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Literature : review

Life After Death

by Andrew Savino

Andrew Savino on seeming versus being in Scott Hutchins’s novel, A Working Theory of Love.*

Jeff Konigsberg, Box #3, etching, 6 × 7.75. Image courtesy Pierogi Flat Files.

A father commits suicide. The son (and protagonist of A Working Theory of Love), Neill Bassett Jr., heads westward for San Francisco, looking to replace his duties as a scion of an old Southern family with progressive California living. However, the city does not offer Neill the golden fulfillment it so seductively promised from afar. Rather, his twenties leave him divorced and unsatisfied, bound to the banal routines of 21st-century bachelorhood. Desperately seeking a jolt out of the ordinary, Neill finds a second chance in a wine-brewing Italian scientist, the brilliant and ridiculous Henry Livorno. Livorno’s company, Amiante Systems, is attempting to beat the infamous “Turing test” and create the first “intelligent” computer. To defeat the test, Livorno’s team must develop a program that—30% of the time—can fool people into thinking it too is human. Livorno needs a voice; Neill needs a fresh start. To join the project, Neill Jr. offers his father’s legacy: 5,000 pages of diaries written by a physician over the course of 20-plus years. Along with an energy-drink-addicted tech genius named Laham, Livorno and Neill Jr. focus on beating the “Turing test,” providing a perfect opportunity for Neill to reevaluate his relationship with his father; to search for him in the depths of Amiante Systems’s newest program, named “Dr. Bassett,” after Neill’s father.

Throughout the novel, Neill explores the mind-body problem and the differences, if any, between seeming and being; his father seems to be there, on the other side of the computer screen, but is his father’s essence, his consciousness, truly present? If so, could Amiante’s technology allow humans to conquer death digitally, to live forever in (or as) machines?

Historically, there have been numerous philosophical approaches to the problem of seeming vs. being and the mind-body problem, which arises because mental phenomena appear to differ from the physical body on which they apparently depend. One approach to this problem, known as dualism, is the theory that the mind and body are two distinct substances. Dualism is closely associated with the philosophy of René Descartes, which holds that the mind is a nonphysical substance. Descartes identifies the mind with consciousness and distinguishes mental awareness from the physical brain as the seat of intelligence. At the outset, A Working Theory of Love approaches the question of seeming vs. being like a Cartesian experiment, isolating Dr. Bassett’s mind in the form of his memories and exploring whether or not his consciousness, which in many ways according to Descartes resembles the human soul, depends on the physical body to exist.

To investigate more questions of seeming versus being in the novel, Hutchins focuses on a series of failed relationships. Each relationship examined initially provides the reader with a picture of what might seem to be both authentic and important in our lives (e.g. grand romantic gestures; spontaneity; blood), only to crush any expectations of whimsical romanticism the reader might have with the harsh realities of “Love” that play out in the novel. Hutchins masterfully keeps us grounded, dragging the reader through the pain and small, hard-won victories of romantic relationships, but makes it utterly enjoyable with his sharp wit and brutal honesty.

“Wow.” She falls back on the bed with a thump, blowing out a deep breath. “You really have no idea. I’m kind of afraid to admit this, but I’m having this really strong feeling right now. Relief—I feel relief.” She nods, amazed at herself. “You don’t think this means I’m like, falling for you?”

I remain exquisitely still. Anytime the eagle of another’s heart soars, whatever you are—mouse, toad, snake—don’t move. From such great heights, it might not see you.

The principal relationship examined by Hutchins is that of father and son. Having remained distant from his father throughout his childhood, Neill seeks to reconnect with his father through the Dr. Bassett program. The crux of the book, what drives Neill Jr. forward in his pursuit, and what he eventually articulates for the reader, is his “theory of love.” Through observation and reflection, Neill comes to believe that every human has a need to stay connected, a kind of universal positive inclination; a mentality boiled down to, “rather than no—yes.” Neill’s interactions with the computer program, devoid of many of the usual trappings of human relationships, seem to make his father more present than ever; Neill becomes privy to his father’s humor, as well as his jealousies and doubts, which Neill never had access to before his death. However, Neill must determine whether Dr. Bassett’s intimations and revelations, the intuition and surprises, the eerie prescience and moments of genuine conversation are Neill Sr.’s, or merely a reflection of his own desire to know his father for the first time.

Ultimately, A Working Theory of Love examines, quite successfully, our semi-delusional approach to interpersonal relationships and contemplates whether the world comes down on the side of seem or be—or if it remains negotiated in the space in between.

Andrew Savino is a writer, fiction-enthusiast, poet, and amateur pastry-chef from Moorestown, NJ. A recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he currently splits his time between his hometown, Philadelphia, PA, and Lloyd Harbor, NY. When he is not writing or reading, he enjoys riding his bike and a fresh slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie.