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Challenging the limits of physicality – Frankissstein – A Love Story, by Jeanette Winterson

Frankissstein – A Love Story, by Jeanette Winterson (Hardcover, publisher: Grove Press, October 1, 2019, 352 pages)

Frankissstein (with 3 s’es) is a collection of interwoven love stories that takes place from the mid 1800s to the present day. The characters in the stories are in dubious, risky situations, which lead them to ask questions such as; what if people could be resuscitated long after death; what if humans could live without bodies; what if all we needed were our brains; can we change ourselves completely into whatever we want to be; do we have souls or some kind of life force, and what if we could create life artificially? But solutions to these questions, though they are subjects for debate right now, are still in the realm of Science Fiction. The problems with our disease-prone, perishable bodies and the inevitability of death have not been solved. This conflict between desire and aspiration, and harsh reality and physical limitations makes Winterson’s characters as tragic as any in a Shakespearean drama or a Donizetti opera. She really makes the reader think – and think hard.

Elegant, imaginative writing

What distinguishes this novel, apart from the knack of making the reader wonder long after they have put the book down, is Winterson’s writing style. It is flowing, elegant and segues smoothly from one character’s stream of consciousness to another’s. At times it is rather dreamy and random, just like people’s minds actually work. She leaves some thoughts incomplete, for the reader to fill in. She also skillfully changes the style to suit the time period in which the action takes place, going from a few years before 1818 and continuing, with many touch-points, allusions and plays on words, into today.

Starting with Mary Shelley

The three main stories have the same frame narrative, which is: the creation of artificial life. The novel is written from the first person viewpoints of the key protagonists and contains many literary references, starting with the first story which is an imagining of the time when the author Mary Shelley created her famous novel, Frankenstein. 

(In this review, the fictional characters’ names are in quotation marks, whereas the historical figures are not.)

Shelley published Frankenstein anonymously in 1818, but in the 1831 edition, which was the first to credit her as the author, she included a preface in which she calls the book “my hideous progeny.” Her novel, as misunderstood as it has often been, is probably the earliest popular example of Gothic Fiction about a man-made life form and the resulting defeat of illness and death. “Victor Frankenstein” is not the name of the monster created from spare human parts, but the name of the doctor in Shelley’s novel. Dracula, by Bram Stoker, the other famous Gothic Horror novel about the dead coming to life, only appeared in 1897.

A post-1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, where she is identified as “Mrs. Shelley” and the subtitle of the book is “Or the Modern Prometheus”. In Greek Mythology, Prometheus is said to have created humanity from clay.

While it seems plausible, Winterson’s novel is not a biography about Shelley and the original Frankenstein, nor a scientific study. Frankissstein is a work of fiction, though some parts are like a Nonfiction Novel, and other parts could be Speculative Fiction or Science Fiction. The novel does not fit into only one genre. But the literary and biographical references tend to blur the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction and every page conjures up a memory of a related novel or film – sometimes correctly, often not. It is, as I’ve said, very thought-provoking.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and kisses of a different kind

The first part of Frankissstein is the first person depiction of how “Mary Shelley” wrote the novel, and Winterson keeps close to the known historical facts: Mary Shelley had a tragic and short life – she followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a writer and died when she was 54. She met the lauded poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was older, married, and a wan-and-floppy-looking romanic type, when she was sixteen – yes, only sixteen! (Mind you, Percy Shelley died when he was only 29.)

Shortly after they met, the couple left England for Europe to escape social condemnation, and they took along Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Claire started a love affair with another famous English poet, Lord Byron, 6th Baron Byron. So, the four of them, plus various hangers-on including a doctor, travelled from place to place in Europe. Shelley suffered miscarriages during her eight-year relationship to Percy Shelley and many of her children died young. This was partially because they lived in unhealthy places, since they had very little money, unlike Lord Byron. Her first child died from a fever contracted while they were living in Florence, Italy.

The Shelley in the story

“Mary Shelley” is clever, perceptive and imaginative. Her idea of “Doctor Victor Frankenstein” challenging conventions and creating life in a laboratory by zapping it with a sort of “galvanic electric spark”, builds in her imagination piece by piece until she can put the words down on paper. Because at that time the use of electricity in medicine is a new concept (electrotherapeutic applications were only introduced in 1856), her ideas are dismissed as fantastical, revolutionary, and even sacrilegious. She is critical of their not very nice travel companions but would never express her dislike. But she also has tender, passionate feelings for her weedy poet husband and admiration for his ability to write poetry. However, she cannot tolerate that he wants to return to places that are bad for their health and that he does not realize how much she is grieving:

“I held his hand, so pale and thin and long. That hand on my body, that hand in my hair, that hand feeding me cheese (my craving when I am with child), that hand writing out poems. His hand with the ring on his finger that tells the world he is my husband.
I have not left you, I said. (But it is not true.)
We can go to Florence, he said. Begin again.
We are always beginning again I said. And do we leave a dead child behind in every place?” (p. 252)

It is a historical fact that when the four people were staying at Lake Geneva in the horribly humid summer of 1816, Byron suggested they have a competition to write a ghost story. Mary was eighteen years old when she won this contest with her creation of Frankenstein. And the rest is history.

