The Real-Life Reality Show That Jumped the Shark

Alissa Nutting
Credit...Sara Wood

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By Alissa Nutting
310 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.

In 1989, if you didn’t know where your girlfriend was, chances are you had to just go find her, with something analog like your legs. Fast-forward through a dozen improvements on fast-forwarding technology into the future present, barely a generation later: It’s 2019 and 30-something Hazel, the protagonist of Alissa Nutting’s smart, riveting novel “Made for Love,” has a chip in her brain.

Hazel’s husband, Byron Gogol — a tech impresario/overlord who mashes up Bill Gates’s pioneering genius, Steve Jobs’s visionary particularity and Jeff Bezos’ ruthless drive to subjugate all minds through objects — installed the chip in her head without her knowledge. Not only does he know where she is at all times; each day he downloads the previous 24 hours of her life. No thought or act can be hidden from him, forcing Hazel’s experience of the present into a brilliant pantomime of the curated self. She’s a hostage to the all-too-recognizable work of imagining each moment packaged as the past, viewed from the future: thinking in broadcast. After 10 years as the captive, increasingly unwilling test subject in the development of her husband’s increasingly invasive technological innovations, Hazel runs away to hide in a trailer park for senior citizens.

The book begins, and races along, as an antic thriller, through a circus’s worth of set pieces (sex dolls, lawn flamingoes, motorized wheelchairs, bestiality with dolphins), but throughout and underneath this supersaturated masquerade Hazel tells the darkest, baldest, saddest truths. Her aphoristic, hyperanalytical, deftly extemporaneous takes on love, intention, sex, childhood and gadgets are a pleasure to read and always hit their mark; they are also the interesting and entirely believable productions of a character whose self-awareness far outstrips her self-determination. She is, of course, also aware of this: “Nothing was worse for one’s emotional comfort than scrupulous observance,” she remarks.


Like the best episodes of “Black Mirror,” “Made for Love” provokes the disturbing realization that we are, more or less, already living in the time portrayed as a couple of steps beyond too much. The continual effort to distinguish between the real and the fake has become a hallmark of this time; when Byron says to Hazel, “You’re real, and I can prove it by searching for you on the internet,” Hazel responds, “I am having a different reality from the internet’s reality.” That’s as sound a description of the modern era as one is likely to come by in contemporary literary fiction.

If a novel’s mandate is to bottle and exhibit the zeitgeist through character in a way that is, well, novel, Nutting, the author of “Tampa,” goes for it, all out, à la David Foster Wallace, and romanticizes nothing, à la David Foster Wallace: not marriage, not love, not family, not sex, especially not technology — and definitely not finding one’s way in the world, since many people, she realizes, don’t. Hazel is rudderless, ordinary, passive; all the more impressive, then, is Nutting’s creation of a compelling, wholly sympathetic character from such a beige moral blob.

Porpoising in and out of Hazel’s story is the tragicomic tale of Jasper, an individual as motorized as Hazel is defunct. Jasper uses his Aryan-Jesusy looks and meticulously cultivated sexual skills to con women out of large sums of money, until his sexual orientation is forcibly rewired from human/female to dolphin/any. As Hazel tries to escape her spouse and Jasper tries to fix himself, the entire pageant of the here and now is called up for inspection. What is the surveillance state? How did we all come to be living so completely inside it, so fast, and without our consent? How is life happening in the mind, through perceptions, thoughts, the incessant synthesizing of experiential data that defines consciousness, and also happening in the body, which is always needing and always dying? How can a regular overstimulated and underactualized person survive in this reality show that has so clearly jumped the shark?

“Made for Love” crackles and satisfies by all its own weird rules, subversively inventing delight where none should exist. How can a book be so bright, and so dark?