“The stench of crisis on you now is at an all-time high,” Hazel’s father tells her. He’s not wrong: Hazel is a perpetual Cinderella, still in rags despite having been swept off her feet by a (not so charming) prince. She has packed up and run away, back to her dad’s, but how do you evade a husband who has planted a microchip in your brain?
American author Alissa Nutting’s first novel, Tampa, courted controversy by featuring a 26-year-old teacher who seduced her teenage male students. Here Nutting is on safer ground, taking on big tech and its deceptive promises of a streamlined, pain-free life.
Byron, Hazel’s husband, is a billionaire internet mogul pursuing global domination through gadgetry – a sort of unholy hybrid of Elon Musk and Tony “Iron Man” Stark. His tech is sufficiently advanced to bear out Arthur C Clarke’s maxim that it’s indistinguishable from magic, and Nutting has good fun describing his combination head-massager/web-browser and the like. But mainly he serves as a persecutor of Hazel, who had only managed to ensnare him originally through flattery, lies and the total suppression of her true self.
Nutting touches on the feminist issues raised by this scenario, but only intermittently. She is a funny writer, and her goal here seems to be to make every line a gag. Ludicrous situations proliferate, many involving the dad’s two sex dolls, who are good springboards for comedy set pieces, such as when Hazel gets her arm stuck in one’s mouth, or rather “Throatgina™”. An extended subplot about a conman whose sex life is derailed by a brush with a dolphin hits new heights of absurdity, and inspires some startlingly lush descriptions of marine nookie.
Nutting deserves credit for envisioning the dangers of our surveillance-state tech economy, and milking them for all their ridiculousness. Generally, though, the humour is glib and depthless. Hazel is the classic hapless protagonist, forced into situations of maximum vulnerability, such as choosing a wedding dress, for laughs. Her eventual rescue is something of a deus ex machina – which could be excused, since the whole book is about gods in machines. The novel is a wild ride, with Nutting’s foot firmly on the pedal the whole way; like most joyrides, though, it doesn’t take you far.
• Made for Love is published by Windmill (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.