A Novel That Riffs on Sex Dolls, Mary Shelley and Brexit

Frankissstein
A Love Story
By Jeanette Winterson

Despite its on-the-nose title, “Frankissstein” (which was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize) is far, far more than a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s 19th-century monsterpiece. It’s a novel fizzing with ideas, one that toys with timelines and intertextuality. It veers from the Gothic to the satirical and seamlessly interweaves social commentary on everything from gender to the cultural hegemony to our obsessions with social media and future tech. The Frankensteinian notion of creating a sentient being has obvious parallels with artificial intelligence, and that’s what Jeanette Winterson has in her sights.

It’s a fearless author who takes on both a literary behemoth that’s lurched so far into popular culture it’s almost impossible to tell where the original ends and “The Munsters” begins, and such well-trodden spec-fic fodder as the A.I. genre. But fearlessness is Winterson’s stock in trade, as anyone who has read her extraordinary, searing memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?,” will attest. Then there’s the novel’s caveat: As we’re told on the cover, this is a love story (Winterson famously insists that all her novels are love stories).

The novel opens in 1816, as Mary Shelley, on the cusp of writing what is to become her magnum opus, is holed up in a lakeside villa with her lover, Percy Bysshe; turgid stepsister, Claire; Claire’s bit on the side, Lord Byron (who comes across as a 19th-century mansplainer extraordinaire); and Byron’s doctor, the wannabe author Polidori (credited with writing the precursor to “Dracula”).

Mary’s scenes, which are laced throughout the novel, are visceral and seeped with Gothic gloom. You can almost smell the sweat and sense the languor and claustrophobia out of which so many great pieces of writing were created. Then, in an abrupt tonal shift that’s less jarring than it sounds, we’re transported to Brexit-era Britain, where her contemporary alter ego, Ry (short for Mary) — a transgender surgeon who self-identifies as “hybrid” — is at a tech expo, about to explore another type of creation: sex bots. Ry’s mission is to interview Ron Lord, a hyperdriven, updated version of Byronic machismo. Once a mummy’s-boy basement dweller, he’s invented a line of grimly compliant sex bots that cater to every taste. You can even rent them out for stag parties. The bots have overly large eyes (“like Bambi”), out-of-proportion legs (like Barbie), and one, named Claire, handily fits into an Adidas gym bag. Ron, who blithely deadnames Ry while spouting a stream of misogynistic one-liners, would be a crass caricature in the hands of a lesser writer. But Winterson injects a sense of humanity into him that verges on the endearing, and he steals every scene he’s in: “What big hands you’ve got,” Ron says. “All the better to amputate you with,” Ry swipes back. At the expo, Ry and Ron run into Polly D., a vampiric, fast-talking journo on the hunt for a scoop who holds her own in the one-liner stakes.

[ “To me, a proper dictionary is a book of spells,” Winterson said in her recent By the Book interview. ]

Ry is also falling for a version of Mary’s creation: Dr. Victor Stein, a TED-talking tech disrupter with a God complex and a keen fashion sense. Thanks to cryonics, in which Ry once dabbled, the grisly horror of reanimating a body is now entirely feasible, but Stein wants to go further — into the realms of transhumanism and beyond: “The world I imagine, the world A.I. will make possible, will not be a world of labels — and that includes binaries like male and female, black and white, rich and poor.” It sounds like a utopia, but anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with “Westworld,” HAL 9000 and Philip K. Dick will know that this is dangerous territory. Ry has serious concerns about these visionary goals, even while empathizing with them: “I am part of a small group of transgender medical professionals. Some of us are transhuman enthusiasts too. That isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that anybody is the wrong body.”

This understanding aside, at times, it’s difficult to figure out why self-aware Ry falls so hard for Stein (although, admittedly, they have great sex). For someone whose eventual goal is to be free of the “meat” that makes up the body, he has an initial, almost prurient fascination with Ry’s choice to identify as hybrid, and is repeatedly at pains to assure Ry he’s “not gay” (another sly nod to the contemporary discourse around gender and sexual identity). Occasionally, he comes across as little more than a TED Talk himself, spouting chunks of research and philosophical meanderings that, while fascinating, stall the novel. It’s as if Winterson is at pains to remind us that issues around gender, notions of the self and fears of automatons supplanting human agency are not new concerns — they’re as old as Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” But these forays into didacticism are balanced with gleeful, highly imaginative set pieces rich with black humor: Dr. Stein’s lab lurks, “Young Frankenstein”-style, in decommissioned tunnels under Manchester, complete with its own pub. Severed, reanimated hands skitter, “Addams Family”-like, through the bowels of the lab, where Ron has been invited to create a “Christian Companion” sex doll for the evangelical market.

[ Peek inside Winterson’s writing studio. ]

Weaving through all of this is the heart of the novel — the primary love story promised on the cover, an uneasy, love-hate relationship between the author and her creation. As the “Inventor of Dreams,” Mary Shelley looses her novel into the world and mourns the loss of her lover and her children, we’re invited to consider what happens when a creation outlives and surpasses its creator (“Yet, suppose my story has a life of its own?”). The original novel has achieved immortality, and Winterson’s Mary can never shake off the specter of her creation and the inventions it inspires. In parallel, and against their better judgment, Ry provides Stein with body parts snaffled from the hospital, laying them at his feet like a cat. They include a cryogenically frozen head in a flask that Polly D. hilariously dubs the “iHead” and that Stein hopes will be his key to the Singularity — “the moment A.I. changes the way we live, forever.” Ry’s gifts will possibly give birth to another form of immortality — the queasy notion of the consciousness living forever, disembodied, in the cloud — and who knows where that will lead the human race?

Winterson has stitched together that rarest of beasts: a novel that is both deeply thought-provoking and provocative yet also unabashedly entertaining (I laughed out loud more times than I could count). “Frankissstein,” like its protagonist Ry, is a hybrid: a novel that defies conventional expectations and exists, brilliantly and defiantly, on its own terms.

Sarah Lotz’s most recent novel is “Missing Person.”

FRANKISSSTEIN
A Love Story
By Jeanette Winterson
352 pp. Grove Press. $27.

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