Designing Desire in ‘Made for Love’

Alissa Nutting takes readers on a wild ride through the murky waters of love and Florida.

Made for Love
Alissa Nutting
July 2017

Alissa Nutting is developing a habit of leaning into Florida’s most unsavory stereotypes to reach surprising conclusions.Her first novel Tampa centered on a female teacher/predator while the outrageous plot of her new comedy Made for Love features a dolphin fetishist and a trailer park love nest stocked with a ménage of futuristic sex dolls. But lurking beneath the antic hilarity are some very pertinent questions about the nature of love in our increasingly technologically mediated culture – whom do we love, how, and why?

The story begins with the protagonist Hazel fleeing “The Hub”, the claustrophobic home/headquarters of her husband, tech mogul Byron Gogol. After an improbable meeting, bewildered college dropout Hazel was able to leverage a constant sense of wonderment and a general lack of things going on in her life into the great wealth and even greater loneliness of wedlock with a man less interested in emotional connection than in a guinea pig for new devices. Living at “The Hub” forced Hazel to exist on the bleeding edge of technology, to sleep inside a health-monitoring helmet, to wear hypoallergenic smart fabrics, to have “every wall of every room sentient with touch and recognition technology.”The last straw is when Byron reveals that their marriage mostly provided a socially acceptable framework (“love”) in which to test a new mind-meld device, prompting Hazel to run away to her widowed father’s doorstep just as he’s preparing for a honeymoon with “Diane”, his new top of the line sex doll.

Despite the name’s literary twist on Google, Gogol Industries doesn’t truly resemble any modern tech company. Computers per se are barely a presence, instead the novel (most of which is set several years in the future) focuses on the “internet of things”, making Gogol seem like an exponentially more invasive Brookstone, producing data harvesting gadgets to aid every aspect of existence. Byron himself is less a real character than an embodiment of the sociopathic tendencies of tech corporations, keeping his eye fixed on the bottom line while batting aside pedestrian notions like privacy or death (“I can think of few greater competitive advantages for a technology corporation than an immortal CEO”). Despite being a workaholic with no ability or desire for real emotional intimacy, Byron engineers a way for him to be privy to all of Hazel’s thoughts and feelings (although of course he won’t share reciprocally, since he deals with sensitive information).

This maximalist approach to knowing your loved ones is revealed as torture when the desire to share is absent and the novel offers several counterpoints. Most amusingly, Byron is contrasted with Hazel’s rebound, a gross but lovable off-the-grid bar fly named Liver, identifiable by his vest made of skin (but whose skin?!), who assures her, “If someone got inside my head, they’d voluntarily show themselves right back out. I guarantee you.” More poignantly, Hazel ponders if some degree of distance might help her love her abrasive father more. When she learns of his terminal cancer, she realizes that his sex dolls, literally made for love, are in some ways perfect for enduring the unpleasant aspects of hospice care.

More complications are introduced when Hazel meets Jasper. Formerly a petty con man who methodically seduced and swindled women, Jasper’s life is altered by a dolphin encounter/attack, after which he becomes virally famous, but also only able to be aroused by dolphins. In the midst of a scheme about to go horribly awry, he muses, “Sure, most people who heard about his plan would want to discuss reasons he should not attempt to seize a dolphin from corporate ownership and pursue domestic cohabitation with the mammal, but the first guy who discovered fire probably had a lot of naysayers too.” The novel has a surprising amount of sympathy for Jasper’s uncontrollable urges, which are arguably less destructive than his previous emotional and financial exploitation of women, but he eventually submits to experimental surgery at a Gogol facility, which allows him to satiate his dolphin lust with human women and gives him the accidental side effect of empathy. His doctor (and future lover) opines, “People are obsessed with the concept of free will. But from a neurochemical standpoint I think that’s insane. Hormones, genetics, experience – our choices aren’t that independent.”

The ideas in Made for Love are a bit scattershot and might not fully cohere, but the prose is so much fun it barely matters. Nutting shows a real gift for convoluted and colorful metaphors that surprise and delight on the sentence level while perfectly articulating characters’ inner lives. The force that holds this chaotic novel together is the naked loneliness and need that drives the characters. Hazel reflects that, “if presented with a variety of options and activities, what she’d choose to do, always, was whatever promised the greatest reprieve from loneliness.” However, Hazel learns that a connection built on deception is only a recipe for a deeper solitude; “Pretending all the time was a different sort of virtual life, as fake as any of Byron’s technological simulations.” Made for Love is a fun and funny ride that argues that the only salve for loneliness is forging a connection based on authenticity, however crazy the truth may be.

RATING 6 / 10