A page from the draft of the handwritten manuscript of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected instruments of life around me that might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” (Image: public domain)

Writing about making life after having lost many lives

Winterson depicts the inner world of “Mary Shelley” in a most appealing way. You can almost feel the dreadful pressing heat and the unhealthy dampness of the house, her revulsion at the strange, cynical and hyper-sexual “Byron”, her self-doubt, and her struggle to create her novel and its famous character, “the creature”. And when Winterson describes “Shelley’s” grief at the death of her young son, the reader cannot help but snuffle down a few tears.

“Mary Shelley” rebels at this cycle of abuse as she keeps bearing children and they keep dying. She is merely a woman, meant to give birth no matter how difficult or tragic. Therefore, she creates a male character who creates life and who experiences the tragic consequences when that living thing dies, showing the flip side of the coin.

“Mary Shelley” describes her creature as having feelings and being able to think, and therefore able to realize for himself that he is a monster and an aberration.

“The creature will be more than human. Yet he suffers. Suffering, I believe, is something of the mark of the soul.
Machines do not suffer.” (p. 68)

Boris Karloff portraying “the creature” in the 1931 film Frankenstein. With this, the creature or monster became permanently associated with the image of a tall man with a bolt through the neck, visible stitching, an unhealthy pallor, a lurching walk, and clunky boots. And angry villagers with pitch-forks and flaming torches. It also contributed to people naming the creature, rather than the doctor, “Frankenstein”. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Frankenstein, 1931, directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff as the creature and Marilyn Harris as the little girl. Image from Universal Pictures Company Inc. Image in private collection.)

Robots and gender reassignment

“Shelley’s” story continues more than a century later, when, in a second narrative, a doctor called “Ry Shelley” meets a researcher into Artificial Intelligence (AI) called “Victor Stein”, at a cryopreservation facility. The names indicate that the plot and themes are continuing.

“I heard a voice behind me.
It’s a little like an art installation in here, isn’t it? Have you seen Damian Hearst’s pickled shark in a tank? What does he call it? The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
I turned around.
A man in his fifties, well-preserved. Botox for sure. Perhaps more if I could look for the scar-lines behind his ears. Tight skin, clean-shaven, dark, restless eyes. He held out his hand to greet me. (p. 106)

“Victor Stein” is indeed a kind of reincarnation of “Frankenstein”, but “Ry Shelly” is altogether different from “Mary Shelley”. Whereas “Mary Shelley” decried and suffered through her traditional role as a “birthing vessel”, Ry is a transgender man, who has had top surgery to remove his breasts, but lives with the other half of his body as he was born with it. Victor Stein, as a scientist fascinated by what humans can do to defy death and create other life forms, is particularly fascinated by Ry, finds his duality pleasing, and becomes his lover. But Winterson paints a depressing picture of what ultimately happens when you change the outward appearance of a body, but not the DNA of that body.

“Victor said nothing. Strange and touching in a fluent person. I stood still and let him look at me. My pubic hair is abundant but my body is smooth and not hairy. That didn’t change with the testosterone.” (p. 118)

The sex scenes between Ry and Stein are detailed, no holds barred, and very discomforting. It makes you feel like you are in the mind of an alien, but a likeable, funny, courageous alien, which is weird. Therefore, when you read about Ry getting assaulted by a drunk scumbag in a men’s washroom, it is shocking. It makes you break out in a cold sweat. Winterson gives the reader an idea of what transgender people have to endure. The inner trauma is bad. The trauma inflicted by others is worse.

What is real?

