A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins
Scott Hutchins’ debut novel deals with the romantic misadventures of 36-year-old Neill Bassett Jr, recently extricated from his “starter marriage” and grappling with (very) late adolescent bachelorhood in contemporary San Francisco: “The city that never sleeps without blogging about it.” It also deals with artificial intelligence, suicide, corporate espionage, betrayal and, more than anything else, family. And Hutchins manages to deftly tread the fine line between his slacker rom-com setup and the seriousness of his subject matter, never slipping too close to tragedy or farce to make his story anything less than a page-turner.
By day, Neill works at a Silicon Valley AI project that uses as its data set the all-encompassing diaries of his deceased father Neill Sr, “the Samuel Pepys of the South”. Kept on as chief interlocutor, Neill is a frequently unnecessary but nonetheless well-salaried third wheel to the tech wizards who maintain the talking computer program where the journals “live”. Neill, like Hutchins, is a native of Arkansas, and the dichotomy of his “Left Coast” Mission District worldview and the courtly Southern manners that bubble up through the digitised journals puts a funny 21st century slant on the timeworn “you can’t go home again” story. As the book rolls on (and with 328 pages of obsessive first person narration, there’s certainly plenty of time to take in the scenery) these man/machine interfaces develop into one of the more convincing and enjoyable relationships to observe.
Neill’s generously flexible hours allow him to spend most of his time drifting around the Bay Area, entering and exiting one relationship then another, questioning his every impulse and fighting the constant urge to just return to the office in defeat. In less capable hands this could have felt depressing or at least uninvolving, but Neill is great company for the reader, even while he seemingly alienates every girl who shows an interest. Of these love interests we’re introduced to young but damaged Rachel, searching for fulfilment in a sex cult, fellow tech-worker Jenn who appears uptight and vulnerable but turns out to be quite the opposite, and Neill’s spectral ex-wife Erin, whom we accompany on a torturous flashback to the couple’s honeymoon in southern Spain.
The story makes its way pleasantly towards a satisfying conclusion, all the time wearing its learning lightly and tempering its harsh truths with well executed jokes, even finding a poignant way to do justice to its ungainly title.
The editorial unit
A Working Theory of Love is published by Penguin Viking at the paperback price of £12.99. For further information visit the publisher’s website here.