Monday, October 21, 2013

A Working Theory of Love: Tropper on Downers

I picked up Scott Hutchins' debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, because it sounded like a good facsimile of a Jonathan Tropper novel. And it is, to some degree, but it's more a like a Tropper on downers.

The novel's about mid-30s dude named Neill Bassett, recently divorced and living in San Francisco, and working for a start-up company attempting to bring consciousness to a computer. Neill's a self-deprecating, semi-depressed dude, who can't seem figure out where life will lead next.

In the opening pages of the novel, we see a desperate Neill pretending to be a tourist at a youth hostel so that he can pick up younger women who are visiting San Francisco and need a "tour guide" — it's a move a friend told him about, but which he's not sure he's fully committed to. But it works! He meets cute, mysterious 20-year-old Rachel who is pretending to be from Tel Aviv, but who is actually from Jersey, having just moved to SF to get a new start on life. Once Rachel and Neill come clean about their respective ruses, they start hanging out and form an unlikely, but tenuous bond.

But Neill, in general, seems to be annoyed by people, especially hipsters, ("The tight clothes, the tiny hats — their major struggle as a generation seems to be reducing drag. As if success in life requires being ever ready to slip through a narrow opening."), and he's somewhat confounded by the absurdity of his job. That's especially true when you consider the computer he works with — built by a famous artificial intelligence scientist and an Indonesian programmer — is based on 5,000 pages of journal written by Neill's dead father (who committed suicide when Neill was in college).

Neill spends his days talking via instant messenger to essentially what is a computerized reanimation of his dead father. The goal for the computer — named Dr. Bassett (Neill's father was a physician) is to pass the Turing test — that is, fooling human judges at least 30 percent of the time that it is a real person. What will it take to do that? Will the computer need to be programmed with real human vices? Or, conversely, with real human love? What, indeed, is the working theory of love that will allow the computer to learn real human connection? And, similarly, what is the working theory of love that will allow the divorced Neill, who thought he'd found his soulmate, to form real human connections in his own life? 

This is one of those novels that's probably a much better book than I'm willing to give it credit for. For one thing, it seemed odd that we don't find out until near the end why Neill's father killed himself, and we never really see Neill wondering at all about it. For another, while the novel is really funny at times (most often when Hutchins is ripping on silly hipsters), it felt like Hutchins tossed too many balls in the air for this to work completely. For me, whatever Hutchins intends the real theory of love to be got a bit lost in theories on artificial intelligence, set-piece love letters to San Francisco (which, actually, were fairly cool — San Francisco is one of my favorite cities), Neill's strange relationship with his mother, Neill's relationships with various other women, and Neill's relationships with his coworkers. 

If you liked Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, you may like this, too. The subject matter is very different, but the writing and overall feel are similar. (For the record, I wasn't a huge fan of that novel either.) But if you're looking for a Tropper-esque breezy, funny dude lit, this may not be the best solution. 


  1. I was led to your blog by Brown Dog Books in Vermont. I am your newest follower and am enjoying reading older postings too. Thanks for doing this!