A Penguin Readers Guide
A Working Theory of Love
An Introduction to A Working Theory of Love
Neill Bassett, Jr., has his routines. A wisecracking thirty-something native of Arkansas, Neill enjoys breakfast at 7:30 every morning, the reliable company of his cat, indulging in the scenic and culinary bounty of northern California, and the occasional online dating experience—he is settled back into the San Francisco singles scene after a short-lived marriage. Yet in the midst of these newly learned comforts, science is about to deal Neill a hand that will challenge his understanding of his family, the women he loves, and himself.
Neill spends his days in Silicon Valley where he is one-third of a small software start-up called Amiante Systems. Before he committed suicide back when Neill was a college student, his father—an Arkansas doctor—left behind 5,000 pages of journal entries cataloguing over twenty years of his life. Exhausting in their detail, these journal entries serve as the memory-base for “Dr. Bassett,” the program that Amiante Systems hopes will become the world’s first sentient computer. Neill’s boss is Henry Livorno, a distinguished innovator in the field of artificial intelligence and miniature golf enthusiast. Livorno has commissioned a ragtag team in the help of a Pakistani programming wunderkind named Laham, who has a growing addiction to caffeinated beverages, and Neill Jr., the only non-scientist among them and son of the real Dr. Bassett, to help make the programmed “Dr. Bassett” seem more lifelike. As the boundaries between artificial intelligence and his father’s voice begin to blur, Neill is confronted with new questions about his childhood, his parent’s marriage, and the man he thought he knew.
Throughout all of this, Neill’s one-night stand with Rachel, a vibrant and complicated twenty-year-old barista, is turning into something more. As she challenges his trademark nonchalance and introduces him to the hilarious underworld of New Age California, Neill wonders how far things could go. To top it off, Neill is navigating a workplace flirtation with a woman from a competing firm that could threaten the success of “Dr. Bassett” and a city where his ex-wife seems to mysteriously appear at any unexpected moment.
In his debut novel, Scott Hutchins appears as a master at work, engaging both hearts and minds along a truly original voyage of heartbreak, humor, philosophy, and personal solace. With San Francisco as its seductively rendered backdrop, this thought-provoking, emotionally balanced, and imaginative novel sets out to persuade us in and ponder the question of what it means to be human, to love, and whether we can truly be free from our pasts.
About the Author
Scott Hutchins currently teaches at Stanford University, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program. He received his MFA from the University of Michigan. Hutchins’s work has appeared in StoryQuarterly, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and Esquire. He is the recipient of two major Hopwood awards and the Andrea Beauchamp prize in short fiction. In 2006 and 2010, he was an artist-in-residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. He lives in San Francisco and A Working Theory of Love is his first novel.
A Conversation with Scott Hutchins
1. A Working Theory of Love is your debut novel. How has the transition been between writing short fiction and completing a full-length manuscript?
I was surprised at how different they are. I really thought a novel would just be a long short story—or maybe a series of short stories strung together. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The middle of a novel is unlike anything else you might write. But I loved being engaged in a writing project for so long. There’s a magical period when the world seems to offer up the precise details and overheard snatches of conversation that your book needs at that exact moment. It’s an exalted state.
2. What inspired you to write this story? Did you draw on any experiences with you own father or your own past loves?
There are definitely autobiographical moments in this book, but I didn’t write the book with any autobiographical impulse. What I mean is that I treated my own life as material. Did I have a comically bad vacation in Spain? Yes—but I’m not Neill and my companion on that trip isn’t Erin. Did my dad and I go to Showbiz Pizza? Yes, again—but those trips were actually a lot of fun. And in case this question is a polite way to ask, I should say I’ve never spent a night in a youth hostel in San Francisco.
3. How did you first become interested in the Turing test and the field of artificial intelligence as a theme in your novel? What sort of research was involved in preparing to write about such a topic?
What is a human? What am I? Is there a center to me—a coherence? What does it mean to relate to other people? What does it mean to be in love? For me, these are all burning questions, and no field engages them in testable ways like artificial intelligence. So I basically started by wondering (worrying) about these questions, and then through my reading I found my way toward AI. Which was lucky, because artificial intelligence is also at the heart of Silicon Valley. Google, for instance, considers itself a large-scale artificial intelligence project. So my strange, private interest suddenly veered into new, real terrain for the story.
As for research, I muddled about with my own talking computers (you can “chat” with a version of Dr. Bassett on my website ScottHutchins.com—just click on the bridge). I bent the ears of researchers in the field, particularly Rich Wallace and the late great John McCarthy. Best of all I judged an actual Turing test, held in some guy’s apartment in New York. The feel of the passion of these hobby projects—the desire behind them—was really revealed to me there.
4. You go into such lush and beautiful detail as you describe San Francisco, Marin County, and even Menlo Park—how important do you consider the landscape to be in the lives of your characters? And has living in California been a great source of stimulation for you?
In the Bay Area, as in most of the U.S., we live in a highly constructed artificial environment that sits on top of the natural environment. (Though we get into fast trouble with words like natural and artificial!) Menlo Park to San Francisco to Marin is actually a kind of nice progression in how dominant the artificial environment is over the natural environment. Menlo Park, and most of the peninsula, is mostly lived in the artificial environment. San Francisco, thanks its dramatic topography, insists a little more on shaping nature. And finally Marin feels more garden-like—though Marin’s garden-like feel is itself an artificial creation. Very confusing! But I am fascinated by the conversation between California as a natural place and California as a place we’ve constructed from our dreams. In this aspect—as in so many—California is the American experience on steroids.
