Grove Press, 340 pages, $27
“My nipples are like the teats of a rain-god,” writer Mary Shelley (1797-1851) declares on the third page of Jeanette Winterson’s new novel. This is perhaps not a typical way to begin a book review. This is not a typical novel.
One knows it isn’t typical right away, with its epigraph. Not enough study has been put into the quotations at the fronts of novels. Typically, in literary fiction, epigraphs are gloomy, perhaps some Hannah Arendt or Robert Oppenheimer or Nietzsche. These sentences will often be followed with a lyric from Radiohead or P.J. Harvey or a similar act, to demonstrate that the author is down with the Coachella and Glastonbury masses. Sometimes there will be a terse, final, so-dumb-it’s-smart snippet from someone like Lorena Bobbitt or the Big Bopper or PewDiePie, to cut the funk like smelling salts.
The sole epigraph in Frankissstein is from the Eagles. No one quotes the Eagles. The line Winterson has selected, “We may lose and we may win though we will never be here again,” is from “Take It Easy.” Poke fun if you will. But those 14 words are, on reconsideration, nearly as profound as anything attributed to Confucius or Gandhi. And they rhyme.
So far, so weird. You begin reading Frankissstein picturing a monster with bolts in its neck (and the Eagles), and those thoughts mix with your sense of Shelley’s Gothic novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818. Once those things have been mentally stitched together — not that the Eagles play much more of a role here — a writer can go anywhere. Winterson does. In this novel, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, she walks her wits on a very long leash.
Frankissstein relates two mirrored stories. One begins in 1816 when the teenage Shelley was living in the Alps with her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and others. It was there that she was inspired to write her novel about a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates an intelligent if ill-favored creature in a mad experiment.
The other story, set in the time of Brexit, is about Ry Shelley, a trans doctor (Ry is short for Mary), who falls in love with a Botoxed, TED-talking professor named Victor Stein. Victor is an artificial-intelligence expert who’s conducting some underground experiments of his own. Hairy little disembodied human hands run around his laboratory as if they were tarantulas. Ry sometimes sources human parts for him. “Maybe being a bodysnatcher is bad for my joie de vivre,” he thinks.
Along the way, Ry and Victor meet not a Byron but a Lord — Ron Lord, who manufactures concierge-level sex dolls for lonely men. Ron’s an idiot and he’s gross, but his dolls, like the gun on the wall in a Chekhov play, are never far from anyone’s mind. Sometimes one pops to life and starts dirty-talking and calling for “Daddy” at the wrong time.
Among Ron’s company’s offerings is a braless, messy-headed, 1970s-themed sex doll called the Germaine, seemingly after Germaine Greer. There is quite a lot of information in Frankissstein about things like intelligent vibrators and teledildonics. There is dark speculation about, for example, how sexbots might spare a generation of altar boys.
Frankissstein is not a particularly good novel, if we limit our definition of a good novel to one that, at minimum, has characters and/or a plot in which one feels invested. Winterson seems to know she’s boxed herself into a facile and jokey situation, and she’s decided to shoot herself out of the corner. This novel is talky, smart, anarchic, and quite sexy. You begin to linger on those three s’s when you speak the title aloud.
Frankissstein also has, if you squint just slightly, an intelligent soul. Winterson has always been interested in gender fluidity and there is room, in our glimpses of Ry, for real feeling between the satire and bickering.
Ian McEwan published his robot-sex novel, Machines Like Us, earlier this year. (A male robot’s breath, in bed, smelled like “the back of a warm TV set.”) Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi updated Shelley’s novel with dark grace in Frankenstein in Baghdad, published in English last year. It’s about a man who collects body parts after car bombs detonate, and then gets out his needle and thread.
Winterson is playing a game that’s entirely her own. The fourth wall is broken frequently, as if this were an episode of Fleabag. After one bit of dialogue from Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, there’s an author’s note in all caps that reads: “This is the most profound thing Claire has said in her life.”
As the jokes and bon mots and aphorisms (Human beings can’t share. We can’t even share free bicycles.”) fly past, the book is anchored in soliloquies that wear their intent and erudition lightly.
In our robotic future, Victor says, “Humans will be like decayed gentry. We’ll have the glorious mansion called the past that is falling into disrepair. We’ll have a piece of land that we didn’t look after very well called the planet. And we’ll have some nice clothes and a lot of stories. We’ll be fading aristocracy. We’ll be Blanche Dubois in a moth-eaten silk dress. We’ll be Marie Antoinette with no cake.”
Frankissstein has its grayer moments, especially in the sometimes draggy metaphysical conversations between the Shelleys and Byron.
But if sex dolls are on humanity’s horizon, Winterson reminds us with one of her chapter titles (“Looking for a lover who won’t blow my cover”) that there’s an Eagles lyric for that, too.
— Dwight Garner/The New York Times