Calling up Alissa Nutting, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Her first novel, 2013’s much-acclaimed Tampa, is a cruelly comic X-Acto blade of a satire told from the perspective of a hot, twenty-something female sociopathic pedophile teaching eighth grade English. Loosely derived from the real-life Debra Lafave, a high school classmate of Nutting’s, Celeste drives a Corvette and drugs her cop husband so she can manipulate vulnerable students in order to feed her insatiable sexual appetite for underage boys. Nutting follows startlingly lucid lines of inquiry into all the grotesque ways society treats sexuality, class currency, beauty and deviance. Fittingly, Tampa is set to be adapted for the screen by Harmony Korine. Her writing is weird, horrifying, and hilarious—reading triggers compulsion like that of her anti-heroine.
The same can be said of Nutting’s second novel, Made for Love, out next week from Ecco/HarperCollins. Here, the complex social contract of sex and love get the Nutting treatment. She constructs a multi-tentacled plot set in the dystopian near-future in which her protagonist, Hazel, flees a clinical, highly surveilled marriage with a tech-billionaire husband and finds refuge with her father, a widower living in a trailer park embarking on a new relationship with a sex doll named Diane. She introduces a narcissistic conman named Jasper who, after being attacked by a dolphin, is only aroused by thought of fucking one; and Byron (the husband in question) whose grand gesture of predatory romance is to offer Hazel, on the velvety bed of an engagement ring box, a microchip that will be implanted in her brain to truly “mind meld” them together for once and for all.
I needn’t have worried; Nutting is extremely lovely on the phone. Currently based in Iowa, where she teaches at Grinnell College, Nutting talked about failed relationships, dolphin sex, Internet k-holes, and our connection to our iPhones, of which she says, “I very much feel in a marriage with it. Even down to going to bed with it at night.”
Coming off of Tampa, what sorts of stories were you interested in? I don’t want to say Made for Love is a benign book, at all, because there is a lot of darkness, cruelty, and alienation in it, but it is more benign than Tampa.
I’m definitely interested in sex and levels of perversity and deviance. I just wanted to write a much more comic book. Tampa certainly has humor, but it was definitely a very emotionally heavy and difficult book to write and headspace to be in. I wanted to look at themes surrounding intimacy from a place that was a little bit more humor than pain. I really started writing it near the end of my first marriage, which failed. I was really interested in questions like, how sex and love exist independently, the ways that they combine, what needs to be combined or kept separate for a relationship to succeed or for people to feel fulfilled? Coming from a place of failure, I really hadn’t been able to do that. [The book] was coming from a pretty humble place of inquiry in that regard.
Aside from the complications of the plot, and all of these deviant characters, Hazel’s goal is pretty simple: first, survival – and then regain autonomy and figure out what love is unmediated by all these external devices.
That’s well said. I’m really interested in the concept of pretending and the ways that we do that to try to get fulfillment. Certainly when we think about the intersections of sex and technology, a lot of times we pretend, right? In order to get aroused or have some sort of virtual sexual experience, we’re pretending it’s something different than in front of a computer or whatever it is.
I was thinking a lot about how sometimes pretending can lead us to have these experiences that really give us something that we’re missing in life, and how other times, particularly in a romantic relationship where you just aren’t happy or it’s not working, pretending there can really take us away from the things that we want. We often do it in the service and hope that, “Oh, this relationship is going to work out or be saved,” or “If I just act like I’m happy, maybe I can just fake it ‘til I make it.” That’s hardly ever the case.
Is the method in which Hazel meets Byron reminiscent of Fifty Shades of Grey by design?
Yeah. I was definitely really thinking about that. The reality of a very naïve, younger, economically not super wealthy woman who’s taken under the wing of a billionaire – what is that actually going to look like? Because it’s probably not going to be super romantic in reality, right? There’s probably going to be a lot of predatory harm done. As a concept, I’m really interested in the ways that people are exploiting others in the service of what might be thought of as love or a fulfilling relationship. I did want to counter this thing being hailed as a wonderful love story: “No, she would be his prisoner.” I definitely wanted to think about that in a more realistic way.
Well, it is really the inverse of the fairy tale narrative, the trope of the unremarkable girl who is swept off her feet by this larger force.
Totally. It’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s Fifty Shades. It also sets up freedom as not a thing that is desired. Or privacy, or autonomy. Instead, that’s replaced by love, which is a really problematic model for love, I think. Certainly one of the reasons why my first marriage failed, I was expecting all of these things that actually give people individual fulfillment to be replaced, magically, by the concept of love, or by simply being with another person. I really did think that if you put in enough time with someone, any relationship could work. I don’t believe that anymore. [laughs]
The technology that you’ve fabricated is in some cases very advanced, but also not so far off from how we currently engage with our devices.
I think the thing with technology and the thing with relationships is you’re asked to forfeit more and more privacy in service of a bond or having more access. That’s a balance. I know in terms of using technology, I don’t even want to know what I put out there. Just even trying to download a Domino’s app. There’s times at 2:30 am where I’ll give out my social security number to get a pizza. I give up a lot more privacy than I realize because I’m feeling lazy or it’s purporting to make my life simple. I think how much we need to keep to ourselves in terms of not only using technology but also in a romantic relationship. I think it’s a very good thing that we can’t read our person’s minds. Right? That would be my guess. Then thinking about how close do we want to get if technology can take us closer, if we can get more intimate in terms of a shared telepathy, is that an advancement of intimacy, or is that going to create the opposite?
When you’re working on the idea for a narrative, are you someone that does a lot of research? Is it falling into k-holes or…?
I really love doing of a lot of pop culture and social research. I’m really interested in social perception, how different things are spun or valued or perceived, and how that places them on this spectrum of permissibility or forbidden. I did that a lot for this book in terms of sex dolls. I watched a lot of documentaries, I did a lot of reading, I spent a lot of time on all of these websites, looking at how you place your order and what the options are and what the modifications are, what’s possible, and what might be possible in five years. It’s really fascinating.
I’m guessing you were familiar with Malcolm Brenner, the man who thought he was in a consensual sexual relationship with a dolphin and wrote the memoir Wet Goddess. Was that how Jasper’s fixation was generated?
Yeah! Totally. It’s so funny. I read the most reprehensible writing out there. That’s usually what I seek out. You know it’s bad when I can’t read [something like that]. I think one day I’m going to take some Xanax and read it! I haven’t been able to do it yet. It’s like having something stuck in your teeth. When you’re confronted with something that you don’t know how to deal with or fully process, I think we begin to obsess on it. I definitely was obsessing on it when I began to write this book.
Technology fills that spot, too. I can’t tell you how many times on the internet I begin searching something totally relevant and legitimate and then I’m trying to find the worst possible things I can find in terms of exposure, almost like reading a horror novel. It’s not something I’m able to stop doing. I always look.
Made for Love will be out via Ecco/HarperCollins July 4.