5. What does your writing process look like? Is it messy at first? Or do you tend to be more organized in your approach?
Very, very, extremely messy. I wish I were the kind of writer who had a clear plan and an outline that I filled in and then I was all finished. But that’s not me. I wrote A Working Theory of Love in two-page chunks, in no particular order, sometimes in first-person, sometimes in third. It wasn’t until Neill’s voice started to emerge that I was even sure I had a novel on my hands.
6. Rachel and Erin are so different and yet both have their charms over readers and Neill Jr., alike. Can you talk about the experience, as a male writer, of writing two such distinctive female voices?
I think the danger in any book that involves the sorting out of romantic partners—whether the author is a woman or a man—is that the romantic interests can cease being real people and instead become fantasy projections or life paths. So I just tried to make sure I was paying attention to the women as characters with their own stories. There are little ways in which this book riffs on Jane Austen, who was such a master at evoking male characters as both types and individuals.
7. You are originally from Arkansas. Is there anything in particular from that place or your time there that appears in your writing?
In some ways I’ve led my life in two modes—a rural mode and an urban mode. I’ve never lived in that great American creation the suburb! One of the advantages of growing up in a very small, self-contained town (by which I mean not a bedroom community, but a place where people live, work, go to school, and do their provisioning) is that you’re exposed to a real cross-section of life. I had a graduating class of around 90, and I had friends who went to Aspen every winter and friends who sealed the broken windows on their house with Visqueen. Ironically, my adult life is much more segregated by class and education (though I don’t think this segregation is particular to California).
But this answer doesn’t get to the question about Arkansas in particular. California is my adopted home; Arkansas is where I grew up. I can close my eyes at a moment’s notice and evoke the South Arkansas of my childhood. The thunderstorms, the pine forests, the mustard-colored roads. It’s at my fingertips. Obviously, Neill is from Arkansas, but also because I grew up in the South, many of my early literary obsessions were Southern. I owe much of my tastes and ways of looking at the world to Walker Percy.
8. Neill is forced to consider one working theory of love when he meets to negotiate additional funding from Toler. The book has many intersections of scientific theory and questions of human nature. Do you consider your work to be allegorical—in the sense that it is contributing to a larger conversation about the concerns of its time?
I like novels that take on the concerns of our time, as you put it. My goal was to air ideas in proximity to each other while making sure that I was primarily telling a story. In other words, I saw my job as accurately portraying the ideas and the people who hold these ideas. I don’t personally come down on the side of this or that interpretation. As Chekhov says, “Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers.”
9. What is the last great book you read? Or what books have you read and loved that helped you prepare for writing your own novel?
I’m in the middle of rereading Anna Karenina, this time in the new translation that came out a few years ago. It’s even better than I remembered. It’s a grand book, but as a writer what I most admire is its efficiency. Tolstoy never dawdles. He goes straight for the important scenes in which characters are affecting each other and then onto the scene in which these effects are cascading into other effects.
That said, my inspirations for A Working Theory of Love were much less encyclopedic. Walker Percy (especially The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman), and the late novels of the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis.
10. What are you working on now?
Another California novel, which covers more of the state and with a little more historical sweep. So far the main character is a woman (Agatha—the young girl with an old name), but seeing that I’m such a messy first-drafter I don’t dare make any final predictions.
Suggested Questions for Discussion
1. Early on, Livorno explains to Neill that artificial intelligence seeks to answer one question “What do you do in the face of uncertainty” (p. 18)? How do you think Neill handles the uncertainty of his relationship with Rachel? Or Jenn?
2. Do you think Neill and Erin were ever truly in love? What is your opinion of their friendship in the wake of their recent divorce?
3. How would you feel about your personal journals being used as the basis for an artificial intelligence program?
4. Why do you suppose Neill calls his mother, Libby, by her first name? Does it imply a kind of distance between them? How did you interpret their relationship?
5. What is your impression of Pure Encounters? Do you think it’s a positive community environment for Rachel? Or “Cult-like,” as Lexie calls it during her visit?
6. Do you believe Libby when she denies her affair with Willie Beerbaum? Do you think there is more to the suspicions that Neill Sr. had?
7. Did your opinion of Toler, and his competitive strategies to beat the Turing test, change when you learned of his advanced condition?
8. Do you think that Neill Jr. and Rachel are ultimately compatible? Why?
9. Do you agree that “there is no measurable difference between seeming and being” (p. 75) as Livorno stipulates to Neill? In what ways could you find this statement to be true or untrue?
10. Neill supposes that his religious mind-set might be that there is “something particular about humans that makes them human” (p 74). Would you say Neill is affirmed in those beliefs by the end of the novel?
11. Do you think Neill made the right decision not to silence “Dr. Bassett” after the Turing test? Should he have ended the program then? How might the story have changed?
12. At the end of the novel, Neill offers one of love’s working theories by expressing that “love is self-realization” (p 323). Do you agree and how exactly would you define that statement? If you could offer your own theory of love, what would it be?