A Theory of Love
April 19, 2013 | by Katie Ryder
I remember sitting in red tights and buckled shoes in my childhood room as my word processor booted up. My father had taught himself DOS programming, and boxy yellow letters blinked on the gray green screen. “THIS IS KATIE RYDER’S WORD PROCESSOR. HELLO KATE.” A system-check flashed through my existing files—“/a_bad_day” (child minimalist), “/last_unicorn” (child plagiarist)—before bringing me to the composition page. My dad’s words changed slightly from week to week by mysterious means; this time, they declared: “YOU’RE READY TO WRITE KATE.”
In Scott Hutchins’s debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, Neill Bassett Jr. communicates with his dead father through a computer. Dr. Neill Bassett Sr. committed suicide while his son was in college and left behind a tome of meticulous journals. These—painstaking and only superficially personal—are used to form the base “personality” of a computer run by a small team of scientists aiming to develop the world’s first “sentient” machine, by the standards of the Turing test. Neill’s task is to “chat” with DrBas, as the program is called, and work out the kinks, training the computer in the rules of language and interaction. Soon it begins to demonstrate inclinations and preferences—something a bit like a will—and DrBas comes to closely resemble Neill’s dead father. The two talk of Neill Sr.’s best friend; his wife, Libby; Neill Jr.’s childhood and current life—a recent divorce and a new, stunted romance with a much younger woman—all the while skirting the black hole of the computer’s knowledge: that the real Dr. Bassett killed himself in 1995, that the person Dr. Bassett is dead.
Meanwhile, in the real world, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has stored a warehouse room full of information about his own dead father for the purpose of bringing him back to life as an electronic consciousness. The chief inventor of the flatbed scanner and the Kurzweil keyboard synthesizer, and a millionaire many times over, Kurzweil described the Internet before its existence and accurately projected the year a computer would defeat a human chess champion. He now predicts computers will reach sentience by 2029—a point at which they will “match human intelligence and go beyond it.” This moment is sometimes referred to as the singularity—a mythic, multipurpose term, borrowed from physics and mathematics. At its most basic, the singularity is the moment when “the model breaks down”: when we can no longer know what we knew before. In a 2009 documentary about Kurzweil called Transcendent Man, Ray explains that he will live forever (through transhumanistic nanotechnology: microscopic machines that will aid in “reprogramming” our “Version 1” bodies to more perfect health), and, he says, eyes into the camera, “I do plan to bring back my father.” Fred Kurzweil’s letters, sheet music, financial ledgers, and electric bills all sit in wait.
Ray’s forward striving, as depicted in the documentary, is in part vigorous nostalgia. He’s preoccupied with his childhood home—one full of music, art, and scientific ideas—the “thwarted genius” of his father, and his own inability to keep his father alive. The film’s other scientists say that Ray’s longing has infected his theories: in the case of transhumanism and resurrection, his projections have overstepped science. “Immortality? Yes, someday. But not by 2040.” The layman viewer, ignorant of all possibilities of indefinite life, witnesses what seem to be small moments of Ray’s rationality slipping away. Driving past a graveyard, he speaks with a very slight smile: “Generally I always thought it was useless to keep all these dead, rotting bodies around. But actually now it is useful, from a practical point of view, to have a place where some of their DNA is accessible.” He stares straight ahead, blinking through his large glasses, as men of a particular genius are caricatured to do.
My father was older than everyone else’s and still is. He’s about 6’5” with white hair and white beard, and a particular way of looking at you as if he’s sitting back in his mind, as if there’s room for your words in there, that calls people around him to talk. They tell him things, and he listens and weaves his fingers together, or leans back with folded arms, or laughs and claps his hands, shouting something strange and warm, like “Good show!” Former students and colleagues buy him skinny, stretched-out Santa Claus figurines and framed pictures of Tolkien’s Gandalf because of his resemblance; a sketch of the White Wizard’s eyes—one wide, one squinting and terrifying—hung for years above the stairs leading down to his office in our house. Grocery and department store clerks incurred my silent, bangs-rimmed fury for mistaking my father for my grandfather, and I burned through them with narrowed eyes, hoping explicitly that my tiny, witchy anger would haunt their dreams. In third grade a teacher corrected me that it had not been my great grandfather that had fought in the Civil War, but “actually, great-great.” I corrected her that actually, she was an idiot.
