A Conversation with Alissa Nutting on Intimacy, Florida, and Dolphins
Alissa Nutting’s wildly comedic Made for Love is a novel about many fetishes. It’s a book of a 76-year-old father’s obsession with a “life-size woman doll […] the kind designed to provide a sexual experience”; as well as one about Jasper, a sexy, Jesus-looking con man who repents after a satisfying sexual encounter with a dolphin. But most of all, it’s a novel about Hazel, the novel’s down-on-her-luck protagonist whose fetish is deceptively simple: intimacy. The longing for intimacy, both as an essential human need and the sting of its absence, is the soul of Made for Love, dressed in Nutting’s rare ability to capture that particular human state of surreal derangement.
The novel begins with Hazel staring at Diane, a sex doll that her retired, widowed father has ordered for the purposes of companionship. Hazel has fled her billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, a tech guru so enamored with the possibilities of the artificial that he’s inserted a chip into Hazel’s brain so that the pair can become “the first neural-networked couple in history.” Broke and sad and with nowhere to go, Hazel lands in the house of her father (and Diane) in a landscape that’s decidedly Florida, even though Nutting only winks at a literal place on a map. Instead, there’s an articulated apathy—a flailing and resignation—that both Hazel and her father have that, like a preternatural resistance to heat and humidity, is a standard genetic mutation found in nearly all Floridians.
Though Hazel has been chipped against her will, she quickly begins to accept that her psychotic ex Byron (a pure satire of the inhumanity of the tech bro if there ever was one) is going to kill her. After all, she carries valuable proprietary technology in her brain. Hazel is apathetic to the likelihood of her own murder, figuring that after a rather hapless life and unhappy marriage that “erasure was pleasure.” She finds too that death might be more welcoming than sharing everything she sees and does with a man who eats only meal replacement shakes and refuses to leave The Hub, his antiseptic corporate headquarters and home. Instead of planning a plot to escape from Byron’s clutches, Hazel takes a laissez-faire approach; she spends time with Diane, clutches a pink lawn flamingo, gets drunk at a local dive bar and has sex with someone named Liver, a true Florida man whose “handshake” is like “an exfoliant.” Hazel takes up residence in the messy human world banished from Byron’s polished tech-enhanced Hub, a world of textures and fluids, of sex and mosquitos, and of illness and death.
Meanwhile, Jasper—a man that earns his living by conning women—is changed by a violently romantic encounter with a dolphin. The sexual encounter is caught on video and goes viral, misinterpreted by eager internet viewers as Jasper saving a distressed dolphin rather than as an animalistic and perhaps coercive coupling. There are other equally compelling but entirely ridiculous characters: the struggling singer who pretends to be Jasper and calls himself the Dolphin Savior to score a radio hit (Nutting’s descriptions of the Dolphin Savior’s music video are wildly funny), the perfectly named Fiffany, Byron’s obsequious assistant, and a prickly diner owner, Ms. Cheese.
Made for Love is a madcap book, but it’s also weirdly tender, probing the relationship between the artificial and the authentic; between the limited pleasures of manufactured technologies and the messy, human need for intimacy and love. “Do we have it figured out, or are we lonely?” Nutting asks. It’s a question without an answer but, as Nutting demonstrates in Made for Love, the search for an answer can simultaneously be comical, weird, and heartbreaking.
I spoke to Nutting about her latest novel, technology, intimacy, and Florida. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the origins of the novel? What was your thought process entering the novel and how did you get sex dolls and tech and sex with a dolphin in one novel?
ALISSA NUTTING: It really boiled down to this common theme of failure and intimacy. I was at the tail end of this marriage that failed, we got divorced, but we weren’t quite there yet when I started this book. We both sort of developed these completely separate lives. I remember, I was at this conference and my husband had come along and someone tweeted that they had seen us eating lunch together and we didn’t say an entire word to each other during lunch. But we had stopped saying an entire word even within our house.
