Pop culture can’t take all the credit, though. The virality of Frankenstein’s monster stems from Shelley’s genius, not Hollywood’s. At the age of 18, Mary Godwin — as she was known at the time — was already wrestling with questions of life and identity that would make her story speak to the ages. In the laboratory of her imagination, she discovered the genetic code of our worst fear: The real terror of that “depraved wretch” doesn’t stem from the violence he inflicts; it stems from the loneliness he endures.
The latest writer to take up Frankenstein’s scalpel is British novelist Jeanette Winterson. Her “Frankissstein,” longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, is a brainy, batty story — an unholy amalgamation of scholarship and comedy. She manages to pay homage to Shelley’s insight and passion while demonstrating her own extraordinary creativity.
The novel opens in Lake Geneva in 1816, the site of literary history’s most famous parlor game. Lord Byron has rented a villa and is entertaining his friends. Cooped up indoors by bad weather, Byron proposes that they each write a supernatural story to share with the group. Students of gothic literature know that both John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” and Shelley’s “Frankenstein” emerged from that cerebral gathering, but in Winterson’s lithe re-creation, nothing is preordained.
Young Mary narrates the opening of the novel herself. She’s witty and precocious, unafraid to spar with boorish Byron or drunken Polidori. She may not have known her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, but she’s thoroughly infused with that great feminist’s spirit. And having run away with a married man — Percy Bysshe Shelley — Mary is primed for even greater changes. Walking naked in the woods, she can feel the energy of revolution everywhere: “The world,” she says, “is at the start of something new.”
Although Winterson has imagined these confessions and conversations, she initially hews close to what’s known about Mary Shelley and her companions. But this is no work of conventional literary history. It’s just a jump to the left.
The second chapter opens in modern-day Memphis, which was founded in 1819, just a year after the publication of “Frankenstein.” (Coincidence? Don’t count on it.) The narrator is a trans man named Ry Shelley. We meet him as he arrives at a convention on artificial intelligence “to consider how robots will affect our mental and physical health.”
From the start, these contemporary scenes feel like they’ve got a screw loose in the best possible way. Ry is greeted by a woman who believes robots are an offense against God. Then he meets a Ron Lord, who manufactures sex robots and recommends them in explicit detail. “You can be old, you can be ugly, you can be fat, smelly, you can have an STD, you can be broke,” Lord says in his breathless salesman’s patter. “Whether you can’t get it up, or you can’t get it down, there’s an XX-BOT for you.” The dialogue is slick and funny, often delightfully obscene, but beneath all the kookiness, Winterson is satirizing sexual politics and exploring complicated issues of human desire. (Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Machines Like Me” buzzed through similar material, but it feels a little lifeless compared to “Frankissstein.”)
The story grows zanier and more evocative when Ry Shelley befriends a high-functioning madman named Professor Victor Stein, who’s into artificial intelligence and cryogenics. (He also has a lab full of living hands, but I digress.) Although Stein looks like “a macrobiotic fitness freak on cucumber water,” he’s a fabulously wealthy scientist who is trying to imagine how quantum leaps in AI will transform society. During one of his lectures, Stein predicts: “We humans will only programme the future once. After that, the intelligence we create will manage itself. And us.”
That may sound grim — the excitement of a TED talk and the vision of “Westworld” — but in Winterson’s hands it’s a bag of provocative tricks and treats. With diabolical ingenuity, she’s found a way to inject fresh questions about humanity’s future into the old veins of “Frankenstein.” Alternating between the early 19th century and the early 21st century, she illustrates that the concerns we now have about being rendered irrelevant by computers are not so different from the Luddites’ concerns about being replaced by machines. “What if you were one of the millions of human beings who will have no place in the automated life that will soon be reality?” Professor Stein asks. “What will you do all day?” Will our AI future be some sort of degenerate, sexist nightmare — Mark Zuckerberg’s college fantasies in 3-D? Will the soma of our brave new world be robot sex?
Winterson’s cleverest maneuver may be suggesting that transgender people are the true pioneers of a self-determined future in which we’ll all design our own bodies. Recast in that way, Frankenstein’s creation was not monstrous; he was just too early. Someday, Winterson suggests, biology won’t define any of us. We’ll be just consciousness — unbound.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On Oct. 23 at 7 p.m., Jeanette Winterson will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Jeanette Winterson
Grove. 352 pp. $27