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20 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:07pm

Jeanette Winterson’s Frankenstein update suffers from an identity crisis

By Benjamin Myers

The ethics and possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI) creating entities that are more intelligent than humans is a hot topic among the Premier League players of British fiction. Speculative sci-fi informed Ian McEwan’s recent Machines Like Me, while Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of exploring AI in his next novel. Such concerns also lie at the heart of Jeanette Winterson’s latest work.

McEwan offended readers and writers of the genre when he casually mentioned that his sci-fi novel was not about “travelling at ten times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots”, but rather real human dilemmas, as if he was the first to think of the idea. Frankissstein is unlikely to win over many who enjoy the fiction of science either.

There are few practising writers who have produced a body of work as rich and varied as Winterson: she has written essays, children’s fiction, historical gothic, a cover version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (2015’s The Gap Of Time) and, in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? (2011), one of the finest memoirs of recent years.

Risks don’t always come off, though – and Frankissstein, an update of a morality story that has been continually retold for two centuries, fails to hit the mark. Like Victor Frankenstein, Winterson stitches together quite disparate parts. And, like his monstrous lightning-born creation, this book suffers from an identity crisis as a result.

The first narrative strand explores the origins of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus during a stormy stay on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, alongside her future husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. It’s well-trodden territory, but in the scene-setting of rain-lashed Alpine nights and the contrast between the swaggering alpha Byron and the fearless Mary, Winterson re-creates the competitive tension that surely galvanised the young writer.

The novel’s other narrative follows Doctor Ry (a transgender man – “Ry” is short for both Mary and Ryan) as they explore the emerging world of cryonics, AI and, in a particularly bawdy scene, sex dolls being sold by a chauvinist Welshman at a conference. Ry forms a sexual relationship with the older professor Victor Stein, a charismatic leading light in AI research and human augmentation who has a secret project on the go. Can you guess what it is yet?

Stein is the type of character who exists often on the page but rarely in real life:  he is charming, a dynamic public speaker, lives in a warehouse loft and can give multiple orgasms, yet is rather fond of saying “I’m not gay” during intercourse. Isn’t sexuality complex? suggests Winterson.

In the cramming in of so many ethical and philosophical points of discussion, often by way of didactic and totally implausible dialogue between the smug professor and Dr Ry, whose gender “doubleness” prompts wince-inducing asides (“I’m not being personal,” asks the sex doll salesman, “but have you got a dick?”), it feels as if Winterson is playing to the contemporary woke crowd.

The novel’s main question – what will happen to humans when they are superseded by more advanced forms? – becomes lost in scenes that have more than a whiff of Carry On Screaming! about them.

Have I mentioned that Dr Ry has access to a steady supply of human body parts that they readily bring to the professor? (“Working in A&E has its advantages.”) Only after the limbs have been delivered and the pair have made love in his office does it occur to Ry – purportedly an actual doctor, living and working for the NHS in Manchester – to ask “Why do you need me to be your personal Burke and Hare?”

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.

Maybe that’s Winterson’s point, and Frankissstein is in itself an experiment, a splicing together of genres, a hybrid entity exploring doubleness? As with Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein one can’t help wonder whether the end result is quite what its creator intended. 

Ben Myers’ most recent novel is “The Gallows Pole” (Bloomsbury)

Frankissstein: A Love Story
Jeanette Winterson
Jonathan Cape, 352pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance