Reanimating “Frankenstein”: On Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein”

October 23, 2019   •   By Elena Sheppard

Frankissstein

Jeanette Winterson

IN 1816, during what came to be known as the year without a summer, 19-year-old Mary Shelley set quill to paper and wrote Frankenstein. The conditions which led to the novel have settled into literary legend: a Lake Geneva holiday filled with nothing but rain, a house full of creative people with too little to do, and finally a proposed contest for each person in the house to try their hand at writing a horror story. In addition to Shelley were her husband (the poet Percy Shelley), Lord Byron, Byron’s physician Polidori, and Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont. It is here, on this soggy holiday, that Jeanette Winterson begins her complex and spellbinding new novel, Frankissstein.


Frankissstein, longlisted for the Booker Prize, unfolds in parallel — the first time period being Shelley’s 19th-century experience, and the second belonging to a contemporary trans doctor named Ry Shelley (born Mary Shelley) who self-describes as “a hybrid.” In Ry Shelley’s world, there are mirror characters to everyone in the 19th-century story line: Lord Byron becomes Ron Lord, the lewd yet hilarious creator of a successful line of ultra-lifelike sexbots; Polidori becomes Polly D., a Vanity Fair reporter; Claire Clairmont exists simply as Claire, a devout woman who falls for Lord. Most importantly for the questions Winterson raises in her text, Dr. Frankenstein becomes Professor Stein, a “high-functioning madman,” working on the cutting edge of “machine learning and human augmentation,” secretly obsessed with both cryopreservation and what will become of human consciousness when it is no longer hemmed in by the fragility of gender and age: when the body is no longer an obstacle to overcome.


It is in this balance of eras that Winterson presents her tale, which develops not only within these two Gothic worlds but also within a series of ever-present philosophical questions that her novel sometimes obviously, sometimes slyly, probes: What is reality? What is time? What are the responsibilities of creation? Where are the boundaries between story and real life, between consciousness and an idea?


In the Mary Shelley narrative, Winterson anachronistically and successfully brings us through the joys and gut-punch pains of Shelley’s life. She is painted as a woman very much in love, but one who has been entangled with death from the first moment of her life when her mother died in childbirth. As a mother in her own right, three of her four children die; and then her husband drowns in a boating accident. “Oh,” she narrates. “I am used to death and I hate it.”


In creating the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, the Shelley of these pages seeks the answer to a question that has likely always plagued her: “If a corpse returned to life, would it be alive?” When Winterson writes a scene in which Shelley visits Dr. Frankenstein, Mary faces another question: if a character is written, do they exist? “I am the monster you created, said Victor Frankenstein. I am the thing that cannot die — and I cannot die because I have never lived.” Shelley wrote her story to bring the dead to life, and Winterson carries that idea one step further by bringing the imagined to life too.


In Ry Shelley’s story, Ry and Professor Stein wrestle with parallel questions. Stein is determined to successfully revive “dead” brains. “Think of it this way,” Stein explains to Ron Lord. “It is time for you to die. Your body is worn out. I upload your data — the sum of who you are — and now you are a file on my computer that says RON LORD. […] Once you are pure data you can download yourself in a variety of forms.” Unlike the 19th-century Dr. Frankenstein’s goal, this century’s Stein is not as interested in reanimating a dead body as in finding a body in which to reignite a dead mind.


Ry and Stein have a relationship that is both professional (as a surgeon, Ry has access to body parts that Stein wants to use for his work) and sexual. Stein, who repeatedly asserts that he is not gay, couches his attraction to Ry as something as philosophical as it is physical. “[Y]ou, Ry, gorgeous boy/girl, whatever you are,” Stein says. “You had a sex change. You chose to intervene in your own evolution. You accelerated your portfolio of possibilities. That attracts me. How could it not? You are both exotic and real. The here and now, and a harbinger of the future.” Ry’s body seems to map exactly with Stein’s own plans for experimentation. “[Y]ou aligned your physical reality with your mental impression of yourself,” Stein says to Ry. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all do that?”


Winterson writes her 19th-century characters as preoccupied with the reanimation of the body, and her 21st-century characters as preoccupied with the reanimation of consciousness, but she layers another film of complexity on top of that through how she stitches the stories together. The worlds of Mary Shelley and Ry Shelley are not just linked by name and general preoccupation, but also by language, ideas, even sentences. In multiple instances, Winterson parallels exact thought patterns and scenes. “Any butcher will sell you one,” Ry says at one point about the heart. “Any butcher will sell you one,” Mary says just a few pages later about the same organ. Winterson often puts Ry and Mary’s experience into direct conversation with one another so that they seem to exist almost simultaneously. Winterson is the mad scientist here, her book the monster.


While her characters seek eternal existence, Winterson’s writing suggests that that has already been found in literature. Winterson weaves into her novel passages from Frankenstein, Shakespeare’s sonnets, lyrics from the Eagles, quotes from people famous in the 1700s and in the 2000s — she allows these words to build upon one another, and often implants them without introduction or citation, her book becoming both the stitched-together body of multiple literary works and an all-encompassing consciousness of literary culture. By reanimating historical figures and putting them alongside characters of her own creation, Winterson manages to make time seem flat instead of linear — William Shakespeare and Glenn Frey existing in the same moment. Words are not trapped within a lifespan of human years: they exist forever just as they were written down. At one point Ry mulls over “the difference between desire for life without end and defire for more than one life, that is, more than one life, but lived simultaneously.” It’s a thought snag that makes the reader wonder if that’s what Winterson has been toying with all along — this idea of life lived simultaneously. It’s not too far of a stretch to wonder if these characters are living out multiple existences at once — that maybe Ry and Mary Shelley are one and the same.


With a book so built upon ideas, there are times when the density weighs it down. “I feel like I am reading him in a foreign language,” Ry says of Stein at one point. “How much of the meaning do I miss?” The question resonates. The more references and allusions one sees in Winterson’s work, the more one is positive they are missing dozens more: how much of the meaning do we miss? There are moments when the highly conceptual nature of Winterson’s work elevates to such a level that it became hard for this reader to breathe. But Winterson has the ability to quickly return to the immediacy and vibrancy and tangibility of the scenes at hand — the endless stairs leading to a series of nuclear tunnels under Manchester where Stein does his work, the room full of animated and disembodied hands, scrambling all over one another like lost spiders, the cryogenically frozen bodies waiting for technology to advance and bring them back to life.


Winterson’s work is at once artfully structured, unexpectedly funny, and impressively dynamic. It repeatedly asks the unanswerable question that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Frankissstein also hints toward a time in the not-too-distant future when humans will not be the most intelligent beings on earth, but when the same questions will still arise. What is reality? What is time? What are the responsibilities of creation? Where are the boundaries between a story and real life, between consciousness and an idea? “I do not know if I am the teller or the tale,” Winterson’s characters ask again and again. Perhaps the answer for all of us is both.


“Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the monster.” That refrain is a building block of common literary conversation, so oversaid that it almost always warrants an eye-roll. But Winterson’s novel takes that truth and scrambles it. Frankenstein was the doctor, but he was the monster too, as was Shelley, as was Ry, as are we all. The human condition is flawed, and in building the artificial intelligence that will dominate the future, we are at once creating a monster and becoming one. Time is flat. Consciousness is endless. Life is simultaneous.


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Elena Sheppard’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Vogue among numerous other publications. She is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University.