Secondhand Emotion

Made for Love: A Novel BY Alissa Nutting. Ecco. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.

The cover of Made for Love: A Novel

TINA TURNER PUT OUT her most popular song, “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” a year before I was a fetus, but on nice days when I was a child it played so often on the boom box in the neighbor’s backyard that I thought it was new. I was already going to be a critic: I thrilled to her spinto mezzo-soprano, memorized her words so I could sing along, and then the second the song ended, for about the thirtieth time, rolled my eyes and said to my brother, “This is so stupid. ‘Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?’ Then who needs an arm when an arm can be broken?!” A few months later, I saw a three-limbed man at my great-grandmother’s retirement home and learned that you can live without one arm, or even without two. Somehow this did not prepare me for the eventual discovery that some people live without hearts.

Technically, those who live in Alissa Nutting’s oeuvre, which so far comprises a debut collection of short stories, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (2011); a perfect cause célèbre of a first novel, Tampa (2013); and now a second novel, Made for Love, are what is called loveless. Love for others and themselves is what they lack. But because there is no more metonymic part of the body, save maybe the hand (“let lips do as hands do”), it’s no stretch to see them as having some undefined muscle where the heart should be. Celeste, the hot teacher in Tampa who sleeps with her eighth-grade male students and is deemed, when caught, to be “too pretty for prison,” has something worse. “People are often startled by my handwriting; because I’m pretty, they assume everything I do is pretty,” she narrates. “It’s odd to them that I write like I have a hook for an arm, just as [my husband] would be startled to learn I have a hook for a heart.”

In the 2008 story “Bandleader’s Girlfriend,” the former tells the latter that “most of our senses are . . . not to be trusted” and that “our true feelings come from our wormholes,” his word for “the heart in our stomach between our legs,” not from the chest. A 2015 piece of “flash fiction” for the magazine Guernica stars a broke-and-alone college grad who’s paid to get an experimental procedure that replaces part of her torso with a transparent, detachable panel. Cora looks in the mirror to see “her heart beating again and again like an unanswered question, like a phone in her chest that would not stop ringing,” or like “a digital alarm clock’s numbers . . . flash[ing] repeatedly when the power went out.” Celeste, in Tampa, wishes likewise for genitals to be “prosthetic, something I could slip out of,” in lieu of parts connected and buzzing. She can barely listen to a desired male student with a question about Romeo and Juliet, answering him by saying, not thinking about it, that the two lovers “probably” weren’t in love; and later, to the most-desired boy, she can’t say “I love you” when she fucks him. Love as a word is “meaningless,” she assures him. But were it meaningless, it would be easy for her to say.

Born in Michigan and raised in central Florida, Nutting went to high school with Debra Lafave, the teacher in whose tabloid-ready image Celeste is made, and got her undergraduate degree, her master’s, and her doctorate from state schools in Florida, Alabama, and Nevada, respectively. Circa Tampa, she told a website called Bookish that she was “influenced by the satirical and the grotesque,” name-checking the first writers any English major would recall upon seeing the term satirical in the context of the Enlightenment (Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope) and the term grotesque in the context of “gothic” and/or “female” (Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, Angela Carter). She practices an almost naive kind of fiction, fiction as a zone where anything can happen, so it does. Who needs a form when a form can be broken?

Take the girl-meets-man story in Made for Love, a less singular novel than Tampa (now being adapted for the cinema by Harmony Korine) but weirder, more florid in plot. Hazel Green, a chick so indifferent to her vitals that her name seems given in case she forgets her own eye color, has a more attractive, competent college roommate. The roommate has an interview scheduled for the student newspaper with a twenty-seven-year-old male entrepreneur whose company is already worth billions. The roommate also has the flu, so can’t make it. Reluctantly, our protagonist goes in the roommate’s stead, and by virtue of being not what the cool billionaire expected, not pretty or brilliant or intentionally funny or seductive, she charms and intrigues him; none of her actual virtues are on view, save the modesty implied by a slight physical presence and affect. Before we can wonder how the billionaire got so successful, since he doesn’t appear to like a challenge, he’s sending her gifts with an agenda and a contract to commit to before he gets her naked.

If this sounds familiar, you may be confessing to having read and remembered Fifty Shades of Grey, a nominally adult and human romance novel inspired by a teen-vampire love story, Twilight, and published in 2011 by a random British woman who is now one of the world’s richest authors. Anastasia Steele becomes Hazel. Christian Grey becomes Byron Gogol, the man behind a monolith with the combined powers of Google and Facebook and the ethics of an unrepentant voyeur. The setups are identical, though the protagonists are near-perfect foils: Ana, an English major who talks like she can’t read and has never been fucked, is convinced she deserves to feel special and resists her degradation at the hands of a man she adores. Hazel is powerless to bother, having “always planned on having a terrible life.” She knows better than to accept “the narrative that she was inexplicably lovable: one encounter with her and a calculating, domineering technology genius was swept off his feet.” She knows what genre she’s in.

