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.
Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found here.
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.