Surveillance, Satire and the Female Body

Alissa Nutting takes on a culture of sex dolls and maintenance lies

Sex shop mannequins — Bruges. Photo by Eric Huybrechts, via Flickr.

Following the 2013 debut of her fearless first novel, Tampa, as well as her 2011 collection of imaginative fiction, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Alissa Nutting offers readers a new novel this summer, its dynamism and spark matching the fireworks of its July 4th release. Made for Love follows Hazel as she escapes from her marriage to Byron, CEO of Gogol Industries and controlling technocrat who has implanted a chip in her brain to monitor her every bodily function and move. Hazel seeks refuge with her father and his newly purchased sex doll as she tries to free herself from Byron’s clutches and chart a new life of her own.

Made for Love is replete with dark humor and absurd comedy, as well as tender moments of poignancy as Hazel makes her own way beyond Byron’s control. Original and inventive, full of incisive commentary and observant character-building, Nutting’s new novel is a treat for summer reading and for fans of her distinctive style and work. I am one of those fans, and it was a true pleasure to correspond with Nutting through email about Made for Love, literary humor, writing female characters, and what television can teach us about revision.

Anne Valente: As with your first novel, Tampa, and the stories in Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, this novel is incredibly impressive in its scope of imagination and invention. How did the idea for this novel first come together for you?

Alissa Nutting: I was thinking about sex dolls and trophy wives. I was in a hopeless place in my former marriage. This is shitty to admit — I’m not a great person — but there were times when my mind would go to this place of, geez, I should’ve at least found someone mildly wealthy to be miserable with. I’d meet a writer who was married to an orthodontist or something and feel incredible jealousy. When you’re unhappy, you’re always imagining alternate paths. I watched a documentary about men who are in romantic relationships with sex dolls…it got me thinking about situations of one-way adoration and generally questioning how sustainable romantic adoration is. I feel like so often, dishonesty is really essential to adoration. In almost all contexts, really. We’ll overlook things so we can maintain adoration, and we’ll falsify ourselves to continue being adored. Maintenance dishonesty, let’s say. I wanted to write a novel that looked at the disruption of maintenance dishonesty in several different types of relationships.

Valente: The structure of this novel is incredibly striking. While the novel largely focuses on Hazel, we get chapters as well that focus on another character, Jasper, and we also move around in time between 2008 and 2019. How did you decide on that timeline and structure?

Nutting: I really love the singing competition show The Voice. I think it’s so much a metaphor for writing. It was writing Made for Love, anyway — the novel went through about seven major revisions. Sometimes you know big points of the story, and you’re writing to discover the pieces. But with this book, I had a whole lot of pieces and was cutting and arranging to discover the novel’s shape. And it really was a lot like The Voice. Cuts are never easy, but sometimes, you just realize: this is the end of the road for this section. It has potential, but other scenes are already actualized, and you need to go put your energy into polishing and elevating what’s working.

Other times, cuts are so painful. You have to decide between two sections that are both amazing in very different ways, or you have to let go of an incredible descriptive scene because you’ve already got a bunch of descriptive scenes in that chapter. I can’t recommend The Voice enough after a long day of revision. Often, the coaches mourn what’s being lost so much that it overshadows the celebration of the contestants that are staying. It’s a good lesson; I fall into that trap a lot. But I watch the show and feel heard on how painful edits are. It’s the death of possibility. It’s also the birth of judgment. I see this in my own creative writing students. They love talking about ideas for stories. The what-if? Zone is a safe place. It feels good. Making a choice, executing it, and then examining its flaws and how to improve them is way less glamorous and ego-boosting. We want writing to feel as good as brainstorming, but it doesn’t. At the beginning of the semester, my students think I’m being funny when I say, “Writing isn’t about feeling good. That’s not what we are here to do.” They think I’m joking and they laugh. By the end of the semester, they’re emphatically nodding at this statement. I’m not saying writing can’t be fun. But creativity often gets shopped as this loophole that allows hard work to feel great. Sustained hard work of any kind is uncomfortable. My writing students who think, I must be doing something wrong because this isn’t fun! get stuck revising. Seeing that in them helps me. It teaches me.

Valente: While we’re talking craft, I’d like to talk about point of view too. Whereas Tampa was told in first-person, Made for Love alternates between the close-third points of view of Hazel and Jasper. What did third-person afford you in this novel, and how did it come to you as the right choice for the book’s telling?

Nutting: It seemed like the creepiest, most insidious choice in terms of writing a novel about surveillance. It’s inside the characters’ heads, but it’s this other observer that isn’t them.

Valente: Hazel is so well-drawn as a character, and I was struck many times throughout the book by her strong characterization — from her large-scale desires to subtle lines here and there of how she thinks, such as “Hazel liked to imagine every thought she had that felt feminist was coming into her brain directly via Octavia Butler’s spirit.” How did you get to know Hazel as a character?