Readers, on the other hand, aren’t sure. Nutting can be obvious and jokey about skewing tropes, like when Hazel remembers “what Byron and his cohorts liked to call the Bionic Revolution, though they frequently slipped—was it a slip?—and said Byronic,” but often it’s hard to gauge her taste level relative to her material, and to measure accordingly her ironic distance. Even whether she borrows from Fifty Shades on purpose or not is unclear. Soon it’s irrelevant: The novel begins with Hazel’s flight from her eight-year marriage to Byron, spent entirely on his terms as a test subject for high-tech experiments, which are invasive to the point of constituting marital mind-rape, in a home so fittingly, aesthetically clinical she can only describe it as “where the deceased go to cool down to the afterlife’s new room temperature.” The past, told in flashbacks, is a cautionary tale about ignoring the fine print of the heterosexual contract (a primitive draft, though futuristic in tone). Believing she has escaped her surveillance, Hazel hides out in a trailer park with her widowed, unaffectionate dad, who would prefer to be alone with his redheaded sex dolls, Roxy and Diane. Hazel is a pretty dirty realist with no intention of being at home in a dystopia and no desire beyond living “long enough to see what a life of independence might be like.” Yet when her escape proves fragile, tested at every turn by new menaces of Byron’s devising, we are in the realm of unscientific sci-fi.

Meanwhile, in a nearby beach town, a con man whose game is serial monogamy is ready to move on. Jasper is handsome enough, with light eyes and long, flowing hair, to tell strangers he probably looks familiar because he looks like Jesus Christ, and to trick a woman into “lending” him her entire 401(k) after six months of dating. He goes for one last dip in the ocean and is attacked by a dolphin, whom he strangles unconscious and drags to shore, only to be greeted by beachgoers who, mistaking his act for a rescue, take videos and pics that go viral. While the media hunts for the mystery man they’ve nicknamed the “Dolphin Savior,” Jasper finds that said dolphin, in biting him, gave him a fetish for dolphins. It’s a sick twist on the vampire romance, more so since Jasper is no romantic but an amoral fabulist. It also recalls the true-life story of Malcolm Brenner, better known as the Dolphin—well, not Savior. A documentary about Brenner and his “affair” in the 1970s with a Floridian theme-park dolphin named Dolly is, rather generously, called Dolphin Lover.

Interviewed by Jia Tolentino for the feminist website Jezebel, Brenner, a former investigative journalist, said it took Dolly “about 3 or 4 months to win me over and convince me that she was intellectually pretty much my equal.” This doesn’t speak well of his intellect, and his emotional intelligence is no less in question: “I was having,” he said, “telepathic connections with the dolphin.” As for Dolly, contrary to what “some scientists say,” he claimed to have given her orgasms: “I know she [came]. She vocalized it.” People, scientists or not, have accused him of rape, but Navy SEALS have told him it’s physically impossible to overpower a dolphin. (I’m sure it’s hard. I’m also sure you could find Navy SEALS to tell you it’s physically impossible to rape a male human.) The claim to a telepathic connection—“I could tell she wanted it”—is beloved by the average rapist, who is usually thus identified because the victim didn’t tell him herself. Yet it’s dulling to think about a language so strictly verbal that only a word like yes, which is literally too short to be an e-mail password, can open a body.

The dolphin in Made for Love is named Bella, like the normal and boring girl in Twilight for whom the beautiful boy vampire, able to read almost any human mind except hers, feels undying love. Dolphins are known to pass the mirror test for self-recognition, which means they can be sexy, a possibility in which Nutting, though she does not lend Bella any consciousness, takes some delight. In Lars and the Real Girl, a 2007 indie about a guy (Ryan Gosling) who’s in love with a sex doll, another guy says, of the doll, “The best thing is, man, she doesn’t know how hot she is.” It’s a very funny line. It’s perfect, because a woman would have to be plastic, unconscious from birth, not to know. We are required to see exactly how pretty, how symmetrical, how thin, and how flawed we are, then asked not to seem like we see too well. Hence, in literature, the rarity of heroines whose self-images are anatomically correct; hence the compensatory anxiety a reader feels with Tampa's matter-of-fact first-person narration about being, in the most basic way, a beautiful woman. Nutting knows, too, that beauty counts for and against women more than it does for and against men. When you see a total babe with a brain, you think she must be getting away with something, but if you’re thinking it, is she?

Jasper, who gets away with it for a living, is otherwise a lot like Celeste, and it’s unclear which narcissist, the male or the female, pays the higher price. (Would you rather be attracted exclusively to dolphins, or to underage boys? I remember what pubescents were like. I might prefer dolphins.)Celeste was incorrigible and proud, even when her sins came to light, whereas Jasper is half-ashamed, almost sorry. The funniest bit in Made for Love is the scene of his undoing, when his boss, Tiny, catches him trying to “touch [his dick] to the side of a dolphin” in the middle of the night. “You’re not going to harm me?” Tiny asks him. “In any way? Bad-touch categories included? Any touch at all from you right now would be a bad touch, to clarify.”

Sam McKinnis, Flipper, 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 72". Courtesy the artist and Team gallery.
Sam McKinnis, Flipper, 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 72". Courtesy the artist and Team gallery.

