Review of "Made for Love" by Alisa Nutting
Made for Love, Alissa Nutting’s second novel, is certainly topical. It’s the story of a woman who has fled her husband. An accomplished narcissistic and technological genius, he does not want to let her go. The work is a treatment of the surveillance state, of technology, wealth, privacy, sex and relationships. But, although the story is well seeded by all this, and all these opportunities are created at the outset, it somehow doesn’t quite pay off its promise.
It’s summer 2019 in California. The marriage that Hazel is fleeing is off-the-chart controlling and coercive. In surrendered despair, Hazel is more or less defunct now, and in real fear for her life. Byron, her husband, is a technology demi-god. He’s the head of Gogol (the similarity to “Google” is unlikely to be accidental), and a man whose “wealth and power were a terrifying glimpse of the infinite.” All through the marriage, she has been his experimental test case. Unknown to Hazel, Byron has implanted a chip in her brain that shares, in recurring daily data dumps, all her thoughts, feelings and experiences directly to him. He has ambitions to achieve the first ever human “mind meld” with her, as a prototype for full deployment of the technology. She suspects that he has been poisoning her to get her to visit his company’s medical facilities for this purpose, and others.
Given all this, Byron is not about to allow Hazel to leave. But she does leave, and we pick up the action the day she flees from him to the retirement community trailer park home of her widowed father, who has his own issues. He thinks Hazel’s marriage to a giga-billionaire is the best thing ever. He moves about only with the aid of a mobility scooter and he has recently sold his station wagon to buy a sex doll named “Diane.” At this point, “Hazel understood that things were not going to end well for her.” Quite.
What follows then is mixture of things: Clever and scary developments, showing us how much power and influence technology has over us; lots of high-jinx relating to Diane and later to a second sex doll; a number of funny (in a sketch-comedy kind of way) moments. And a comparatively small amount, bearing the circumstances in mind, of the emotional torment of a woman being pursued and harassed by her controlling spouse.
The opportunity this novel almost grasps is to treat a few really interesting areas well. Technology. Intimacy. Privacy. And fear. There are moments in Made for Love when each one of these is handled deftly.
The nature of intimacy is one thing that is skillfully observed by its absence. Each character here seems disconnected from it, which is a subtle jab at the distancing impact of technology in the modern world. Hazel, although sexually alive of mind and body, is almost dead set against intimacy, and those around her are no different. Byron’s hugs are “more an immobilization than an embrace, like a parent putting his arms around a child before a vaccination shot to ensure stillness.” Her father is fixated on sex dolls and her counterpoint character Jasper is fixated on Dolphins. “Liver”, whom Hazel picks up in a bar, works as a substitute grave sitter for relatives of the deceased who can’t be bothered to do it themselves. There are no romantic impulses anywhere in Made for Love.
Although it is rarely fully confronted, sometimes we get a close-up look at fear—specifically the fear a woman experiences when she flees a coercive relationship. Hazel is constantly in fear for her life. This is the engine that ostensibly drives Made for Love, as we watch Hazel turn herself inside out to create and maintain distance between herself and Byron—who has almost infinite resources and apparently infinite supplies of narcissism to draw upon in his pursuit of her.
And Made for Love is ambitious. It takes on big challenges—of theme, character and plot—as if to say let’s see if that can work. I appreciate that instinct, and would love to say it succeeded. But overall there is a sense of “toomuchness” in the novel. It’s a great pity.
The first thing you notice is that the set pieces of humor are overplayed. When Hazel finally gets to be alone with her father’s sex doll, Diane, a potentially funny situation is scorched. There are pages of long and quite directionless action, wherein Hazel gets her arm caught down the throat of the doll and various other things. Later, drunk, she staggers back to the trailer park and a long interaction with a neighbor’s plastic lawn Flamingo ensures. A little of this might be a credible sidetrack for a distraught woman disoriented by her situation and would certainly have been funny situational comedy (at least). But it quickly becomes silly, and it drowns the opportunity to get to the pain of the situation. The crazy riffs aren’t paid off, and the essence of the story is lost to the gags.
Those scenes have already crossed the page when the story makes an ambitious and ultimately misguided swerve into a subplot. Meet Jasper, a “European Jesus”, a sort of Adonis character who seduces and rips off women and who suddenly develops an unheralded but persistent sexual obsession over dolphins. We watch him for a while, wondering how he can become part of the story. Sadly, when he does, it’s forced and implausible. Overall, Jasper is cartoonish, superficial and lacking dimension. The dolphin riff is ambitious, but fails to fire and doesn’t seem at all necessary to the story.
Finally: Through all this, we want to care for this woman who is no equal to the spoilt brat conceit of her husband or the resources he has at his disposal. But in this effort, we are pushed away by Hazel’s flippant voice, her one-liner take on the events around her. Even though we can see that the voice is deliberately extemporaneous, almost every time she talks about being afraid of death, either her internal or external voice diminishes the fear with a gag. For example:
It occurred to Hazel just then how ironic her risk of imminent death was. What would their reactions be were she to say, Guess what? Of all of us standing here, I’m actually the most likely to die tonight!
Here was an opportunity to get as much of Byron’s technology off her skin as possible before death. She had learned this much from her husband: the future hated germs.
A little of this would be fine, and I’m OK with novels that don’t take themselves too seriously. But the opportunities for emotional connection with the character are wasted here.
The ending cannot recover what has been lost before, so it is surrounded by a slapstick sense of the absurd. But to its credit, the final pages land the story positively without being happy clappy about it. A happy romantic ending isn’t the look that Made for Love is going for.