A Working Theory of Character

Pre-publication reviews for A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins promise a great debut novel—”brainy, bright, brilliantly observant about the way we live now, brilliantly inventive, incandescent with humor and insight, astonishing, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over-kind of novel”—and the book doesn’t disappoint. I agree with author Charles Baxter’s jacket blurb that the “haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”

It’s lodged in mine. But is it the story or character that haunt? Those strands weave together in any good fiction. In this book there are two main characters‚ Neill Jr (the first-person narrator) and “drbas” (Dr. Bassett, Neill Sr), and two story lines that lace tightly, inextricably and, yes, brilliantly, for a fast, enjoyable read. The laudable invention of the book is Dr. Bassett, whose role in the story is as a computer being groomed for artificial intelligence. He has been programmed with the diaries that the human Dr. Bassett kept while alive. The book’s most haunting aspect, to this reader, is how the “drbas” character lives beyond the page.

Lesson: Grow affection for characters by revealing their vulnerabilities

The narrator (Neill Jr) is flawed. He confirms this on page one by comparing himself to an upstairs neighbor, a hermit who is carted out of the apartment building by paramedics. Though Neill wouldn’t trade places with Fred, he isn’t living a much more colorful or enviable life. He is thirty-six, divorced, commutes two hours a day to his job at Amiante Systems—a linguistic computer project (Neill has no computer science background), and “without self-pity” follows an uneventful bachelor’s routine of daily rituals. He states that “[n]ot everyone’s life will be a great love story,” but in that statement lies the promise that this book just might tell his. He is waiting for something to fill him, and we feel his huge hole. He has room to grow.

Drbas is also flawed. He was flawed as a man, husband, and father who committed suicide, and also leaves much to be desired as a computer linguistics program. He’s awkward, inarticulate, full of clichés and platitudes, and emotionally distant. He has room to grow.

Rachel, a twenty-year-old woman Neill meets at a hostel, is also vulnerable. A spiritual seeker involved with the cult of “Pure Encounters” when they meet, she becomes his love interest and adds unpredictability (always a benefit for good fiction) to his staid life. She has room to grow.

All this room to grow gives readers room to grow their affection for the characters. To the end, we’re rooting for them to claim the potential the story suggests they deserve.

Lesson: Make characters memorable through their relationships with other characters 

Drbas is only a computer, but through Dr. Bassett’s diaries with which he’s been programmed and Neill’s daily interactions with him, he gains a real presence in Neill’s life and in the story. In fact, he seems to take on a life of his own to the extent that Neill confides in him about his new girlfriend and also looks to him for insight and closure on their father/son relationship.

Neill is evolving his own presence as a man who is able to inhabit a full, adult life. He is becoming a person who can better negotiate his fear of being in a relationship, of being disappointed, of giving and receiving unconditional love—whether with a parent or a mate.

Rachel can never meet the real Dr. Bassett, long dead at the time of the story, but Neil juxtaposes them in the narrative. “Rachel’s eyes were crystalline green and bright, but here they’re dark and dull, the color of old limes. Her skin is waxy white; a broad brush of young blood runs from cheek to jaw. Blood, as my father once, said, is both vital and mortal. He was a physician, after all.”

Lesson: Infuse the writing with sensory material to bring your characters come alive

Hutchins follows beautifully the cardinal rule of fiction writing and engages all the senses. He uses sensory material economically, such as when introducing in the first paragraph the fact that Neill has been married by having him say “my ex-wife used to complain about the smell” of Fred’s cigarette smoking. He uses it pointedly, singling Rachel out from the two girls he meets at the hostel.”The girls are lightly dressed, as if we’re hitting the clubs in Miami: short skirts with Ugg boots, tube tops skintight and grimacing. They shiver. The blonde, Rachel—the more handsome but less cute of the two—reddens and speckles from the gusting cold.” He uses it to set a tone at work with Livorno, his eccentric boss: “The rhythmic ting-tock-ting-tock of Livorno’s practice putts comes to a stop.”

Neill craves the human touch. Drbas and Rachel represent the extremes of that desire. He never felt enough affection from his father while Dr. Bassett was alive, and the computer falls short in that department. But Rachel is fully fleshed. “I put my hand under the heavy band of her sweatshirt and help her take it off, feeling the ridges of her ribs. A clavichord, a scallop shell. Her deodorant smells warmly of cloves.”

Lesson: It’s okay to have your characters live “happily ever after”

No spoilers here. I won’t give away the plot such as it is—more than to say that the charm of this story is greatly how these characters grow on us and the affection we feel for them. This is a human and hard-wired character-driven story with many lessons for the writer and a few hours of pure enjoyment for the reader.