While it is highly unlikely that early man, whose survival depended on an all-consuming hunt for food and shelter, and no doubt the occasional sprint from a sabre-tooth tiger, had time for existential ruminations, it’s a fair bet that shortly thereafter people began wondering what it truly meant to be human.
Beyond the obvious trappings of civilisation, of course.
And so it has continued down through the ages with painting, literature, music and a thousand other artistic pursuits all devoted to answering this most inconclusive but nagging of questions.
It’s this perennial issue, and it’s inability to be easily defined and answered that is at the heart of Scott Hutchin’s accomplished debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, which attempts through the person of Neill Bassett Jr., a thirty-something divorced San Franciscan, to give voice to the often inchoate longings of the average person for a sense of where they’re headed in life and why.
“I’ll want landmarks, after all – should I wake up amnesiac, lost. I’ll want help, once again, finding my way.”
In his case, this search is made all the more complicated by his job, which is to interact on a daily basis with “drbas”, the chat speak name given to a sophisticated conglomeration of computer program he is working with which seeks to create the world’s first self-aware intelligent computer.
The hitch is that this program’s “soul” and “personality” draw their being, such as it is initially, from the journals of his deceased father, who committed suicide in 1995 leaving Scott and his mother Libby wondering what their lives meant in the wake of his passing.
Uncomfortable at first with dealing with his father, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in this form, he soon grows to value the chance to work through the unspoken questions that have plagued him through his reckless advertising copy writing twenties, and into his listless, if well ordered, thirties.
“When I smile, a tight bunch of lines extends like cat whiskers from my eyes. When I stop smiling, each line remains faintly there. That’s as much mark as life seems to have made.”
He feels like he is a man Teflon-coated from life, untouched and untroubled by life he thinks, unless an unexpected relationship with old soul in a twenty year old body woman Rachel, forces to confront just how engaged he is with life, and the people who have been close to him in life.
That A Working Theory of Love doesn’t descend into a drearily narcissistic naval-gazing exercise is testament to Hutchins ability to use humour, insightful down to earth observations about the human condition, that resonate without sounding overly precious or full of intellectual artifice, and wordplay that is so beautiful that you often have to re-read a sentence again just to savour it.
As you watch Neill start to grapple with the various relationships in his life, in ways unexpected and hitherto unexplored, including those with his mother, ex-wife Erin, and his workmates Livorno and Laham, it all feels entirely natural, with his muted epiphanies arriving in much the way you would expect them to.
This is not a novel of easily-packaged, neatly wrapped, one hour TV drama realisations.
But nor is it a bleak, gothic excursion into the twisted darkness of the human novel.
“When you spend significant amounts of time with someone they offer constant feedback, becoming part of the patterning of your brain. In other words, part of you. But I take your point — constant feedback is not always deep feedback. A good measure of how much of you they’ve become is your level of distress when they’re gone. If they form a large measure of your patterning, then you’ll experience a major culling of the self. That’s what’s known as grief.”
Rather it is the stuff of an ordinary man coming to terms with his deficiencies, acknowledging them with wry, humour-laden chagrin or sigh-inducing resignation, and doing his best to cobble together some way of overcoming his shortcomings and moving beyond them.
In that sense the novel’s title, A Working Theory of Love, is a perfect summation of its intent, without being hopelessly glib, of the explorations of Neill, and those close, and in some cases not so close to him, to forge some measure of understanding of what it means to really love someone.
How much of yourself to do you give them? How much can anyone actually give? And what happens when it all runs its course, whether through death or the drying up of meaningful emotional connections and you have to start all over again, struggling through grief, forgiveness and a mess of human inadequacies as you do so?
In a fitting tribute to the overarching theme of the book, no easy answer is ever given but Scott does emerge at the end with a ramshackle, workable sense of what it means to be him, and a way of moving forward that will allow him to feel like he is somewhat alive, and not simply filling in time till he dies.
It is pretty much the place any of us who yearn for a self-aware existence would come to, expressed with wit and intelligence, compassion and understanding, brought to life by beautifully realised characters who assure us at every turn that while we will never have all the answers, having some of them will do for now.