“The absurd has as many shades and degrees as the tragic has,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov about Nikolai Gogol in his idiosyncratic 1944 biography of the writer. “In Gogol’s case,” he continued, “it borders upon the latter. It would be wrong to assert that Gogol placed his characters in absurd situations. You cannot place a man in an absurd situation if the whole world he lives in is absurd.”
Hazel Green, the protagonist of Made for Love, Alissa Nutting’s hilarious, madcap second novel, lives in the absurd world of Gogol Industries, a ubiquitous, privacy-shattering tech behemoth run by Byron Gogol, her husband. (Sure, it also sounds like Google, but it’s Gogol, and certainly not an accident.)
In the opening pages of the book, Hazel has left Byron and his sterile, stultifying “futureworld”—he wanted to “mild meld” with her by implanting a chip in her brain—and has decamped to her father’s house, a unit in a senior citizen’s trailer park, where she is not altogether welcome. Her father is delighted to see her, but stunned when she announces she has voluntarily exited the elite orbit of her billionaire spouse. He challenges her decision with wildly insensitive questions and exclamations like “Do you know how much money Byron has?” and “I don’t see any bruises on you!” He then encourages her to lower her standards for happiness, particularly considering a tough economy in which, he warns, she is “too old to compete with ‘intern cute.’”
But her father’s incredulity at Hazel’s leaving her marriage is only one facet of his reluctance to let her move in. The other, more important reason he wants his privacy is that, though widowed only a year, he has fallen breathlessly in love with Diane, a life-size, lifelike red-haired sex doll to whom he plans to devote his remaining days on earth. (Spoiler: he adds a second doll, Roxy, to the mix halfway through the book.)
Hazel’s confrontation with her father’s geriatric—but enthusiastic—sexuality is the novel’s great gift. Encounters with parental desire are notoriously, timelessly cringeworthy, but some of us are fated to have more of them than others. For me, the awkward details of Hazel’s interactions with the happy couple were all too familiar, recalling any number of never-ending, fake-smiling brunches with my own dad’s latest love interest. Hazel’s father cracks jokes about their “honeymoon phase,” gives the doll playful bites on the earlobe, and rides around in his motorized scooter with Diane on his lap, the speed “just fast enough to make [her] long red hair flow back in the breeze.” All the while, Hazel is mesmerized by the “aesthetically energizing” quality of the doll’s enormous rack.
Nutting deftly illustrates the uncanny creep of the technological into the realm of affect, but what’s truly creepy is how ordinary it all comes to seem. Hazel finds herself unwittingly humanizing the doll, feeling “instinctually moved” to catch her when she falls. Carrying Diane to bed one day for a “nap,” Hazel finds that “if she gave it the right context, it actually wasn’t hard to think of Diane as human; Diane was a friend who’d had way too much to drink, and now Hazel was helping her to her room.”
One thinks of Ryan Gosling looking expectantly at Bianca, the sex doll his character is in love with in the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl. His family and fellow townspeople display an eerie patience as he explains that Bianca is a “missionary” (har har) with “nursing training.” But Lars and the Real Girl, in the words of New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, is “a story about innocence, not sad sacks having their weird way with artificial vaginas.”
Not so in Nutting’s universe. There are many suggestions of actual copulation, though we are spared having to witness them. At one point, Hazel even gets her arm stuck in Diane’s mouth hole, the “empty stocking” of which looked like “a prototype of a synthetic digestive organ.” Nutting, after all, is best known for her absolutely filthy 2013 debut, Tampa, which loosely fictionalized the story of hottie Florida high school teacher Debra Lafave, who slept with a fourteen-year-old male student. (It will soon be a Harmony Korine movie.) She isn’t one to shy away from sex or discomfort.
Touchingly, however, the verisimilitude of these scenes involving her father and Diane lies in the complexity of Hazel’s own feelings. In navigating her manifold, often simultaneous emotional responses—disgust, disapproval, curiosity, pride, annoyance—Nutting lays bare the strange intensity and intimacy of the familial bond. New love has been mailed to her father in a coffin-like box, and his giddiness is contagious. In spite of herself, Hazel is happy for her him.
Hazel is likable, mostly because she’s cynical and funny, and is propelling herself instinctively toward a more honest life. But she lacks depth. Her issues with Byron, for example—despite his CEO status and the locked-in-a-tower quality of her life with him—are the standard stuff of 20-something entanglements. She seems surprised that the early blush of interest has yielded to something so deathly. She feels a sense of alienation, dislocation, and purposelessness. She knows herself to be “great at concealing her true feelings,” so “it was easy for her to get along with him, because she acted like a mood ring.” She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants, et cetera.