THE SECOND YOU TOUCH SOMEONE, a verb with an object becomes a subject, a noun possessed. Her touch. Your touch. Since the introduction of the touch screen I have developed an antagonistic relationship to my iPhone, keeping it warm in my hands or else letting it die, misplacing or losing it so many times that it must have begun to feel unwanted and stopped coming back to me (I’ve lost three in the past eighteen months). Recently I did nothing as it overheated until it stopped turning on, and left it dead for five weeks before getting it fixed by a nice, dismayed Genius at the Genius Bar. “Did you enjoy your time off the grid?” the Genius asked, hoping to make my choices explicable. Who needs a phone, I began to sing—kidding. I had not enjoyed the time more than I enjoy any time, though I had sometimes indulged a sense of being lost; more troublingly, without the sensitive reassurance of the iPhone’s home button, I had felt that, when it came to interacting with the world, I was losing my touch.

Now, reconfigured by the Genius, the phone knows where I am (at least on a map), responds only to my fingerprint, my voice, finishes my sentences and even words for me, and does whatever I want. Why don’t I find this romantic? In her recent book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway, the feminist scholar and cyborgologist, defines our era as “a time of fire, water, and Earth, tuned to the touch of its critters, including its people.” She writes that in the British sci-fi series Doctor Who the humanoid Oods are gentle empaths with two complementary brains each, one in their tentacled heads, one held in their hands, until oppressive humans replace with sphered “techno-communicators” controlling how and to whom the Oods speak. “I resist thinking the Ood techno-communicators are a future release of the iPhone,” she says, “but it is tempting when I watch the faces of twenty-first-century humans on the streets . . . apparently connected only to their devices.” Loved ones who are separated do “stay in touch” on devices that allow for immediacy, but not for being intimate; the device is what we touch and what responds to touch first, and so usurps for itself the very fondness we use it to express. Or, less technophobically: An object that replaces the love object can’t help but be loved.

In Nutting’s 2009 story “Model’s Assistant,” where many of the motifs in Made for Love first appeared, the nameless, unpaid assistant finds herself in possession of the model’s phone, which has dark magic powers: “I was like a turd inside someone who’d accidentally swallowed an engagement ring: I was nothing, yet I carried something uniquely special.” When Byron proposes “melding” with Hazel, he kneels in a tuxedo and opens a small velvet box to show the requisite microchip. When she doesn’t cry or say yes, he pleads, “What is love if not progress? . . . What is love? What is love?” What difference does it make? He nonconsensually sticks the chip in her brain while she’s sleeping. She doesn’t feel a thing. That’s progress. Which is to say, that’s not love.

Romantic love, an individuating force like no other, comes with a truly crazy risk of personal injury. Technology seeks a world where everything, even knowing people, is painless. Tech’s effects on autonomy are paradoxical. Thanks to a chain-smoking female Einstein at Gogol Industries, Jasper is cured of his avarice, and then some: Rewired for empathy, he feels for the scientist that level of unrequited passion which, because it does not feel self-serving, does seem to be purifying. Hazel tries out a phone service for anonymous sex, selecting “what she’d like to consent to” from a “grocery list of activities that [she] could say yes or no to ahead of time, including things she hadn’t ever thought about.” Never having experienced intimacy, she had “assumed that [it] required love or at the very least a baseline of shared familiarities, but she decided now that that wasn’t the case.” Even the highest tech is not—as Nutting suggests in the novel—opposed to reality, and its effects on the flesh and the brain, when we are turned on and hit up with dopamine, are incredibly direct. Reality, however, is unfriendly to love: Only in love do we wonder out loud whether what we’re feeling is real. By denying doubt as well as pain, our computer technology becomes incompatible with feeling both sexual and romantic.

The way Made for Love is structured, with two acts zigzagging between the misadventures of Hazel and those of Jasper, both nearly ending in suicide, and a whirlwind third act, allows for no spoilers. Of course they’re the two ending up together. Nutting on Hazel: “One of the only things Hazel knew herself to be great at was concealing her true feelings.” Nutting on Jasper: “He had a talent for getting turned on. This was the gift he’d been given in life.” Screen, meet touch. Together their machinations could be unstoppable. Settling instead for more humanity, they end the novel like lovers in any classic rom-com, with a belated first kiss. Hazel and Jasper are in a motel swimming pool. Hazel says she is “excited to sleep with people I don’t love and not pretend to love them.” Jasper says he knows he’s not after her money, since she no longer has any. “Plus,” says Hazel to Jasper, “I’m not interested in loving you at all.” She smiles, and we read: “Their bodies started bobbing toward one another.”

A moment like this in a more gorgeous novel could be agony, and even here, downplayed to a note of regressive, sensible hope, it sounds so romantic. Here we find what our devices, so responsive and evolved, have yet to provide or reproduce. Not saying, but trying. Not touching, but almost touching. The unbelievable dumb ache of that almost, of being so close.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer and the editor in chief of Adult. She lives in New York City.