Some time ago, I went out for drinks with a group that included a fortysomething professional said to have written a novel, which my date, also a writer, had read and planned to give him notes on. The man lingered for an hour, during which time we mostly discussed our childhoods and his family, how fantastic his wife and children are, the comfort they bring him, the expectations they complicate and exceed. When he left, I turned to my date and asked what the guy’s book was about. “A man implants a mind-control chip in his wife’s brain to solve a routine marriage problem,” he told me. “Then he decides he likes her better that way, so he keeps it in.”
I don’t know what happened to the budding novelist’s manuscript, but it occurred to me that its contents, not to mention his personal ambition, would appear to take up that irrepressibly male literary conceit of the creator whose love object is an extension of a more integral regard for his own creative and productive prowess. It’s a mythic tale that Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love, which opens after a woman has just barely evaded her husband’s plan to plant a mind-reading device in her head, has a hell of a good time with. As with her first novel, Tampa — about a gorgeous 26-year-old pedophile who seduces her prepubescent students (critics inevitably dubbed it the “modern” or the “female” Lolita) — Nutting has taken a bit of narrative iconography and rewired it, made it her own. Here the result is charged with a current of the absurd: Made for Love is a satirical sex comedy about a housewife in her mid-thirties, Hazel Green, who finds herself begging to stay with her father, having fled her billionaire tech genius husband, Byron, who wants her as the prototype for and public face of his new “mind melding” technology for couples. Byron founded and runs an immensely profitable tech company, Gogol, whose mission is to become indispensable, with inventions that brush your teeth more deeply, make you come faster, and give you the perfect night’s rest. “It was all very cultish at Gogol,” muses Hazel, “the way reliance upon technology was perceived as a personal strength and the degree of one’s reliance measured that person’s value.” Having cornered the market on satisfying desires, Gogol embarks upon making desire itself completely satisfying, and that’s where Byron, and every other character in the novel, runs into danger. Byron prefers threatening and blackmailing Hazel (with exclusive treatment for her father’s dire medical condition, for instance) into melding with him, but would settle for forcibly dragging her back to his sleek home-and-workplace complex, “The Hub” (which also sounds like the name of a planet populated only by husbands).
Nutting adds to this central disastrous relationship a cast of characters who seek out artificial correctives to their sexual/emotional loneliness. Jasper, a love hustler who defrauds women of their 401(k)’s, finds himself attracted only to dolphins after a freak accident, cutting short his credibility as a romantic partner for human women and, with it, his source of income. He purchases an invasive, experimental treatment from Gogol in a desperate bid to achieve a sex life he’s comfortable with. Hazel’s widowered father is determined to live out his years with his sex doll, Diane, who boasts a face for sex, a face not for sex, and a wedding ring. All the characters — including Hazel, who remarks that one of Byron’s biggest lures was that, growing up, she had “really, really believed in money” — are overdetermined by the fluidity of love and capital, which are so streamlined as to become interchangeable.
Stylistically, the novel is a frenetic, pulpy mash-up that talks like the goddess of all blogs — maddeningly self-aware yet casually funny — and is at its best when it indulges in a kind of American grotesque. In one scene — a gag in every sense — Hazel gets her arm stuck down Diane’s “THROATGINA©” and spends many excruciating hours trying to draw it out.
Nutting’s familiar motifs of trailer parks, seedy violence, and bestiality bring to mind the work of John Waters, whom Lynne Tillman once described as “a reluctant ethicist, owing to his overwhelming sense of the ridiculous.” This epithet fits with the more satisfying aspects of Made for Love, too, but often a jarring, unnecessary ethical order is imposed upon the text rather than arising shaggily from the novel’s mayhem. A glaring instance is Jasper’s interwoven story, which, while thematically in the same romantically challenged universe as Hazel’s, functions awkwardly as a detachable part. Like with a spare throatgina you keep around your house, occasionally encountering it can be amusing, but it takes you out of the moment. Similarly, I couldn’t square the book’s many outrageous scenes with the naïve plot devices that overlay them (particularly toward the end), ensuring characters get saved in the nick of time, the bad guys lose, the sort-of-bad guys sort of lose, and so forth.
Still, Hazel emerges naturally enough as the book’s ethical anchor, grounding the madness of bloodlusting corporate mind control in familiar anxieties about aging, failing at succeeding, and feeling unlovable for incalculable reasons. Her sardonic perspective guides the novel through its many depictions of men who would leverage technology to bypass the pain and messiness of intimacy at any cost: for instance when Hazel’s father, making the argument for dying in the arms of his sex doll, muses, “Of all ways to go, isn’t extinction via sex the best you can think of?” In the end, he’s bought into a lucrative logic that frames sex as a rewarding choice — even when that choice amounts to fucking yourself.
Made for Love
By Alissa Nutting