I take the novel workshop every time I go to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. Before it starts, I try to read a book by the instructor, so I can decide whether he or she has the chops to teach me anything. I know that sounds arrogant and entitled. I struggled with that for a bit, and decided… you know what? I’m old, and I can act arrogant and entitled if I want to.
So, is Scott Hutchins, this year’s instructor, worth listening to? I read his novel A Working Theory of Love, this week. Based on that I would say yes, indeed yes. If Hutchins can teach as well as he writes, I am definitely going to listen.
It’s possible that if I were born, raised and still lived in Cleveland, Ohio, I would not have enjoyed this San Francisco Bay-based novel quite as much. I think it helps if you actually know people like the ones Neill Bassett Jr, the first-person narrator, meets in this story. I suspect people in the Midwest would think Hutchins is making this stuff up – and he is, but it isn’t much of a stretch.
A Working Theory of Love is funny, tinged with sadness, insightful, and sweet. Neill is the son of a father who committed suicide. Neill Senior was a doctor, one of the last of the country doctors, a southern Catholic living in the south. Unbeknownst to both his wife and son at the time, Neill Senior kept voluminous journals of his life. The journals are not deep or overly personal; they tend instead to be a record of day-to-day life. These journals, which Neill Junior has, come to the attention of a Silicon Valley inventor, Henry Livorno, a fading genius who wants to create artificial intelligence, and thinks that language will help do that. He hires Neill to upload the journals, and engage in conversation with the program they now call Dr. Bassett.
Neill is divorced and trying to live the single life in San Francisco. Over the course of the book, three women come into his life; the much younger Rachel, who lives in Marin County and is part of a group called Pure Encounters, a perfectly modulated Marin County sex cult; Erin, Neill’s ex-wife, and Jenn, a computer engineer who works for Livorno’s competition, and whose driving goal in life is to be on the TV show Survivor. There is another important woman in the book, and my personal favorite; Neill’s mother Libby.
If you’ve never talked to anyone who had a brush with a cult or a powerful fad group, you will find Pure Encounters to be funny, baffling and even kind of interesting. If you know someone who plunged head-first into one of these movements, you might find yourself falling out of your chair laughing. Really, it doesn’t have to be a formal movement; it could be gluten or soy, or meditation. Hutchins nails it.
The serious parts of the story; Neill finally facing his father’s suicide, deciding to take a risk on a relationship, are deftly done. The fun parts of the story; preparing a computer program for the Turing test (designed to prove artificial intelligence), the pitch-perfect rivalry between Livorno and his millionaire-student and competitor Toler, play out with wit and suspense. Toler is a jerk and I wanted to hate him, but Hutchins makes him human; dislikeable and understandable.
Hutchins expertly misleads his readers (I mean that in the best possible way) to one inescapable conclusion about the motive for Dr. Bassett’s suicide, and then does a ninety-degree turn, leaving our expectations in the dust. Good job.
And then there are the SF-Northbay things that are accurate and hilarious. On Stinson Beach, north of the Golden Gate, Neill meets Rachel’s friend Raj. “ ‘Short for Rajasthan,’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘Unfortunately.’ He’s as Caucasian as a Smothers Brother, but this is Marin, birthplace of the American Taliban.” I don’t know how well a John Walker Lindh reference plays, now, outside of northern California, but I certainly got it; just like I got references to the sex shops, performance/protest art, foodie ice cream and Rachel’s conversion to “locavorism.” Yep. These are my people.
Basically, Hutchins runs the peninsula; portraying Palo Alto culture (bright purple artificial vaginas and “stealth companies,”); San Francisco with its trendy restaurants (trend of the time, offal); and Marin County with its… well, just being Marin.
“What happened to us American men? There we were, joyfully plundering the world like openhanded pirates, and how that we have it all we all sit in half-lotus on the edge of paradise, the most beautiful county in the most beautiful state in the luckiest country under the sun, to meditate on loss and resentment.”
Hutchins also understands that reader appreciate a real plot, where things happen and cause other things to happen, and he can actually craft one! I did think it was unlikely that Jenn would just happen to have a Pure Encounters brochure in her house, but other than that, the plot elements link together smoothly. There is a sense I often get in literary novels, that the writer thinks, “Okay, I got Main Character from Point A to Point B, I made up some tension, and now I can stop and write that six-page lyrical interior monologue I really wanted to do all along.” Hutchins commits to telling a story, and it’s a story with honesty, depth and optimism.
This started off as a research project and ended up being a treat. I’m already planning how many copies I’m going to buy at the workshop bookstore, to give to friends.