Jeanette Winterson’s Mary Shelley is daring, playful and serious fun
Frankissstein: A Love Story review: Jeanette Winterson’s combines earnest concerns with page-turning energy
For more than 30 years, Jeanette Winterson has been one of England’s most consistently ambitious, interesting and devil-may-care writers. Still best known for her debut, the autobiographical fantasy Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, her work since has been consistently varied – myths, love stories, sci-fi – and even when at her most inward-looking (Art & Lies, Gut Symmetries) there’s pleasure on every page, and she is never, ever boring. So this, her first stand-alone novel in a dozen years, should be a major literary event. Indeed that can be the only explanation for saddling it with such an indigestible title as Frankissstein: to give the other authors, vying for attention on the bookshop shelves, a chance.
The narrative alternates between two worlds. At Lake Geneva in 1816, 18-year-old Mary Shelley (“my mother made a living from her writing; it is my intention to follow her example”) starts thinking about the “ghost story” she has been challenged by Lord Byron to write, which will become Frankenstein.
The references in Frankissstein are so 2019 they practically come with hashtags: Brexit, bitcoin, trans issues, MeToo, Trump, Bolsonaro
Then in the modern world Dr Ry Shelley from The Wellcome Trust visits exhibitions on artificial intelligence and robotics to explore the impact the near future will have on humans and human relations. It’s perceptive of Winterson to recognise that the first famous sci-fi novel has concerns that are bang up to date: can artificial life be created? Can the creation really think and feel? Can a machine suffer?
The modern sections are driven less by plot than ideas and dialogue, as Ry moves through “the nearby world of AI” and discusses the ethical and technical pros and cons, with some silly jokes that may well have been written by a robot. (Ry, speaking to sexbot entrepreneur Ron Lord, observes “I knew you’d started at the bottom,” and earns a predictable response.)
There is plenty to chew on, raise eyebrows for and occasionally laugh at, and the blend between the concerns of Frankenstein and modern AI is engagingly worked through. In a development as meta as it gets, Ry meets not only fictional characters (central is Victor Stein, a charismatic AI scientist who has “that sex-mix of soul-saving and erudition”) but real people like Max More, the founder of cryonic “life extension” facility Alcor, who featured in Mark O’Connell’s prize-winning transhumanism text To Be a Machine.
Like her contemporary Ali Smith, Winterson blends a high style where opacity is part of the appeal with a desire never to leave the reader in any doubt about what she thinks. She is “for” art and creativity and human fallibility, and sees love as our greatest achievement. “Love is not limit. Love is not this far and no further . . . Love is a disturbance among the disturbed.” She is suspicious of big business and “men-in-suits” and gives them bad-guy dialogue. “Artificial intelligence is not sentimental – it is biased toward best possible outcomes. The human race is not a best possible outcome.”
But it is good to be back in Winterson-world, with its self-assurance, its cantatory repetitions of rhythmic prose, its enthusiasm for experimentation – and its willingness to risk appearing ridiculous. “My nipples are like the teats of a rain god,” says Winterson’s Mary Shelley, while later Ry has sex while discussing the statistical theories of mathematician Thomas Bayes. Every Winterson novel has a mantra that vanishes and appears throughout the book, and here it is lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 53: “What is your substance, whereof are you made, That millions of strange shadows on you tend?”
And as always, she is at her best when at her most daring and playful, taking the story of Victor Frankenstein beyond the chase on the ice that ends Mary Shelley’s novel.
The references in Frankissstein are so 2019 they practically come with hashtags: Brexit, bitcoin, trans issues, MeToo, Trump, Bolsonaro, and more. But more familiar to Winterson’s longstanding readers will be the recurrence of themes from earlier work: the tech/human interface from The PowerBook, the time jumps of Sexing the Cherry, the gender-fluid narrator from Written on the Body. That all shows how ahead of her time Winterson has been for decades – and now the world and the culture is catching up.
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.
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