So much of my existence and his existence was alone, internal, and in our own brains. That was the space where we found freedom. We both felt very trapped in the marriage, in the house, and with each other. Our own thoughts were the only place that was ours individually. I was very much thinking about, “What if we lost that, too? What if he could see in my thoughts?” It became my worst fear; that somehow he would be able to intuit what I was thinking, particularly since what I was saying was completely the opposite of what I was thinking.
At that time, intimacy in general just became this Sasquatch for me. I was really interested in tracking it down and attempting to validate its existence since I had heard a lot about it but had certainly yet to experience it. I watched a lot of documentaries about men who were in monogamous relationships with sex dolls, who very much considered their sex dolls to be their partner. There were all of these scenes of them treating the doll very tenderly—dressing it, making it up, taking care of it that, quite frankly, made me quite jealous. It filled me with longing.
I had also come across this book on Amazon about a man who purported to have an actual romantic relationship with a dolphin. He felt like it was the total package, that the dolphin was his romantic partner in every sense of the word. It was a curious obsession to me, the ways in which we’re able to feel close other people. These individuals were feeling close to something that wasn’t human and, in the case of the dolls, not even alive.
In many ways, this is a book about fetishes; there are a lot of fetishes in the book: technology, dolls, and dolphins. But it seems that the ultimate fetish is intimacy. In many regards, the book is really ambiguous about intimacy, especially in its conclusions. Do you hold out hope for human intimacy or is that ambiguity just limited to your fictional narrative?
I’m interested in kind of an equation of intimacy and closeness and in exchange and sharing. Particularly because it seems to depend on exclusion and boundaries, which is something that I feel that we don’t really acknowledge.
We certainly don’t celebrate that within our culture. The “love trope,” is that if you meet someone and they’re the right person for you, if it’s true love, then that relationship is going to be effortless, that it’s going to be devoid of conflict. There’s this sense, too, of unconditional giving, that you shouldn’t keep anything for yourself. Any refusal to share is treated as a flaw in your love. The longer that I’m alive, it definitely feels like that is the opposite. Self-care and maintenance are mandatory and so are healthy romantic relationships.
Technology was a good metaphor for that—and not so unrealistic one. I don’t know how far-fetched it would be in a near or alternate future to truly have the capacity to see or feel or experience the thoughts of another person. Is that intimacy or is that something far more sinister?
One of the themes that reappear in the book is a questioning what is artificial and what is real. Hazel is somebody who is interested in having these authentic connections, to the extent that she can, outside of Byron. She has a really nice line in the book, when she says to her father, “You’re separate from things that are manufactured.” She comes to this realization that you cannot manufacture intimacy.
I was wondering if you could talk about authenticity? The “real world,” outside of The Hub, is full of texture and is mess—it’s kind of gross—versus the artificial world of Byron. Those themes play out in tech but also in the landscapes that you constructed in the book.
I think that the mess is very much related to authenticity and to intimacy. Even just sharing a house or a bathroom, it’s an intimate experience. As humans with bodies, these are just what we are. I think so often that idealized spaces attempt to remove that messiness. There are these pristine, gleaming, stainless steel bathrooms that are sort of dishonest about what a bathroom is or what happens there. It’s this shield or suspended disbelief. The more a bathroom can seem like a place where you don’t go to a bathroom, the better it’s supposed to be.
With money or things or products, we can distance ourselves even further from the realities of having a body. Things go in us and things go out of us and that’s the most essential truth that we can’t escape. Through technology, we really try to escape our bodies. It is a form of authenticity to acknowledge that we can’t.
The Hub is such a weirdly clean place and Hazel’s defiance in many ways is to sully that place. She leaves a Snickers wrapper in the bed which is a really great end-of-relationship nag.
But you brought up the big business, the capitalistic element of tech. That certainly plays out in the relationship that Byron and Hazel have with one another. She’s almost like a corporate acquisition for him and their “meet-cute” is borrowed from Fifty Shades of Grey. Fifty Shades of Grey is also borrowed from Twilight. I was wondering if you could talk about that kind of corporate element, particularly that borrowing?
