KR Reviews

Love Bytes: On Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017. 310 pages. $26.99.

In just a handful of years, computers have moved into homes, making virtual much of what once took place behind closed doors. We perform courtship via emoji, tweet engagements, and announce births on Facebook. Advocates of early adoption tout tech as the harbinger of a bright tomorrow in which life is easeful and the fabric of society is pulled tight through chat threads and hyperlinks. But doesn’t a utopia in which communication with our loved ones is effortless sound a little like the rose-tinted dream of every paramour?

Exploring the intersection of tech and sex is nothing new. J. G. Ballard does it to great effect in Crash (1973), and so does Spike Jonze in the movie Her (2013). Many episodes of the popular Netflix show Black Mirror are premised on the junction. Such works ask how technology might amplify or impede relationships and how new advances alter the course of the oldest story in the book. These are questions that are explored in Alissa Nutting’s greatly anticipated second novel, Made for Love.

Unlike her predecessors, Nutting explores how intimacy meets the informational through comedy. Made for Love begins with Hazel arriving at her father’s senior citizen trailer park. Unbeknownst to her, her father has just bought a silicone companion—the buxom creature is named Diane—and Hazel is crashing their honeymoon. Nutting is a gifted comedienne, and she walks such moments with tightrope skill. Working in the unit of the sentence, her lines extend and grow taut, then snap back with a punch. Her descriptions are one part Dickensian and two parts disgusting, which gives them a surreal staying power that is even more lethal when it’s packed in the polysyllabic shell of medicolegal terminology. Consider, for instance, a description of something as minor as Hazel grabbing her keys:

Hazel grabbed her father’s house key from the wooden dachshund key holder that hung by the front door. The keys dangling from the dog’s belly made them look like oversize metal udder caps were milking the creature to death. The dog’s wide glued-on eyes were begging Hazel to rescue it from a life sentence of indentured lactation.

Nutting also deploys a despairing absurdist ventriloquism reminiscent of George Saunders. The nine-year-old Hazel has a “fantasy daydream” of her teacher finally acknowledging the painful nature of existence by shouting,

ISN’T EVERYTHING HORRIBLE? DOESN’T THE PAIN OF THE WORLD OUTWEIGH THE JOY BY TRILLIONS? WOULD YOU LIKE TO PUSH ALL OF THE DESKS INTO THE CENTER OF THE ROOM AND BURN THEM IN A GIANT BONFIRE? . . . ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL LAWRENCE IS ON THE PROWL FOR A ROAD CARCASS WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO USE AS A REPRESENTATIVE PROP BECAUSE NOWHERE IN OUR AUTUMN-THEMED POSTER BOARD DÉCOR IS MORBIDITY OR DECAY SYMBOLIZED. OUR SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS CANNOT AGREE ON HOW BEST TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE BOUNDLESSNESS OF HUMAN CRUELTY.

Such virtuosic blending of discourses and use of tonal disjunction make this book an ever-surprising joy.

But it is Nutting’s humorous exploration of the intersection between the technological and the libidinal that is as untried as a freshly minted sex doll. Made for Love is set in 2019, and the time jump lets Nutting burlesque contemporary trends. The cultish behaviors of Gogol employees and the deadening effect of total connectedness are hilarious yet chillingly accurate. Hazel goes to her father’s because she is fleeing her marriage to tech-mogul Byron Gogol, whose “wealth and power [are] a terrifying glimpse of the infinite.” Byron’s eponymous company, Gogol, is an amalgam of Google, Apple, and Amazon, and it’s fitting, then, that it is helmed by a genius sociopath who aims to delete the “human” from “humanity.” Hazel married Byron in part to avoid her drab reality, and in part because—well, wouldn’t you marry Steve Jobs? Prepared to endure a space-age existence at “The Hub,” the creepy compound in which she is perpetually monitored, Hazel draws the line when Byron tells her that he wants to fuse their consciousnesses. The “mind meld” is a service that Byron hopes to roll out for the public, thereby solving the age-old problem of romantic discord. A brilliant idea? Sure. But a terrifying one too. The dynamics of Byron’s abuse of Hazel emphasize the illusion of control that technology can give us if we believe in it too firmly. We can read Byron’s control against the more familiar forms through which people control love: sex, money, and manipulation. Nutting suggests that gizmos, like our bodies, can be paths toward—and defenses from—emotional intimacy.

Although there is much to admire here, there are some points at which Made for Love goes awry, most notably in the Jasper subplot. Jasper, who resembles a “European Jesus,” makes a living from seducing and robbing women. After a midocean encounter with a dolphin who is determined to bite and “gyrat[e] him to death” in an attempt to mate, Jasper brings the dolphin ashore for STI testing, only to be photographed and labeled “the dolphin savior.” His cover is blown by a very different viral explosion, and he finds himself on the run from his many jilted lovers. These sections contain some of the best writing in the book, and given the sociopathic narrator of Nutting’s bestselling first novel, Tampa, in which a twenty-six-year-old teacher seduces her eighth grade students, one wonders if Nutting has an interest in characters lacking empathy.

This said, the satirical torque on Jasper is so great that he is almost cartoonish. It is true that comedy walks a line between intellectual distance and emotional engagement, and it may be too much to demand psychological realism of all Nutting’s characters; but if a character is a narrative linchpin, they need to be believable even in their superficiality. Jasper comes off as one-dimensional, and when his plot converges with Hazel’s at the novel’s close, it feels like Nutting is insisting on a novelistic unity that isn’t there. Although there are some fruitful parallels between the two stories—Jasper is made famous through footage caught on Gogol devices and goes to Gogol to cure his new sexual proclivity for dolphins; both Hazel and Jasper make a living off simulating love—their stories don’t meaningfully mesh.

Few authors have charted the link between love and technology. Nutting largely succeeds, at least in making us think, because she embeds the nexus in her narrative rather than merely adding tech splashes to create a meretricious relevance. Despite a subplot that could be made more of, Made for Love is a unique contribution to speculative fiction, satire, and dark erotica that we cannot afford to ignore.

Kate Osana Simonian is an Armenian-Australian writer of essays and fiction. Her work has been published by, or is forthcoming in, Passages North, Ninth Letter, Colorado Review, Chicago Tribune, and The Best Australian Stories. In 2017 she won the Nelson Algren Award.