‘Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should’ would have been good advice for Victor Frankenstein to take before assembling an offcuts homunculus that led him to the ends of the earth. It might have been even better advice for Jeanette Winterson before she embarked on this novel, a postmodern Prometheus that grave-robs Mary Shelley’s original myth for parts and comes up with something that feels barely alive.
Frankissstein (the title is a crime against puns as well as pronunciation) starts on Lake Geneva in 1816, with the Shelley party listlessly occupying a villa through a damp and dreary summer. Mary (still Godwin at this point), her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont drink and talk, and drink and talk, and drink and talk. ‘We are confined by innumerable gaolers, each formed out of a drop of water,’ moans Mary, narrating. Sadly, the reader may feel equally trapped: so much drinking and so much talking, and no one saying anything interesting.
The trouble is, Winterson does not seem especially interested in the group she’s assembled. The sole purpose of these characters is to say things that relate to the novel’s twin themes: artificial intelligence and trans bodies. Mary asks, ‘What distinguishes us from machines?’ Shelley anticipates fully automated luxury communism: ‘a man might have leisure while the machine did his work for him.’ Clairmont drives Byron into a rage by imagining a future where poetry will be generated by the literary equivalent of a knitting machine. Mary, irritated by her self-inventing stepsister, wonders, ‘Why should she not remake herself? What is identity but what we name it?’
All this is just by way of teeing up the other half of the narrative, set in the present. Here, a cast that mirrors the Shelley party – and Mary’s creation – meets at various conferences and lectures on the tech circuit. Inasmuch as there’s a story, that’s about it. We encounter Ry Shelley, a trans man and a surgeon who has had the ‘top’ done but not the ‘bottom’; Ron Lord, a corpulent sexbot entrepreneur; Polly D, a hackette digging for dirt; one of Ron’s bots and a conservative Christian, both named Claire; and the charismatic tech evangelist Victor Stein, to whom Ry has been passing body parts on the sly (the two have been sharing body parts in a more intimate way too).
The effect of these characters dissolving and re-forming in different locations and across different centuries is like that of entering a dream world – but not in the woozy, disorienting, enjoyable manner of actually dreaming; rather, it calls to mind the dismal experience of someone relating their dreams to you, episodic and incomprehensible to waking logic. Unforgivably, Frankissstein is no fun at all. It should be fizzing and jolting with the pulse of big ideas. It should, given the title (and certainly given that it’s subtitled ‘A Love Story’), be a sexy book.
Frankenstein and his monster don’t have the obvious lubriciousness of Dracula, the 19th century’s other big beast, but works such as Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have previously put the ‘cor’ into ‘reanimated corpse’. Frankissstein, however, is hopelessly unerotic, despite a fair number of sex scenes. For Winterson, these offer an opportunity to rehearse old arguments about the mind–body relationship: Mary and Ry make the case for the primacy of the body, while their respective lovers are fervent partisans of the mind. ‘Truly he imagines that nothing so gross as matter can oppose him,’ says Mary of Percy. Victor tells Ry that he plans to ‘upload myself, that is, upload my consciousness, to a substrate not made of meat’.
If sex is an arena for philosophical dispute, rather than primarily an empire of fleshly pleasures, then the body has already lost the argument. ‘Putdownable’ isn’t necessarily an insult if you’re putting a book down for the right reasons (ask Fifty Shades fans about that). Lines of dialogue such as ‘you’re wet’ and ‘the clitoris gets much bigger with testosterone’, however, don’t encourage your hands to wander from the page. A title that seems to have been devised with no concession to the human mouth is just the first sign that this is not a novel with much sensitivity for the corporeal.
Which brings us to the trans issue. Winterson provides a better treatment of the subject than, say, Fay Weldon did in the godforsaken Death of a She Devil, but Frankissstein is still a bit of a flub. Ry claims to have more responsive nipples post-surgery and a normally functioning vagina while taking testosterone. Actually, the effect of a double mastectomy is usually to diminish feeling, and trans men suffer dryness and thinning of the vaginal walls as a rule. Winterson is more attracted to the fantasy of gender reassignment than she is to the untidy reality of trade-offs and compromises.
There’s always been a neophiliac streak to Winterson – her 2000 novel The PowerBook was clearly written in thrall to Apple, and has aged about as well as a turn-of-the-century laptop. This new novel is giddily high on the possibilities of biotechnology, so intoxicated with the new that things like coherence, story and entertainment fall by the wayside. There are gestures here towards exciting, unsettling thoughts about bodies, power and identity, but Winterson never summons the vital force to turn all this into more than a bag of bits.