I think that goes back into the same element of escape. Wealth, technology, vampirism, all three of those things are dangling immortality or, at the very least, escape or distancing or prolonging life in a way that our body doesn’t allow. I was really thinking about the impact of that, especially in terms of love. That falls within the theme of inescapability.
There’s this idea that money can make relationships a lot harder or significantly easier. It can be sort of its own element in a relationship, in the same way, that technology can. Think of being in a restaurant, on any given date, there’s this whole negotiation of whether or not you can look on your phone or how much you can look at your phone. When is it rude to call? What kind of calls is it rude to take? It’s the same as the unspoken conflict when the bill arrives. There are forms of negotiation that every relationship really has to manage.
We tell ourselves that one thing or another can make our marriage—or a relationship—better. For a long time, when I was a broke graduate student, I told myself that when I could get a job and we [Nutting and her ex] could get ahead on bills, that our problems would go away. That didn’t happen. I think about all of the tactical ways or projects or things that we used to distract ourselves. They did that but they were never a source of intimacy. They were sources of our own isolation.
One of the last things that we did—one of the dying acts of my marriage—was to buy this X-Box. I remember thinking, “Maybe this will turn things around. Maybe if he’s happy and distracted playing video games all of the time, then we won’t have to think so much about how we aren’t in love anymore.”
That’s interesting—I know a couple who broke up over technology, in this case, his use of video games. It’s interesting how we insert these negotiations over technology into relationships…
You hear so often that money is a huge thing, particularly in the disillusionment over marriages or relationships. But I think that more and more, technology is up there. There are so many idealized notions that people have about what technology should mean, or what it should mean in a relationship.
Byron represents this kind of extreme fetish of technology. At one point Hazel recounts him saying something like “you don’t exist if you’re not on the internet.” That’s a hard thing to hear but it seems that maybe that’s increasingly true. You brought up earlier someone tweeting about seeing the death throes of your relationship and you, in turn, having to see your own relationship refracted through a tweet. It’s an insane story, but when you first told me that, I was like “Sure, I guess.” It was just something that happened…
Technology makes these alternate live and alternate identities possible. In the same way that it can validate, as a happy checkout or be a source of trust, it can also be a source of deception. I think that so often, technology grants us these opportunities, particularly in our relationships. If we’re not feeling loved or if we’re not feeling appreciated or entertained, there are so many ways now to get those feelings outside of a relationship. It can be damaging.
One of Hazel’s grand conclusions in the book is that, regardless of money or objects, you can’t fake the rest. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the idea that we have as a culture that if a person with money is interested in you or an important person takes note that you are somehow more valuable? Hazel’s realization is that you can only fake a relationship based on being deemed worthy for so long.
That’s true, I think that there is a limit to the specific energy of pretending. At a certain point, the mask tends to get heavier and heavier until freedom from having to act seems more attractive than the incentive for acting in the first place. I think that’s true whether it’s love or money or some combination of both.
In my first marriage, it really was a hope for me of love. I thought that I could pretend my way into love happening and it got to the point where pretending was harder. I just wanted to stop, I was just so tired. I think that’s true with money as well. Once it’s indulged, there’s nothing left. I spoke to a lot of people who felt that money wasn’t worth having to act in a specific way. It’s exhausting.
Lastly, I wanted to talk to you about Florida. I read Hazel’s part of the book as though she is in Florida even though you don’t actually specify that she is in Florida. Maybe I read it that way because I am a Floridian, but I read the running and hiding, of Hazel not really having a plan, and in the bizarre place as something that could only happen in Florida. For me, Florida is this weird state of resignation…
Yeah, yes. That is something that I have with Florida, I have this specific anonymity that I feel when I’m there. It really has never translated to any other place or state. You never know who is permanent or who is transient in Florida. There’s this seamless divide of it. That was the quality that I wanted to capture in an ironic way. If I said Florida or pinned it down to a specific town or area in Florida, that would be lost.
I was definitely thinking about Florida but very much about its sense. I love driving through Florida, places can be so radically different, have completely different identities between towns or regions and it seems like one would never communicate with another. You could move ten minutes away from where you live in Florida and start an entirely new identity. That’s the Florida I wanted to convey.