Contains spoilers and explicit sexual content.
So let’s start with damning-with-faint-praise first; this is the best piece of trans-themed art that I have so far sucked up. Now for the chaser: it’s the worst thing I have ever read by Jeanette Winterson. Transhumanism is clearly her new thing.
In fact, just before the pandemic landed I was going to see Winterson and Ruth Hunt in conversation about the latter’s tedious tome Queer Prophets, so I knew then that she was on their side, not ours. Not that it matters to me, having sat near to her once in a bar and found her thoroughly detestable at a two metre distance.
Mary Shelley – a fictional character
It begins with Mary Shelley with Shelley and Byron on their famous trip away, then flashes forward through time and we meet a future Mary Shelley known as Ry. Ry also meets a guy called Victor Stein. The original Mary Shelley also meets a Frankenstein who comes to life off the page (or summink). None of it really makes sense.
There are lots of clunky facts thrown in (‘My mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, would not agree with you, I said’ Loc 318) – though I suppose it saves peeps having to look up stuff on Wikipedia.
More unforgivable though are the plentiful and awful sex descriptions:
What is it? he said, softly, kissing my hair. I know his voice when it begins to break like this.
Your cock, I said, my hand on it as it gained life.Loc 358 in Kindle – Mary Shelley in conversation with hubby on *that* trip
Ry – the trans man
There are some very specific things in the book which signposts Winterson’s approval of body modification and cross sex hormones, specifically testosterone. The main character, a woman who was Mary, but is now Ry, following a shit load of testosterone. (There are a lot of TIFs who chose Ry, Ryn or Ryan as their new alias, so Winterson has got a least one thing right, whether by coincidence or design.)
Ry, we are told, is a is 5 foot 8 woman with a slender build, narrow hips, long legs – Winterson didn’t want to give herself too many difficulties, clearly.
When I had top surgery there wasn’t much to remove, and the hormones had already altered my chest.Loc 1088
Which begs the question, why bother having the surgery if that was the case?
Victor Stein, who is explicitly straight, is inexplicably and uncontrollably attracted to Ry, who to all and intents and purposes passes as a man (except when she is being raped in toilets, but more about that later).
In a tawdry sex scene with Victor, Ry tells us:
My nipples have always been sensitive, now more so since the surgery.Loc 1385
I know, I know, this is a story, not non-fiction, but where did Winterson get the idea that nipples could become more sensitive after muscle and tissue has been cut through and removed? Many women and girls end up with no nipples post- ‘top surgery’. Winterson lingers over the fictional body changes of her character in a pervy way, claiming increased orgasms and stereotypical male sexual behaviours.
The clitoris gets much bigger with testosterone. […]
Every clitoris gets erect but when you have one 2 inches long it’s obvious. […]
I come faster than I used to as a woman, excited with the kind of excitement that happens with a stranger.Loc 1392
In one of the final scenes of the book, when the weird collection of paper thin characters meet up in Victor Stein’s basement to meet a cryogenic head bought back to life (who happens to be a scientist and contemporary of Alan Turing who doesn’t really chat that much), Ry tells us:
I’m trans, and that means a lifetime of hormones. My life will likely be shorter and it’s likely I will be sicker as I get older. I keep my maleness intact with testosterone because my body knows it wasn’t born the way I want it to be. I can change my body but I can’t change my body’s reading of my body. The paradox is that I felt in the wrong body but for my body it was the right body.
I think you’re brave, actually, said Ron, I do.Loc 2996
Well. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.
Ron – the sex bot manufacturer
For her sex bot manufacturer character, Ron, Winterson presents him as a lovable harmless, albeit slightly lonely man, who loves his mum, and writes poetry. Ron wants to set up his own sex bot manufacturing business in Wales. Which is weird because the main producer of this commodity is China. I’m not sure if this is supposed to signify something or not, but Ron’s Welshness is a very important part of his character, being referred to repeatedly.
Ron also has incredibly conservative and timid moral values for a man who regularly rapes a robot doll.
Let me tell you something, said Ron. I was brought up in Welsh Chapel. My mum is a Sunday-school teacher. Do you want to know what my business motto is?
Judge Not That Ye Be Not Judged, said Ron. Matthew Chapter 7.Loc 2368
Lovable, slightly soppy Ron, then makes what Winterson thinks will make for a hilarious faux pas, referring to ‘motes and beans’ rather than beams. That’s right, Ron, who can quote chapter and verse of the Bible thinks the speck in the eye was from a bean. How does that even make sense? Further proof that queer theory piety results in zero giggles.