For me the saddest and most though-provoking moment is not the climax at Victor Stein’s underground laboratory in London. It is the third story, set in 1818, in which “Mr. Wakefield”, the superintendent at an insane asylum, the famous Bedlam Hospital in London, gets a very strange patient. Apart from being strikingly described, in this story Winterson presents the reader with the core problem of human bodies, life and death, as Mr. Wakefield observes:

“I do not wonder that we drink as much as we do, or that the poor, when they can afford it, drink most of all. Wretched conditions may be blamed, or the weight of business, or the urge to power, but our beings struggle in our bodies like light trapped in a jar,

    and our bodies struggle in this world as a beast of burden chafes its yoke,

and this world itself hangs alone on its noose, strung among the indifferent stars.” (p. 178)

The new patient is completely insane and believes he is a fictional creation, a character. He was brought to the hospital by the captain of an arctic expedition, who found him stumbling about on the snowy wastes. (Apart from being the ending of the actual Frankenstein novel, this reminded me of the TV show, The Terror, in which the “monster” called “Tuunbaq”, that roams the ice surrounding the stranded ship, is a manifestation of the characters’ insanity.)

A moment from Season 1 of The Terror, in which a sailor is confronted by the “Tuunbaq”. Someone is about to have their head ripped off. The show is based on Dan  Simmons’ 2007 novel of the same name.

The patient’s name is “Victor Frankenstein” – the same as the doctor from Mary Shelley’s novel. He believes that he is the doctor from the novel, but also the creature created by the doctor. The question is “…is his story the result of his madness or its cause”?

Visited by “Mary Shelley”, he says that he does not wish to die but rather to disappear. He cannot bear to be a thing that has been created, but is not actually alive.

“Mary Shelley said, if you are not of the human race, why should you care for it?
For the love of it that you bear, he answered.
Love that you have taught me.
Shall I quote our book? My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy.
She said, those words are spoken not by Victor Frankenstein, but by his creature.
We are the same, the same, answered Frankenstein.” (p. 215)

The monster wants to disappear

So indeed, Frankenstein’s monster can suffer. The patient’s torment is caused by him realizing that no matter how much love and passion goes into creating artificial life and defying death, the reality is that it is a nightmare situation to be in, not a perfect state. As the patient says, in desperation, “The monster once made cannot be unmade. What will happen to the world has begun.”

The main problem with enabling life after death is the complexity of the human body and the human brain, which people once believed is the source of the soul. The brain, in particular, is mind-bogglingly large and complex (sorry for the pun). No machine can replicate it, nor match its functionality. As the modern-day scientist Victor Stein explains:

“The brain is huge. About 2.5 petabyte capacity. One petabyte is equal to a million gigabytes. One gigabyte is about 650 web pages or five hours of watching YouTube. Your phone probably has 128 GB of memory. By comparison, one and a half petabytes would store you 10 billion photos on Facebook.“ (p. 278.)

Keeping a human brain (or an “ihead” as one of the characters wittily calls it) alive after death, encasing it in a frozen skull, and transferring its stored information to another storage unit, is still impossible. As appealing as the ideas are of people uploading their minds to the “cloud” once their bodies give up, or freezing themselves until they can be brought back to life in the future,  or re-inserting their brains into new bodies, like in the TV show Altered Carbon, it is indeed Science Fiction. It cannot be done.

Promotional poster for the TV show, Altered Carbon. Yes, “No Body Lives Forever”. It is based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan.

What if bodies were replaced by machines?

Towards the end of the novel, the narrative returns to an older “Mary Shelley”, who has returned to England. She meets an actual historical figure, Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852), an English mathematician and writer. Countess Lovelace is famous for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She is sometimes regarded as the first to recognize the full potential of a “computing machine” and as one of the first computer programmers. Fiddling with her machines and smoking her pipe,  rather than joining the party, “Ada” says to “Mary Shelley” that the character of “Victor Frankenstein” in “Shelley’s”  novel could have created a mind rather than a stitched-together body:

“Instead he could conceive a mind. A mental engine. Ask it any question and, provided that the question could be reduced to mathematical language, then the mechanical mind could answer it. What need of a body at all?” (p. 323)

Precisely – what need of a body? (After all “machines do not suffer”.) This underlines the basic conundrum: love it or lump it, humans are flesh and blood. Even if you have a broken heart, as the expression goes, it keeps on beating until it doesn’t, and then you’re dead, and “…that is the strangeness of life”.

Polished, deep and daring

While the novel is a fast, smooth reading experience, it is also dense with ideas and meanings, arguments and references. It is intriguing, sometimes very amusing, and daring. These subjects  and themes are often depicted in fiction, but not often contextualized and analyzed from such unusual angles and alignments. It is experimental in many ways, like the real Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was. It’s not surprising that Frankissstein was long-listed for the 2019 Booker Prize.

Every time you read it, a different allusion or concept will catch your eye. I suspect that many readers would only latch onto one idea in the book  – whatever they can empathize with – and remember that one. In my case, it is this; “…the monster once made cannot be unmade. What will happen to the world has begun.” 

About the header: Peter Cushing as “Dr. Frankenstein” in The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957

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