Embrace the Physical World: Touch by Courtney Maum
Americans are having less sex. Birth rates have declined. These real-world trends provide the backdrop to Courtney Maum’s second novel, Touch, in which she explores an essential question about technology: How does it affect our relationships with other people?
Maum’s debut novel, I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You, followed the lives of a young family as the husband and wife learn to balance their own aspirations and desires with their own needs and the needs of their child. Touch is the journey of one woman, Sloane Jacobson, as she learns the importance of the family she believes she doesn’t want.
Sloane, a trend forecaster responsible for predicting future consumer demand, has taken a new job at Mammoth, a technology giant modeled on Apple, Google, or Circle. Her most recent prediction is a new type of consumer who doesn’t want children. Joining her in New York City is her partner of ten years, Roman. A neo-sensualist, Roman advocates for the end of penetrative sex in favor of virtual stimulation. Sloane and Roman have not had sex for more than two years.
The novel builds slowly, and at first it seems as if a workplace drama is unfolding. Early conflict is derived from Sloane coming up against the machinations of a large corporate bureaucracy. Maum is skilled at building sympathy for her protagonist. We share in Sloane’s frustration as she moves among departments, confronting younger employees entrenched in their way of thinking and resisting her attempts to solve problems—for instance, by banning cell phones from meetings.
Sloane’s troubled relationship with her family remains a secondary element of the novel. Her mother and sister Leila live nearby, but she intentionally distances herself from them. They feel like a prop, and when Maum wants us to feel an emotional connection, their absence from much of the novel attenuates the payoff.
Sloane’s personal life primarily consists of her relationship with Roman, and we feel her frustration with him, particularly his rejection of physical intimacy. In one scene, Sloane is left to pleasure herself with pornography and a vibrator—only to have Roman interrupt her before achieving gratification. Again, Maum builds sympathy for her protagonist by creating a situation we can commiserate with.
Complicating matters for Sloane is Dax, the Mammoth CEO. When Dax learns Roman is a neo-sensualist, he hires Roman as a competing consultant. All the frustration we have shared with Sloane climaxes here. It’s infuriating. Roman’s arrival at Mammoth offers Sloane the catalyst she needs to to have her own epiphany.
Touch follows Sloane as she struggles with a latent desire for motherhood, the need for human contact, and attempts to reject technology. When Sloane begins working at Mammoth, the company provides her with a self-driving car, a not-too-futuristic technology. The car operates with an artificial intelligence, Anastasia, who converses with Sloane throughout the novel and becomes a loyal friend as Sloane’s romantic and business conflicts erupt. On one hand, Anastasia is the future, available now—she is convenient and caring, often offering Sloane a hot beverage. Yet she serves to replace Sloane’s need for human interaction. Anastasia comes to represent the need for a balance between the digital and tangible world. Sloane is able to convey her thoughts and feelings in a way that feels natural to a reader, but the fact that her friend is an artificial intelligence rather than a person intensifies the internal conflict Sloane is feeling.
Sloane’s sister, Leila, spends much of the book pregnant with her third child. Lelia shows Sloane the life she could have had: maternal, nurturing, family-oriented. She is also the foil to Anastasia—Sloane has a real sister who could serve in the role of friend and confidant, but who she chooses to avoid.
All of these ideas about humanity’s relationship with technology and consumerism are veiled under a layer of sex. Maum uses sex to entertain us. Consider, for instance, this commentary following Sloane’s first act of penetrative sex in more than two years:
When you are a woman and you haven’t been penetrated for a long time, when it finally happens, you wonder why everyone in the world isn’t constantly coupling, taking cash out of the ATM with a penis deep inside them, awkwardly going about errands of the day, reaching up distractedly to pay for a meal at a drive-thru window while being beautifully fucked.
Sex also serves to illustrate a dark alternative future dominated by technology and the absence of humanity. The neo-sensualist ideal Roman campaigns for expects humans to desire artificial stimulation. Roman wears Zentai suits—skin-tight garments covering the whole body. Zentai suits might sound salacious, but most of us know them as the spandex costumes donned by enthusiastic sports fans. For Roman, the Zentai suits represent something else: a new kind of sexuality based around not actually touching. He writes an article explaining the position:
Zentai suits are liberating because they efface the wearer’s physical self. I, personally, feel liberated in my suits because, in them, I’m freed from my ingrained notions about touch. Touch, I had long thought, is about skin-to-skin contact. Eyes meet eyes, if things progress sexually, lips meet lips. Within a Zentai suit, such commingling can’t occur. Eyes can’t meet, and skin cannot be touched. What you are presented with is the outline of another body, a simulacrum, a trace. You have to learn to touch differently. You have to take the taboos away from acts like “fondling” and “rub.”
Roman’s ideas present us with a frightening vision of a sexless, touchless future. Most of us can appreciate the absurdity of a future without sex, and it provides an easy way for Maum to express two contrasting visions of the future: the artificial and the real.
Maum ultimately paints us a picture of the near future that we find desirable but difficult to articulate. Touch is a compelling argument that we should embrace the physical world, genuine human connections, and reject the technology that comes between us and other people. Sloane eventually comes to this realization, and offers a dire warning about Roman: “Listen to him and you’ll succeed today. You’ll succeed tomorrow. But the day after that? You’re fucked.” Sloane of course means this metaphorically. In other words, if we ever want to have sex again, we need to step back from adopting the artificial future created by technocrats and focus on the things that truly matter.