FranKissStein by Jeanette Winterson

I have spent a ridiculous amount of time wondering how best to write the title of this book – FRAN KISS STEIN like the cover, FRANKISSSTEIN like the title page of the book or Frankissstein like Goodreads.
FranKissStein appealed to me, but it’s not a version I’ve spotted anywhere else.
Whatever you call it, though, Frankissstein: A Love Story was fascinating stuff.

  • I was never bored except in the company of others.

After reading McEwan’s Machines Like Us earlier in the year, I was in the mindset to be thinking about AI, robots and what our future world might look like as technology takes hold or even takes over. It was very interesting to be able to compare and contrast two such prominent authors and their approaches to the topic and their different ways of weaving a story around it.

  • The timeless serenity of the past that we British do so well is an implanted memory – you could call it a fake memory…where the turbulence of the past is recast as landmark, as tradition, as what we defend, what we uphold….History is what you make it.

Last year I also read Shelley’s Frankenstein and a bio about her and her mother (Romantic Outlaws). All of this gave my reading of Frankissstein a much richer experience as my knowledge of the original story and details about Shelley, and her mother’s life, were still fresh in my mind.

Winterson weaves together several strands of story. We start with a reimagining of Shelley’s time in Italy with her husband, Percy, her sister, Claire, Lord Byron and Dr Polidori where she first develops the idea for her story Frankenstein.

  • Percy – the mystery of life is on earth, not elsewhere.

We then jump to now, or perhaps a now just minutes away, where sex bots, AI, cryopreservation and cephalic isolation are becoming the norm. Our modern characters are called Dr Ry Shelley (a transgender doctor/journalist), Ron Lord (the sexbot king), Claire (the admin assistant who keeps popping up everywhere in different roles), Poly D (the Vanity Fair reporter) and Prof. Victor Stein (a TED talking scientist).

  • Victor – I want to live long enough to reach the future.

Later on, Winterson also brings in an alternate ending for the original story, with some time in the lunatic asylum, Bedlam. Frankenstein has been admitted by Captain Walton, after he found him floating by his ship on an ice floe. To make it even more interesting, the director of Bedlam, Mr Wakefield, then invites Mary Shelley to his facility to talk with the patient who claims he should have ‘perished on the ice’. Love it!

  • Ry – I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness….I am in the body that I prefer. But the past, my past, isn’t subject to surgery. I didn’t do it to distance myself from myself. I did it to get nearer to myself.

To round out the tale, we finish with a glimpse into the life of Ada Lovelace, Byron’s mathematician daughter.

  • Ada – It was hoped that numbers would tame the Byronic blood in my veins….My life in numbers has been as wild as any life lived among words.

There are so many ideas to explore within these pages – gender, duality, consciousness, religion, soul, history, change and knowledge – just to name a few. What’s real and what’s false? Does history repeat itself? What’s the difference between privacy and secrecy? Is history memory or fact? Are inventions dreams or machines? What does it mean to be alive? Can technology be bad or good, or is just the use it gets put to?

  • Byron – we are haunted by ourselves, he says, and that is enough for any man….The human race seeks its own death. We hasten towards what we fear most.

We also have books in books, with references to Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood and Ovid.

Winterson’s delicious imagery emerges from page one and draws you into the various strands of story, with a poetic, Romantic writing style for the 19th century sections morphing into a more jarring, rapid speak for the now.

  • every solid thing had dissolved into its watery equivalent.
  • We were all around the fire that night, the room more shadows than light, for we had few candles.
  • We update ourselves individually and generationally. We can adapt within a generation to a changing world.

Ultimately, I found Frankissstein to be the more satisfying, complex read. Machines Like Us failed to excite me or fully engage me in the discussion that McEwan was aiming to stimulate. Whereas Winterson stimulated me from start to finish. But, I’ve just realised, none of that really tells you why I enjoyed this story so.

The technical stuff obviously played its role, but the stuff I’m still thinking about two weeks later is all the discussion around gender, personality and who we really are.

What is it that really makes us human? From the stories well tell about ourselves to the way we chose to present ourselves to the world. It’s an age-old process that flows over into the kind of future we end up creating for ourselves. We merge fact and fiction, dreams, beliefs and misconceptions, until we have something that makes us unique. Or does it?

Favourite Quote: Humans: so many good ideas. So many failed ideals.

Favourite Character: Ry Shelley, who seemed to inhabit quite a bit of Winterson’s own persona, and certainly captured my own doubts and questioning way of viewing pretty much everything.

Favourite or Forget? Loved it. It would make for a great book group discussion.

Facts:

  • Longlisted for 2019 Man Booker Prize

One thought on “FranKissStein by Jeanette Winterson

  1. \”The discussion McEwan was aiming to stimulate\” puts me off ever wanting to read Machines, that's for sure. I'm glad you found this take more intelligent. I sometimes get annoyed with writers showing off how much more than I they have read, but I'll trust your opinion. Still i'd like to take the path that you did, via Shelley's book and biography, and I also need to chase up Mary Wollstonecraft.

    Like

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