When I found my father asleep on the couch with a book in his lap, I remember tiptoeing forward, looking for signs of breath. After a moment of consideration, I jammed my fist into his side, shouting: “NO SLEEPING!”
“Jesus Christ, Katie!”
“NO [sleeve tug] SLEEPING!”
What I meant, of course, was “No dying.”
As I read A Working Theory of Love, the title tended to echo in my mind as The History of Love—the name of a 2005 novel by Nicole Krauss. History, like A Working Theory, and, really, Transcendent Man, considers how we interact with the past via its record and how we manage the loss of love and the deaths of our fathers. In both fictional works, and the ideas of the living man Ray Kurzweil, love is argued for as a type of lynchpin in the definition of life. In A Working Theory, it is what makes us human rather than machine: “It’s what’s in all of us.” In History, the great love of protagonist Leo Gursky’s youth “was the opposite of death.” Kurzweil presents the idea in the reverse: “I do have a recurring dream,” he says. “It has to do with exploring this endless succession of rooms that are empty, and going from one to the next. And feeling hopelessly abandoned and lonely and unable to find anyone else. That’s a pretty good description of death. Death is … actually a loss of everyone you care about.”
Hutchins’s story begins as one of such loss—of severed human connection—and ends with Neill “saying yes” to love. The work is driven by the inertia of this choice, and Neill’s affirmation is intended be its transcendence. But the story is strangely cushioned, floating on a Northern Californian mist of ease. It gives us little acquaintance with what it would mean to say “no”—with the pain of isolation, or that of love itself.
The book is intentionally a low-stakes enterprise—one of Hutchins’s concerns, he tells us explicitly through Neill, is in depicting a life of small gains: “… life holds promise not only in radical transformations.” And the author presents a particular plane of existence in apt detail: specifically, the material lives of the postmodern, upper-middle techno-class, which, if well curated, Neill greatly admires. When lost, unsure of how to manage his greatest problem—his twenty-year-old girlfriend—Neill goes to pray at the farmer’s market. After satisfying himself with a funny little cut at the opposition style (“Even a few hipsters are here, grubby and miserable as if after a sleepless night of dry-humping”), he finds his own salve:
I buy navel oranges (Valencias aren’t in season until May), bring red chard, a yellow pepper, and a flowering bok choy that I like to sauté and put on pizza. (This is better than Showbiz: I make my own dough.) I also pick up a small houseplant … It is a little moment of heaven. And I try to feel grateful for the small solaces of a nice bok choy, of dough rising in the kitchen. I imagine myself in ten years, and twenty years, in the cool sun, before City Hall … What will I look like? Will I be here alone?
Then he remembers an older, lone man who lives in the apartment on the floor above him. These are the book’s self-identified risks: that in ten years, in twenty years, Neill might be alone in these abundant comforts and their corresponding little moments of heaven. The highs are rather low; the lows are rather high.
The evolution of Neill’s heart is told through the theoretical language of the scientific project he works for and the idiom of a cult-like group he comes across called Pure Encounters, who believe that the rise of machine technology will lead to the commodification of love and sex (a party to which they might be a bit late). Using their terms—we should seek to “click” and “stay clicked” with loved ones, for example—Hutchins is able to hold forth on the nature of love while maintaining ironic distance from that very idea, one of a few ways that the book keeps up defenses. As you might expect then, lung-throttling heartbreak—what, for the story’s arc, Neill must fear—plays no real part.
