Just finished Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein yes its really all three s’s i double checked which turned out to be an interesting and very readable novel that maybe reaches a little beyond its own scope sometimes. Winterson is deeply interested in ideas about transhumanism, artificial intelligence and the future of our relationships with bodies - so much so that at times the novel becomes little more than a vehicle for these conversations to play out. But I found the conceptual level intriguing enough to pull me through the portions where the facade of novel wore thin.
First things first, the question of trans representation in this book is not one I feel fully qualified to answer. I’ve seen a review arguing that it presents an idealised/sanitised version of some physical aspects of FTM transition. The trans character Ry feels fully realised to me, with nuanced ideas about their own gender but trans issues are not really primary here, which is not necessarily bad. Being trans can and should be a fact about a character rather than their entire identity. However there is a lot of thematic meat to work with when thinking about trans bodies and Frankenstein’s monster and while Winterson does do some interesting work with this, I feel like she is often distracted with other ideas to the detriment of that exploration.
My main caveat is that this book does come with a major content warning for sexual assault in a scene that frankly felt unnecessary to me - it serves to illuminate a crisis about self-creation but I just don’t think it was a crucial part of Ry’s arc. The scene is very ugly to read and if you are sensitive to that content I would advise you to steer clear. Ry is also misgendered and deadnamed at various points by another character though the context is not particularly malignant.
What I think is most interesting about Frankissstein is its metafictional layering. Winterson has two primary narratives occurring - the life of Mary Shelley and her modern analogue, a trans doctor named Ry Shelley. The characters of Mary’s life (Percy Shelley, Lord Byron etc.) are all echoed into the present, including Victor Frankenstein himself as Ry’s lover, a “Dr. Stein” who dreams of transcending the body entirely and uploading his mind into a computer.
But these comparisons are complicated by Winterson’s choice to blur and move characters together across the centuries. Percy Shelley is portrayed as both lover and monster, and to Ry Dr. Stein is part Percy, part Victor Frankenstein. Mary Shelley herself plays the part of creator to her Dr. Frankenstein - he the creation and creator of monsters. We can look at Ry similarly - they are positioned as self-created, altering their body in transition they are both creation and creator, monster and doctor.
The book is constantly pushing at ideas of “reality,” and this reaches its apotheosis when Victor Frankenstein intrudes in the life of his author, complaining of being rendered flesh and blood - embodied and dysphoric - another twist in the knotted question of what makes up a human. This is a man made of text, a pattern brought forth into the world, the magical opposite of the modern Stein’s dream. Reality is emergent, Winterson says, it is a consensus reached, an invention.
It’s all a little complicated - partly because the book is rich with meaning and has depths worth plumbing and partly because the structure does not entirely cohere around the narrative. The book bills itself as a love story, and I think it very much wants to be primarily about that, though romance often ends up feeling tangential to the novel’s dense conceptual discourse. What the characters keep coming back to is “the human dream.” Which is perhaps about love, but I think it will mean very different things to different readers. For me it felt like a yearning for a certain type of immortality, an escape from death & the grief that is always entwined with living and dying.
The metafictional structure creates a complex blurring of monster and doctor, of body and mind, creator and creation. More than once, a character remarks, “I do not know if I am the teller or the tale.” That superposition is where the crux of the novel lies for me - the characters are both creator and creation, echoed and reflected and reborn in new bodies and new forms. The character of Percy Shelley describes it when hearing of a protest of labourers at Manchester,
We are many, he said. Many Shelleys, many Marys. Many stand behind us tonight in spirit, and we shall do the same when we are done here. The body that must fail and fall is not the end of the human dream.
Winterson undercuts this idealism to an extent, exploring the all-too-recurrent misogyny of male idealists, but that was still the compelling idea within the text for me. It is the collective will of the downtrodden rising up, the multiplicity of being of the common man, of the human living within and through the cause. The reflection shows a new face, the echo resolves into one.