Jonathan Cape £16.99
It has been called the most productive holiday in English literature. In June 1816, four friends – Percy Bysshe Shelley and his young lover (later wife) Mary, plus Lord Byron and his personal physician, Dr John Polidori – rented two adjoining houses overlooking Lake Geneva.
An exceptionally wet summer ensured that they were all stuck indoors. To stave off boredom, Byron suggested they should each write a ghost story. Neither Byron nor Shelley came up with anything of interest, but Dr Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which gave birth to the myth of Count Dracula, and, after a few days of writer’s block, the 18-year-old Mary had a nightmare and woke with the tale of Frankenstein in her head.
Often Frankissstein reads less like a novel than notes for a novel, or even notes for a TV script
Two hundred years later, where would we all be without blood-sucking vampires and Frankenstein’s monster? It’s odd to think that a sudden change in the weather – probably caused by the eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia – resulted in the creation of two of the most dramatic figures in all fiction.
‘What if the sun had been shining brilliantly, as it should have been at that season of the year?’ Professor John Sutherland asks in his lively book Curiosities Of Literature. ‘Would there be blank spaces where all the Frankenstein and Dracula knock-offs, homages and rip-offs now lodge on our shelves?’
Jeanette Winterson is the latest in a long line of writers to draw inspiration, or pay homage to, or – ahem – rip off Mary Shelley’s immortal work. Winterson’s novel goes by the peculiarly irritating name of Frankissstein, with at least one ‘S’ too many.
It starts on pretty solid ground, in 1816, with the four friends beside Lake Geneva. They talk, and talk. Mary, who is narrating, says she hopes that one day there will be a human society which is just. Polidori replies that this will never happen. The radical Shelley predicts a revolution in England ‘and then, truly, we shall begin again’.
Their conversation strays into other areas. Polidori mentions that ‘they opened a grave in Albania recently, and the corpse, though one hundred years old… was perfectly preserved, with fresh blood visible at the mouth’. This gives Byron the idea that they should each set about writing a story of the supernatural.
Mary then has her nightmare about a monster created from body parts. ‘I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.’ If these words sound authentic, that’s because they are: in fact, they are the exact words that Mary Shelley wrote in her preface to Frankenstein, though Winterson fails to acknowledge this.
Just as the reader is beginning to feel cosy, and on solid historical ground, the setting switches to the present day, and a robotics conference in Memphis, with a fresh set of characters.
Or perhaps not wholly fresh: they are skewed versions of what has gone before, either in history or in fiction. For instance, the narrator is called Dr Ry Shelley, a gender-fluid rendering of Mary Shelley. ‘You look like a boy who’s a girl who’s a girl who’s a boy,’ observes a robotics genius who goes by the name of Victor Stein (geddit?). Ry is, it turns out, a woman who has become a man, or at least in some respects. ‘I have chosen not to have lower surgery,’ Ry explains, helpfully.
Also present is a clodhopper called Ron Lord, who sells Sexbots, and seems to have sprung from a coarse Carry On update. He says things like ‘I am working on a model with detachable tits, for variety’, and ‘No nagging about stopping for lunch or needing the toilet. No sulking about the Holiday Inn you’ve booked’.
An equally crass character is a pushy journalist from Vanity Fair called Polly D. ‘Maybe I could interview you?’ Polly D says to Ry Shelley. ‘Trans is hot right now.’
‘It’s not a fashion choice, OK?’ says Ry.
‘No, no, I mean you, as a doctor… what was it like taking all that testosterone? Having the surgery? You could be an icon.’
‘Polly, I’m not Caitlyn Jenner. I don’t want to be in Vanity Fair.’
What is Jeanette Winterson up to? She is one of our most inventive and original writers, yet there are countless passages in Frankissstein which read as though the late Jackie Collins had sprung back to life, complete with her familiar two-dimensional characters and Seventies soap-opera dialogue. For instance, attending a lecture by Victor Stein, Ry Shelley thinks: ‘I love watching him. He has that sex-mix of soul-saving and erudition. His body is lean and keen… Women adore him. Men admire him.’ How could an accomplished novelist like Winterson write such rubbish?
Perhaps I have got it wrong. Perhaps Winterson is just pretending to write badly, as some sort of playful post-modern jeu d’esprit. But, if so, I can’t see why. And as the book goes on, her various plots grow sillier and sillier, with Ry Shelley supplying Victor Stein with body parts, in order to create modern monsters.
‘Working in A&E has its advantages,’ Ry tells him.
‘This is a well-shaped leg, whose was it?’ he asks.
‘Motorbike accident. Young woman,’ Ry replies.
Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, things are also going off the rails. Mary Shelley is contacted by a doctor who tells her that her fictitious creation, Victor Frankenstein, has escaped from Bedlam. Winterson clearly wants to explore themes of illusion and reality, artistic and scientific creation, human consciousness and artificial intelligence, and the conflict between the physical and the mental. All very well, but it’s as though she is simply box-ticking these various themes before rushing onwards, in search of something else.
IT’S A FACT
Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff, famous for his terrifying creation, loved to tour children’s wards – dressed as Father Christmas.
Often Frankissstein reads less like a novel than notes for a novel, or even notes for a TV script. ‘The room had the look of a bad set from an early episode of Doctor Who,’ observes Ry, having been led into a new chamber by the baddie, Dr Stein.
Would this novel have been published if it had not been written by Jeanette Winterson? Like Dr Frankenstein, she plunders bits and pieces from the dead. Alan Turing gets a look-in, as he did in Ian McEwan’s most recent and infinitely more thoughtful novel about robots. She also finds room for a character called Dr James Bedford, who was the first person to have his corpse cryogenically preserved, in the hope of coming back to life some time later.
Of course, there’s no reason novelists shouldn’t resuscitate real people. That said, I feel sorry for Professor Jack Good, who, perhaps because of his name, I took to be fictitious, but turns out to be real. Good was recruited by Alan Turing as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, and went on to work with him on a ground-breaking computer. He was fascinated by the idea of a machine that was capable of learning, and thus improving itself. Arthur C Clarke was influenced by this distinguished scientist to create the computer with a mind of its own in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Good died in 2009.
All well and good, but Winterson makes macabre use of him in Frankissstein. ‘Before he died, Jack and I agreed that we would preserve his head… with a view to returning him to consciousness some day,’ says Dr Stein. In his laboratory, he reveals ‘what looked like a cross between a puppet and a robot. The cylinder base ran on wheels. Above was a body with arms and a head. The whole thing was about two feet tall’.
Victor explains: ‘Jack was a small man… I think he will like this. It’s his new body.’ So death now holds a fresh horror: one day, without so much as a by-your-leave, Jeanette Winterson may just bring you back to life in a novel, but this time as a head on wheels.