What she most wants is to never use electronics again—they remind her of the web-enabled prison of her marriage. But it’s a paradox of modernity that we can never fully “unplug” from the ways our world has evolved. In attempting to disengage from the clinical Hub she’d called home on the Gogol Industries campus, Hazel finds her father balls deep—literally—in another form of synthetic sentience, another futuristic experiment with the aim of distilling femininity and simplifying love. She thought she was “finished with pretending objects were human,” but it turns out that’s just the way we live now. Byron, reluctant to let her go, maintains a terrifying ambient presence, appearing as a holographic projection, and threatening Hazel with cartoon bad guy lines like, “I did try to warn you, I did, Hazel. You’re leaving me with no choice.” Hazel, rightfully, is afraid for her life.
Byron is also an unfortunately one-dimensional character, a member of the Soylent set who can often be found “typing on something in his lap that appeared to be a sheet of glass.” He has a telegenic assistant named Fiffany (a detail which offered me no end of delight, a nonsense word I loved to say into the air while reading), who serves Hazel bioengineered kelp and helps her select a wedding dress.
In proposing the microchip mind-meld (on one knee, in a tux), Byron asks Hazel dramatically, “What is love if not progress?” It’s a ludicrous question—when, except in the coldest assessments of procreation, has romantic love ever been hitched to progress?—but that’s the kind of baddie Byron is. The question is asked so authoritatively, even rhetorically, and in his signature, sinister tone, that all dissent is momentarily vaporized.
The uncomplicated nature of Byron’s wickedness recalls some of the feminist fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. As critic Laura Miller argued in a 2016 roundup of contemporary novels about unhappy wives, the “mad-housewife or anti-domestic novels of the counterculture era had the benefit of many… mustache-twirling villains—often selfish and domineering husbands, but plenty of other authority figures as well—all of whom insist that the heroine ought to be docile and fulfilled by her pre-assigned role.” Like in those triumphant, early escape-from-domesticity novels, Byron is a straightforward scoundrel, and Hazel’s freedom becomes the unassailable good the reader is cheering for, which can get a bit tiresome.
It’s true that the reign of the tech bro is most easily—and pleasingly—met with ridicule and caricature. It’s far more challenging to reckon honestly with the boon that is technology, the conveniences it brings, and the ever-unfurling complexities of our dependence upon it. Nutting does do that, but I sometimes wished she had ditched some of the funny clichés to go further.
Similarly, Hazel’s father’s relationship to an inanimate woman is almost too easy a parable for modern gender inequities and pornified femininity. And there are moments where that plot point feels like simply a gratuitous opportunity for crass humor. I thought of a comment from Lars and the Real Girl, when Lars’s friend says snidely, “I wish my wife couldn’t talk, either,” and wondered when the casual misogyny of husband humor will finally die.
Alongside the story of Hazel and Byron is another story—that of Jasper, a long-haired lothario and con artist who saves a dolphin one day and becomes an object of national attention. Jasper’s bizarre narrative—which includes a growing sexual attraction to dolphins—startles the reader with its seeming randomness, but it isn’t long before we realize his purpose is to meet Hazel and, perhaps, offer her deliverance. Sure enough, by novel’s end, the two are in a pool, bobbing toward each other helplessly, poised to entwine for a while. Love as a literal drift.
Made for Love’s overarching message may be that we are not. Made for it, that is. Or at least we’re not great at it. No wonder we’re busy trying to calibrate love and attraction in refrigerated labs and corporate boardrooms. But attempts to relegate human impulses to some eminently manageable virtual domain end up revealing more about humanity than tech. In pursuing the wife who can fuck but can’t speak, or the spotless, neural-networked life à la Gogol Industries (or Google), we merely sublimate, hide, or otherwise try and fail to erase the labor—and the mess—that living requires. In so doing, we make tragically visible just how messy it all really is.
As Nabokov argued in his exploration of the real Gogol, the absurd is not “something provoking a chuckle or a shrug,” but something more akin to the “pathetic, the human condition.” Nutting’s smart, ribald, and hugely entertaining new novel provokes many chuckles. Occasionally, she reaches higher, and grants the reader flashes of something truly great: a striking view of the pathetic, that Gogolian, absurdist sublime.