Author Alissa Nutting

Nutting: Thanks for saying that. Sometimes there’s an unwillingness to read female characters, or female authors, or both, satirically. I’ve noticed the reactions go like this: (Satirical writing centered on a male character): How cool; this is satire! (Satirical writing centered on a female character): This character is underdeveloped! I’m not just talking about my work — I mention this because I don’t want people who think my fiction is Pure Hot Trash to dismiss the point as me being defensive. I promise this is a thing, in satire and comedy but also in experimental prose. I’ve seen this bias applied to women writers of color in particularly unfair and outlandish ways. There seem to be these really specific, fixed expectations of certain types of interiority for female characters, no matter what the work is actually up to and interested in.

“There seem to be these really specific, fixed expectations of certain types of interiority for female characters, no matter what the work is actually up to and interested in.”

Hazel is not great at authenticity or being patient. She’s trying to rely more on herself for love and realness but she has no practice at it. There’s constant temptation to fall back into familiar patterns, to try to get affection from her blowhard father, etc. When I’m imagining a character, it’s really important for me to know the temptations they struggle with most.

Valente: The treatment of women was on my mind as I read this novel too, in light of the ways in which Tampa addressed our expectations of female sexual behavior and standards of attractiveness and beauty, and how Made for Love furthers this conversation. Hazel’s ex, Byron, closely controls her actions and behaviors after she leaves him, Jasper atones for his crimes against women, and Hazel’s father is only interested in sex with a store-bought doll — women are objects, in other words, and part of Hazel’s journey seems to be a rediscovery of her place in the world without control or mediation. Is this novel satirizing a systemic problem?

Nutting: Yes — I think satire is a really good investigative form. Critique is definitely at its center, in terms of satire as a genre, but I feel like curiosity is, too. The same can be said of comedy and that territory of overlap. So much of comedy is basically, How do we survive this? and dealing with feelings of powerlessness. Satire is often discussed as a form of direct address against oppressive forces, but I also love it for the ways it can be a dialogue amongst the most vulnerable aspects of ourselves: how do we make it to the next minute, really? How do we fight against the deadly, abusive forces outside of us and inside of us? I think it’s a great way to ask questions.

Valente: The novel also speaks to on our dependency on and alienation due to technology, given that each character struggles with finding human connection that isn’t mediated in some way. How do see this novel as engaging with the current moment of constant digital connection?

Nutting: Technology and its relationship to fulfillment — I’m actively wondering about this. Can we feel “loved” by technology alone? Sexually satisfied by technology alone? In terms of relationships, technology can help and hinder, and I’m really interested in the calibration of that. Even absent of technology, that’s a really important thing for any couple to figure out: how much fulfillment should I be getting outside of my partner vs. from/with my partner?

“Can we feel ‘loved’ by technology alone? Sexually satisfied by technology alone?”

Valente: This novel feels especially prescient and relevant given the current political climate. I’ll admit that as I read Made for Love, Byron’s insecurity and need for complete control reminded me of our current president — as well as his pervasive Twitter presence. How is this novel conversing with our current age of social media, control, and even loneliness and despair?

Nutting: There’s so much Trump parallel. The attempted control, the desire for power…the irony, of course, is that nothing makes you more vulnerable and myopic than wanting to control others. It’s a recklessness Trump serves up raw every day.

Literature’s Great Alternative Families

Valente: There were also a number of passages in the book that made me laugh out loud. Literary humor seems so hard to do well, and yet your execution of it in Made for Love seems pretty flawless to me. How do you incorporate humor and write it well?

Nutting: Humor is like a form of tetrachromacy for melancholy. If I’m laughing, I can see colors of sadness that aren’t visible outside the context of the joke. It can describe aspects of sadness no other style has the words for. It’s really the mother tongue of pain. I like humor because it lets me write about far more terrifying things than I’d be able to without it.

“Humor is like a form of tetrachromacy for melancholy…It’s really the mother tongue of pain.”

Valente: How did you decide on the title for the novel?

Nutting: The book really interrogates use and function. Essentially, I wanted a title that could be equally applied to a dating app or a human being or a sex doll.

Valente: What are you currently working on?

Nutting: Right now I’m working on TV stuff and essays. I’m super monogamous in my TV viewing, in terms of obsessively watching certain things, and it’s always really diagnostic of where I am mentally and emotionally. Prior to my divorce, all I could watch were true crime shows. Then I had a long stint where I only wanted to watch Intervention and Hoarders. Now I’m finally to a place where I can watch scripted drama again, and I think it’s sort of like a diploma, in terms of having gone through a major life upheaval. I made it to the other side. And writing Made For Love really helped with that.

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