I never expected to fall in love with the iPhone. Just over a decade ago, I watched the original launch video at my father’s behest while visiting him in his cluttered grade school classroom. I found it hard to understand the fuss. Both Steve Jobs’ exaggerated gravitas and my father’s child-like enthusiasm struck me as faintly ridiculous. At best, I thought, it might be a useful gadget. At worst? An expensive toy no more compelling than the drawers of paint and sheaves of paper piled around me.
I never did fall in love with the iPhone, but I’ve apologized to my father more than once for my initial skepticism. He was right—much as Jobs was right—that it would change the way we live and work. For almost 10 years, I’ve been shackled to a series of phones I didn’t think I wanted—a loveless marriage, maybe, but a marriage all the same.
I found myself thinking back on that bond while reading Alissa Nutting’s new novel, Made for Love. As Nutting’s story opens, a woman named Hazel descends on her widower father’s retirement community, seeking refuge from her failed marriage to tech billionaire Byron Gogol. Theirs was never a romantic story: Like Jobs introducing the iPhone, Byron’s proposal had been severe, almost robotic, and she accepted it more out of a desire to be free from “life’s material consequences” than an interest in the man himself. She spent, we learn, the next 10 years cloistered in his fortress-like home while he worked, surrounded by high-tech devices of his own design.
The length of their marriage—those 10 years a neat parallel to our own decade with the iPhone—is surely no accident. Made for Love is nothing if not an allegory about the way we slipped and fell into a relationship with technology, increasingly bound to devices that sometimes seem to limit us, even as they furnish once unimaginable luxuries. Hazel has reason to hate Byron—just as we sometimes loathe our phones—but when she abandons him, it’s partly because she knows she’s been missing out on feellings she can’t quite name. She longs for something Byron’s wealth and technology could never offer, the opportunity to lose herself in the world again. “Hazel wanted to begin forming her own mental maps, fallible and distractible as they might be—her very own lay of the land,” Nutting writes.
That desire doesn’t come without danger: Hazel is convinced that Byron will have her killed. In what may be this novel’s most troubling feature, the threat of spousal violence is sometimes played for laughs. In any case, the possibility is more resonant in the abstract, offering a reminder that it’s increasingly difficult to imagine surviving in our world without the technological signposts that lead us through it. For Hazel, it’s worth the risk, as she rids herself of the phone that links her to Byron: “[T]here was a tiny bit of control and comfort in the fact that while he could kill her tomorrow, maybe he couldn’t make her use a cell phone before he did it.” Spurning her husband’s technology may be the only way to reclaim her power.
It’s only when Made for Love heads into more definitively science fictional territory that Byron’s true menace manifests. He wants, we learn, to put a chip in Hazel’s head that would allow their brains to communicate with each other. His obsession is disquieting because he doesn’t seem to care what she thinks or feels; he simply wants to know. It’s here that he seems most monstrously robotic, a living manifestation of our digital condition: Like Byron, our devices don’t aim to know us so much as they make us over, transforming us into something knowable by reshaping our lives around their conveniences. In his own way, Byron can already read her mind, thanks to the way his devices limit the contours of her experience.
Against the emerging horror of neurotechnology—and the workaday drudgery of the devices we already own—the book manifests a longing for the substantial physicality of earlier, more analogue forms of life: Hazel fondly remembers “her father’s roundhouse fights with their old TV,” the way he would whack the set when it went haywire. There was something reciprocal in the act, Nutting suggests: If hitting a machine brings the picture back into focus, there’s still something like a give-and-take in your relationship with it. Those struggles may have been maddening, but at least you could push back when things went wrong. Our phones, by contrast, are like “porcelain eggs holding the fetus of baby Jesus”—so fragile that we’ve unconsciously learned to bend our habits to better care for them.
It there’s a thesis here—and it might be asking too much of the book to impose one—it might be that there’s value in celebrating our corporeal peculiarities, and the strange twists and turns of embodied experience that get us there. We can’t force ourselves to love our phones any more than our phones can force us to love them. And yet we’ve ended up living with them anyway, much as some of us end up in loveless relationships just because the wrong person happened to be in the room at the right time. In both cases, there’s a nebulous comfort to remembering that desire directs us along byways Google Maps could never find. Following those paths might not set us free, but at least it promises something like release.