Review: Frankissstein

What man would stand by and see his life destroyed?

(Each one of us! Came my secret answer, in a sudden illumination of the way we live, forever wrecking the good we have for the little we have not. Or clutching at the little we have for the good that would be ours, if we dared…)

Frankissstein, by Jeanette Winterson, is a story following two threads: Mary Shelley as she traverses her personal, grief-stricken Europe, and Ry, a 21st century trans doctor, who falls in love with a mysterious AI-guy, Victor Stein. Add in the supporting characters such as Ron Lord, the Welsh sex-bot extraordinaire, and you can see why this book got longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. As with any book split across dual narratives, I found myself drawn to one over the other: sorry, Shelley, I sincerely appreciated your melancholic reflection, but it was the modern day storyline that stole my heart (and/or head/hand/spleen).

Now, Ry’s pronouns are never mentioned in the novel, despite the plethora of reviews claiming Ry prefers he/him or they/them (though rarely did any claim both). In her 1992 novel Written on the Body, Winterson wrote from the perspective of an unnamed, ungendered narrator; I suspect she follows in that vein here, allowing the reader to make their own assumptions, for better or worse. I won’t be deciding anyone’s pronouns for them, so I’ll be whipping out one of my favourite phrases here: welcome to the indeterminate ‘they’.

Winterson is a bastion of queer lit – I was assigned Oranges are not the only Fruit, her semi-autobiographical debut – during both my degrees. Nevertheless, in today’s age of #ownvoices, it was no doubt a carefully considered decision to write from the view of a young transmasc nonbinary person. In my opinion, she pulls it off very well indeed. Without having to filter Ry’s thoughts through the assault course that is modern day discourse, she is free to paint for us their internal reality with quietly measured aplomb. In fact, many of the novel’s comedic highlights come from the disparity between Ry’s internal monologue and the well-intentioned contributions of their fellow characters.

I am attracted to men, I say.

Ron takes a step back. His hand moves protectively towards his crotch. I want to say, Don’t worry, Ron, I don’t mean you.

Ry describes themself as naturally and artificially androgynous. I found this an interesting choice of Winterson’s; by giving her protagonist such a starting point, she skirts the topic of dysphoria. To remove this friction between Ry’s inner and outer being seems to forego one of the core aspects of trans experience in favour of freeing up Ry’s time in order to provide a wise and ambivalent perspective. It’s nice to have such a character who isn’t questioning, despite being ruthlessly questioned.

Typewriter showing the typed words 'Gender Roles'. Modern opinions old technology.

Winterson attempts to mesh together the debates around bodily autonomy, gender identity, and the encroaching idea of digital life with some success. She asks far more questions than she answers, which leads to an engaging read. What would gender matter if we were all ethereal, Ethernet-based life forms? What would sex matter? Or knowledge, or time? The parallels between trans life and that of Frankenstein’s monster stand apparent; a created body, one not of their choosing, constantly silhouetted by society’s raging opinions. But in asking larger philosophical questions she sometimes glosses over the realities, particularly when those questions are posed by the egomaniacal Victor Stein.

The dialogue sparkles, particularly in the contemporary storyline, where modern takes on the OG emo-lords reign supreme. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Ron Lord, an outrageous figure of a man – although I was disappointed by his background. There are Welsh upbringings which don’t involve repressive churches and daffodil nicknames, you know. Brexit is also advertised as looming over the whole piece, but it seems more of a background baddie than anything else.

Human head profile showing the brain and spine, surrounded by tech imagery: motherboard, memory card, circuits.

But this is a love story, and the highlight of the novel for me is Ry and Victor Stein’s uneven, cliff side romance. After all, who among us hasn’t fallen for with someone so charming, so seemingly sure of themselves as Stein? Their relationship, strung up and sewn together with black thread, is a macabre example of what can be made to look alive with only the right jolt of electricity.

I didn’t feel safe, but I don’t feel safe around Victor. Excited, enthralled, but not safe.

Ry and Mary’s parallels are a poignant reminder that although the wording might be different, our struggles today are not necessarily so different from those 200 years ago – perhaps even those 200 years in the future. What stories do we all trap ourselves in?

She’s like a witch, he says. He must always be under a spell. I was his enchantment once. But that is done.

                Stories unfixed in time, the dead fixed in permafrost, minds which could one day exist as a series of 1s and 0s. Winterson’s blend of the unreal and reality work into an engaging, utterly compelling read. The book strikes me as an introduction to these topics: trans life for the cis eye. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it provides a gateway into a world that many people would otherwise never so much as glance at.

Of course, the most unrealistic aspect of the novel is that young Ry’s transition has apparently not been hampered by waiting for four years to be added to the Gender Identity Clinic’s four-more-years waiting list. They must’ve gone private.

🤖 🤖 🤖 🤖 🤖
Questioning, argumentative, and at times outrageously funny, Frankissstein is a sharp reimagining for the modern age.

But is it gay?
Yes. Obviously. Incredibly so. We have a trans main character who is treated with the respect they deserve (by the author), and the main conflict isn’t even about them being trans. Yes, please and thank you.

One thought on “Review: Frankissstein

  1. Pingback: Review: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water | The Velvet Bookmark

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