MANIPULATIVE PEOPLE and sexual absurdity do much to color the horizon of Alissa Nutting’s second novel, Made for Love, almost as if there is some kind of correspondence between these two categories of phenomena. Does the emotional caginess required to treat fellow humans as playthings, in every sense fit to be toyed with, necessarily go hand-in-hand, or, um, protuberance-in-orifice, with spastic, anomalous liaisons? The earnest, young, conscience-ensnared couple of David Foster Wallace’s “Good People,” still as pillars on the riverbank as they debate the possibility of an abortion, are about as far from this novel as humanly imaginable — and yet, like Wallace, or for that matter George Saunders or Nell Zink or even Charlie Kaufman, Nutting has taken here a turn toward the riotously askew. Not simply with respect to the behavior of her protagonists (who have at least some affinity with the sociopathic misadventures of her earlier antihero in debut novel Tampa), but with respect to the rendering of the reality they occupy. In Nutting’s future dystopia, things get lurid fast.
How far in the future, you want to know? Well, late 2019. The date figures as just one more joke in Made for Love’s nonstop antic capering; this is a dystopia so jaw-droppingly prescient as to transpire not two years from today, ha! A Florida-esque locale where the wealthy can acquire health-scanning sleep helmets; tiny drone insects carry out corporate surveillance; an inadvertent aquatic rescue video uploaded online leads to unwanted global celebrity status; and a sitcom “about a horny single mother who ran a secret yoga studio […] each night [where] the only moves and positions she taught were ones adapted to allow for autocunnilingus” serves to distract from a woman’s loneliness.
That woman, Hazel, who never thought she’d amount to anything special before entering a partnership — or more accurately, devil’s bargain — with Bryon Gogol, the eponymous owner of a world-blanketing tech firm, has fled her former life at story’s open following a request that she agree to place a microchip in her brain. The better for Bryon to experience everything she does, says, and thinks as a hit of pure information: “Instead of telling me what you like,” he entreats her, “let me monitor your arousal levels via digital-pulse read-out.” Meanwhile, Jasper, a seasoned conman who seduces then defrauds vulnerable but well-to-do single women, has a singular oceanside encounter with a confused dolphin, which infects his libido like a self-replicating computer virus.
What do these two strands have to do with each other? You can probably guess the general contours, if not the comic particulars. Thematic resonances notwithstanding, Nutting doesn’t bring it all together until the novel’s 300 pages are nearly up, by way of a Jasper ex machina. Not to worry, though — the shambolic, strings-showing style is part of Made for Love’s deranged charm, a sort of radical transparency between author and reader that says, as long as you’re someone who delights in this brand of pleasant experience, let’s not make a big deal about fine-toothed structure. Call it a literary come-on; call it, moving fast. It’s right there on the cover, after all, which looks like nothing so much as a boutique rum label, or an advertisement for an island weekend, the memory of which you hope will warm your chilly office upon return.
The truth is tech mogul Bryon’s desire to download runaway wife Hazel’s every intimate detail may not be so different from the reader’s, a similarity that Nutting plays to the hilt: “Hazel went into the diner’s bathroom and decided to practice the speech she’d give Byron […] ‘I’m sorry I didn’t fall in love with you,’ she said to her reflection in the mirror. ‘I tried to.’” Naturally, this is an act she performs in anticipation of the moment when he will receive her undiluted thoughts.
So, the shambolic tilt of Nutting’s story functions as a sly wink or a tongue-firmly-in-cheek. See the very first scene when Hazel seeks shelter at the trailer home of her widowed father, only to walk in on his just having unboxed a sex doll he has insistently named Diane and for whose purpose he shows no shame. With a daughter supposedly in blissful marriage to a tech mogul, he only means to make the most of a modest retirement. “Hazel! She’s not trying to be your mother,” he scolds when his daughter chides him. Looking around her father’s house, Hazel thinks about “how different her life might be if she’d been raised by people who knew wallpaper could make a difference and proved it.”
If there was any question of Nutting’s intention with scandal-in-a-box Tampa (“In order to achieve satire,” author Sarah Churchwell wrote of that novel in the Guardian, “a writer must also be funny”), Made for Love makes its intent explicit, as this most thoroughly modern yarn ends with the old-fashioned gesture of a stated lesson. Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine might more memorably spoof the media/consumer interface, and Helen Phillips’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat (which features, like Made for Love, a deft executive assistant named with an absurdist spin on “Tiffany”) may well feature finer prose. And, yes, Nutting’s novel both showcases and epitomizes a working definition of hot mess — but with this novel there can be no disputing that she is funny as hell. Her insights will land close to the heart for those who may or may not have elevated a fetish for control over and above that of genuine human expression: “When had she so internalized the feeling that if something wasn’t great she needed bridge the gap between reality and idealism with her own manufactured enthusiasm?”
Throughout the story, Nutting favors a funny type of language game to relay her protagonist’s abrupt and recent estrangement from web-immersed consciousness. These semi-odd word pairings suggest a widely recognized concept — like public rollout, manufactured home, or romantic love — but aren’t quite. Or maybe they are to Hazel, or at least she wants them to be, as she endeavors to escape the cypher Bryon’s vacuum clutches. (See, I did one myself.) Examples include, “her nonrecorded nudity,” “a tangible existence,” the “vigor killing [of a threatening insect],” someone’s “secret-joke name,” and advance to such spiffy combos as “gentrification elixirs,” “sympathy buying,” “empathy puberty,” “sovereign competence,” “experience crust,” “weird manure prairie,” and “guilt statue.” In context, each of these registers clearly enough with a certain comic edge and yet they also wobble on a precipice between meaning and non-meaning — repeated echoes of Hazel’s fits of fancy and yearning to give figurative shape to her experience. It’s the same instinct that led her into marriage with Bryon in the first place.
Made for Love is that echo writ large, a last-ditch romp — or is it a crash? — for two people whose deception of others has led them down dark pathways from which they yearn to break out into the light of day once more. If only the web would let them! Says Hazel, emotionally at sea: “I am having a different reality from the Internet’s reality.”
J. T. Price’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New England Review, Post Road Magazine, Joyland, The Brooklyn Rail, CONSTRUCTION Magazine, Opium Magazine, and elsewhere. He has published essays, reviews, and interviews with BOMB Magazine, The Scofield, and The Millions.