Remembering The History of Love as I read A Working Theory, I recalled how unashamed the former was in its representation of life’s starkest highs and lows. It attempts no adolescent distance from the subject of its title, opening the work to a juvenility of its own, but in the form of naiveté or stubborn trust, rather than cool avoidance. History tells of miracles of coincidence, euphoria and devotion, suffering caused by rabid human cruelty, and death, but Krauss’s achievement lies beyond subject matter, in what she is willing to risk: she asks us, unabashed, to witness a stubborn, delusional love; to imagine the living moments between the realization “I’m dying” and death. Krauss questions the limits of what we can feel, having almost the opposite effect of Hutchins’s work, where Neill bluffs that he already knows the world’s bounds, reaches out and touches them with a half-extended arm, and moves along to the end.
I learned a couple of years ago, by chance, that there exists a thing called the Ryder Lovesickness Scale, and that my father created it. I came across it when I still often measured time by my distance from a dark, flailing winter in my early twenties: two years since I would have explained to any willing bus driver that we are all radically alone, for example. During that winter I would pace the sidewalk outside my Prospect Heights apartment, past the contented brownstones with iron gates and potted plants and their warm little lamps through the windows sitting on tables, sitting exactly as they should be, illuminating the difference between inside and out, while I paced in the drizzling rain and ranted to my father. Me saying, Maybe it’s not going to be alright, What the fuck am I supposed to do, and he on the other end, silent and listening.
The Lovesickness Scale was a tool for use in psychological and therapeutic practice—a system of measurement for how loved or neglected a person feels. I thought I was no stranger to my father’s work. But it came together differently now. He’d been sitting on data, on decades of expertise.
I remembered those glowing lamps, and their pretty, shit-eating halos, and me in the rain.
“It’s descriptive, Kate,” he said. “The scale has no ‘how.’”
In A Working Theory of Love the computer program modeled after Neill’s father is described as possessing a brain—facts and logic—and a “gut,” from which preferences are derived. The function uniting these two is a “heart,” which is imbedded electronically through the rule, “rather than no, yes.” The metaphors and definitions become murky here, but we know what we are to understand: the heart is what makes us human, and, somehow, the heart is what says yes.
But the heart is also what says no. It is what in Kurzweil refuses the death of his father; what in Leo Gursky won’t relinquish love long gone; what caused me to shout “No! Sleeping!” into my resting father’s ear. In love, we mean “No dying.” We mean “Don’t leave me.” In History, Leo and his love Alma speak in Poland in their youth: “‘Have you ever been happier than you are right now, lying here in the grass?’ ‘I guess not. No.’ ‘Have you ever been sadder?’ ‘No.’” If love is only yes, few of us know much about it. And if love is yes and our instructions are to say yes to it, this is certainly circular. What are we reaching for? What is in there?
I recently heard a Catholic priest ask the assembled guests at a wedding to pray that “all things be brought about gently and sweetly.” This rather unreasonable request reminded me of the end of Hutchins’s book. In it, even Neill’s confusion is shrouded in comforts, and his uncertain future is lifted, cloud-like, onto the promise of a type of perpetual life and humanity simply through love, to which he says yes. He describes the path of the American Indian Ohlone tribe (heretofore unmentioned) who ate shellfish. He tell us he will continue to map his heart and the Earth, which are somehow same. If one day he is lost and disoriented, his heart map will guide him. This is difficult to read, in both senses of the phrase. How can we transcend grief and fear—and survey humanity from the sky—having never looked at death, having only feared that one day we might eat alone?
Realizing the limits we’ve drawn for ourselves, the narrow altitudes we live between, is, in fact, painful. It is remembering what we’ve forgotten; it’s returning to your childhood home, and hearing the sounds of your father going down the stairs. But certainly this is what literature should attempt: to break us from the flatline.
Ray Kurzweil says of death: “I don’t accept it.” They’re the words of a child. And they have the same absurd pulse as most things we call love. During that flailing winter in my early twenties, I received an e-mail from my father, who abstains in all things from telling me “how.” The message was, roughly, that he hoped I’d get my shit together, and soon. “Sometime in the next decade I will likely die,” he wrote. “I don’t mean to make a big deal of it, nothing could be more ordinary.”
My response, roughly, was “Fuck you.” What I meant, of course, was “No dying.”
Katie Ryder is a New York–based writer and an associate editor of the Guernica Daily.