x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Book Review: Reality-challenged bachelor makes this novel discordant

In Scott Hutchins' novel A Working Theory of Love, a man emerging from the ruins of a failed marriage gets a job "talking" to a computer program to make its responses more human.

A Working Theory of Love
Scott Hutchins
Penguin Press

In the opening pages of this promising but frustrating book, the narrator and protagonist Neill Bassett offers a description of his boss, Henry Livorno, that concentrates in a few words the basic themes upon which the novel turns.

Henry, we are told, is a man for whom there is "no empirical difference between seeming and being", and it is this "solid wisdom" that helps to propel Bassett into the world of radical artifice, potent ambiguity, and debilitating uncertainty in which his story unfolds: "If I can make things seem fun," he reasons, "then maybe they'll be fun."

Bassett has recently emerged from the ruins of a failed marriage.

He spends his days in San Francisco working on a linguistic computer project, the aim of which is to process natural language, and occupies his mind by reflecting on what it means to be a 36-year-old bachelor, to be a member of the city's great ranks of the unattached, "beached in life".

Some of this is nicely achieved, as in the case of the "great peril of bachelorhood - that you'll become so airy and insubstantial that people will peer straight through you"; and the hypothesis, dictated by "bachelor logic", that "as a bachelor you are a permanent in between".

Most readers will have some apprehension of the force of these observations, but the sphere into which they lead us - an "in between" land of frayed distinctions between seeming and being - is problematic.

For author Scott Hutchins' way of giving this world fictional shape is to have Bassett spend his time posing as a traveller in San Francisco hostels (quarry: girls), and to give him a job that involves "talking" to a computer program to make its responses more human.

Presumably this crass technique is supposed to say something about "artificial" encounters yielding some opportunities for "authentic" experience, and real human speech resulting in the augmentation of artificial intelligence.

I have no idea what that something might be, but one assumes it has something to do with the fact that the computer program on which Bassett works is based on the digital transcription of the diaries of his dead father (who committed suicide).

This overwrought and over-patterned structure is indicative of the ways in which A Working Theory of Love is more generally deficient, the most damaging of which concern Hutchins' prose: "This is crazy talk, of course - the talk of a depressive," says Bassett, convincing us of nothing but the fact that the talk is not crazy and the talker not depressive; while at the same time we hear about "the idea of work - work, with its immense banality", and register nothing but the banality of the thought itself.

This routine propensity for overemphasis, this desperate pursuit of profundity, turns something that ought to have been fresh, funny, arresting, into something irritating, discordant and affected: an example of the difference that really does exist between seeming and being.

* Matthew Adams