary that Winterson gleefully exploits.
The reworking of the original book can get laboured, including the black American Evangelical Christian, Claire, who represents Mary’s dopey stepsister. Ron Lord, however, presumably the priapic Lord Byron, provides the comic element, with his sexbots for all tastes. That bit, at least, of this appalling vision of our future sounds plausible.
The effect of these characters dissolving and re-forming in different locations and across different centuries is like that of entering a dream world – but not in the woozy, disorienting, enjoyable manner of actually dreaming; rather, it calls to mind the dismal experience of someone relating their dreams to you, episodic and incomprehensible to waking logic. Unforgivably, Frankissstein is no fun at all. It should be fizzing and jolting with the pulse of big ideas. It should, given the title (and certainly given that it’s subtitled ‘A Love Story’), be a sexy book... Frankissstein, however, is hopelessly unerotic, despite a fair number of sex scenes. For Winterson, these offer an opportunity to rehearse old arguments about the mind–body relationship... There are gestures here towards exciting, unsettling thoughts about bodies, power and identity, but Winterson never summons the vital force to turn all this into more than a bag of bits.