Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

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The body fails and falls. But the body is not the truth of what we are. The spirit will not return to a ruined house.

Frankenstein re-imagined for our strange times. This novel is a shared narrative between Mary Shelley in 1816 as she gives birth to her creation of Frankenstein and modern day Dr. Shelley (Ry) who is transgender “a start-up (or is it an upstart in my own life)” who works for a cryogenics company attending the Tec-X-Po on Robotics in Memphis, Tennessee. Ry is there to interview Ron Lord (dealer of sex bots) and Ry tells us, “to consider how robots will effect affect our mental and physical health”. Claire is a ‘venue expert’ serving as Ry’s guide, but keep your eye on her, this is the last place you’d expect religion to enter. Soon enough we are sitting beside human scale ‘sex dolls’ while Ron convinces us that it’s a modern convenience, even good for couples because let’s face it folks, women lead busy lives now and men get lonely. It’s disease free, far safer than human beings! Barbie for grown ups! It’s the market of the future! Real, fake, is there a difference in the modern world? But humans as uploads?

The story takes us back into the past with Mary Shelley, where it’s far more interesting wondering about the mystery of life with Percy, Lord Byron and his physician Polidori, and mistress Claire (Mary’s step-sister). Here, another creature is given birth to, old world style when Mary pens Frankenstein. Somehow Frankenstein’s monster is less threatening, terrifying to my way of thinking than AI and the high functioning madness of Professor Victor Stein, who declares to all that, “The future is not biology it’s AI.” Just what is his terrifying, freakish theory of evolution? What sort of imagined future has him on a mission? Who better to discuss body parts than Ry, who is fully female, partly male whose love, emotions aren’t defined by either or? Of course Ry falls under Victor’s spell, a love story is born. What is the substance we love? Is it in the soul, the mind, the body? How do we define love? Hell, at this point, how do we define madness, science, religion? Love is it’s own sort of madness, monster, no?  How much can Ry’s love for Victor overlook the horror of his designs? This is modern Frankenstein, where there doesn’t have to be death for humans, where the mind can live forever, become it’s technology.

At times it is incredibly thought provoking, “What is your substance”, are we body, are we soul? What are we, exactly? Is our humanity tied into our souls? Our physical parts? What if modern medicine keeps us alive, with parts that are man-made? Better yet, what if the brain could evolve elsewhere, body no longer needed? Are we no longer human? What if we were only a brain, and everything else was replaced, are we then monsters? What is AI exactly? Could we at some point, were we downloaded, be AI ourselves?

Well what did I just read? I just wanted to remain in Mary Shelley’s world, because there was the writing I loved. I think the future is too bleak for me with Professor Stein. It is meaningful in understanding Ry’s self-creation, but it really went off the rails the further I read. I am not a huge Sci/Fi fan, what kept me reading was Mary Shelley’s intelligence, very much alive in a time where women were meant to be quiet. Quiet like her step-sister who ‘has nothing to say’ beyond what her body does, a woman who ‘sleeps with anybody”. Mary, adamant that the male principle isn’t better than the female nor more active just not subjugated as women are! The men simply ‘indulging her’ and therefore underestimating her. The imaginings of Mary are the beauty of the novel, the heartache too. She knew quite a bit about death, never knowing her own mother who died from birthing complications. She herself suffered miscarriage, death of her living children, so it gives rise to many questions about where the soul goes. Maybe the book began as a game, a challenge, but here I could imagine her writing a catharsis for what plagued her heart.

I have such a hard time reviewing this story because it is bizarre but it had me thinking about the monsters we create, about science, religion, love, our bodies, how we see ourselves and each other. What sex means, how we identify, and the many ways we deny others ownership of their emotions, state of being. One thing I kept thinking, whether the monsters are in the past or modern technology, somehow women always seem to be abused or denigrated. It seems to be one constant. Such a hard novel to categorize.

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

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