Ron tells us his love story with his robot doll. Of course, she was there for him all the time and there was sex every night. He hates to cheat on her.
Slept with my arm across her. I felt better. Stopped the Xanax. My rash cleared up.Loc 2383
Sounds miraculous, doesn’t it? Sometimes pictures can say more than words. This is what men who rape silicone dolls look and sound like.
Yes, it’s a dead chicken he’s sexually fondling, taken from this Vice article,
later in the video, which I watched so you don’t have to, he lubes it up
Ron resolves to make a Christian Companion robot for those saddos into praying to Jesus. I think Winterson thinks she’s being satirical but it really lands with a thud, and a nasty one at that.
A rape scene – apropos of nothing
At precisely three-quarters into the mercifully short novel, just after the chat re: the Christian Companion robots, Ry goes to the gents. As Ry pees in a cubicle toilet, an old man accuses Ry of thinking he is a ‘faggot’. Then, as Ry washes her hands, the guy comes back.
WHAT’S SO PRECIOUS ABOUT YOUR FUCKIN’ COCK THAT YOU KEEP IT TO YOURSELF?Loc 2451
The drunk demands Ry demonstrate her pissing ability and then grabs at her crotch to discover her secret and we move into major face palm territory. Ry tells him she is trans.
He was shifting from foot to foot. Get in the stall! Since you like it in there.
I tried to move past him to leave. He rammed so hard I lost my balance. I was on the floor. He reached down to drag me up.
I thought: I’m going to get beaten up or raped. Which is worse?Loc 2457
YOU FUCKIN’ FREAK! YOU HAD YOUR TIT SLASHED OFF? NO TITS. NO DICK. FUCKIN’ FREAK!Loc 2464
Despite the man being a ‘lot taller and twice as heavy’ (Loc 2471) Ry manages to outwit him using the ‘clarity of fear’ and unbalances him – just like that! Instead of running like crazy away from the scene, or calling the police, Winterson allows Ry the dramatic luxury of sliding down the wall outside the shack. Yeah, right.
This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. And I don’t report it because I can’t stand the leers and the jeers and fears of the police.Loc 2479
The incident and the previous sex attacks are not mentioned again.
Leers, jeers and fears though. Did Winterson fall asleep on her keyboard and auto-select a bunch of words?
Emulating Dan Brown
Just like Dan Brown caught the public imagination with his book the Da Vinci Code by stuffing it full of references that people sort of half knew and thereby making them feel very clever indeed, Winterson has gone for a similar approach. It’s like she went to the thesaurus and made a list of all the terms and analogies she could use. So we get references about the homunculus, The Gospel of Thomas, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Planck, etc, including the whole back story behind Bedlam and even Brown’s Da Vinci Code itself. All very intellectual. It doesn’t really work well against the Carry On-style banter it frequently lapses into though.
My girls can talk a lot better than that – and they’ve got the health-and-safety Kitemark. Don’t want your dick blow to bits, do you?
RON! said Claire. What did we agree about coarse and crude language?
Sorry, Claire, said Ron, contrite.Loc 2606
The new [boy bots] I have in mind aren’t for the ladies. They are Service Bots. For the clergy. As long the bum-hole is deep enough …
Is any of that remotely funny? Even a tiny bit? No? Let’s move on then.
I love ruining the endings to trans-genre stuff, but in this case it would be impossible to.
Ry’s boyfriend, Victor Stein goes missing. Although their relationship appeared to be only brief and based purely on sex, Ry expresses surprise that she isn’t listed as next of kin and is heartbroken. So she goes back into Victor’s basement tunnels with another character – Polly – and it is hinted that Ry will start a relationship with her. Powerful stuff.
Hilariously Winterson felt the need to give her work ‘a note from the author’ (Loc 3241) to inform us that the story is ‘an invention that sits inside another invention’ (no, really? what can she be referring to here?) and that some things are made up but that Bedlam and Manchester are real places. No way!
Winterson has now passed so far up her own fundament she thinks the formula of interspersing fiction with literary references will simply make up for moral and intellectual vacuity. None of it is remotely thought provoking, especially when Ron is played almost purely for laughs, whilst Ry doesn’t have a single serious doubt about herself, which make them both dramatically uninteresting and unbelievable.
The horror of Frankenstein was that the Monster returned to avenge its Creator, which has nothing to do with men raping pieces of silicone shaped to look like women, or women mutilating their bodies to escape femaleness. There is an amazing novel to be written about these subjects; this isn’t it.
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