[Penguin; 2012]

On June 7, 1954, Alan Turing committed suicide after years of government persecution for his sexuality. Forty-one years later, Dr. Neill Bassett commits suicide, and in 2012, Neill Bassett Jr., a 36-year-old Arkansas transplant working for a Silicon Valley computer company called Amiante Systems, uploads his father’s diaries into a computer in Menlo Park in an attempt to replicate an existing human personality. This attempt is part of a grandiose project to create an artificial intelligence capable of passing the Turing Test — that is, of convincing a human tester that the machine is human. Neill Bassett Jr. lives in San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the — for lack of a better word — most popular sites in the world for public suicide.

Yet, for all that suicide permeates the novel, Scott Hutchins’s A Working Theory of Love is not a tragedy. Like the title indicates, it is a love story; structurally, it could even be termed a comedy, beginning as it does in a place of dreary summer loneliness — for every summer in San Francisco is “the coldest winter” — and moving toward union as the weather warms up. The novel begins by introducing Neill Bassett Jr. to Rachel, a young tourist planning on a move to San Francisco, during Neill’s first and only attempt to follow the advice of a sleazy fellow bachelor and check into a youth hostel. Neill, recently divorced and stuck in his bachelor routine, finds Rachel — tall, blonde, and young — predictably alluring.

As this love story unfolds, Neill must deal with such crises and conflicts as Rachel’s involvement in a Californian sex cult and his own awareness of their 16 year age difference, which leads him into a brief relationship with an older woman and a rekindling of his friendship with his ex-wife. But all the while, Neill carries on instant messaging conversations with “Dr. Bassett,” the experimental AI imbued with his father’s memories — or at least, with his father’s diaries. And as the machine comes to realize that Neill is “his” son, and becomes increasingly confused by both the missing diary from Neill’s birth year and the abrupt cessation of the diaries in 1995, Neill is overcome by memories of his father and a growing desire for the resolution denied to him by the manner of his father’s death.

Neill’s conversations with the machine are a high point of the novel — funny and tragic by turns, filled with the familiar awkwardness of speaking with one’s parents about personal matters, and also with the awkwardness, less familiar, of writing to a machine. Neill often interrupts these interactions to make corrections, “teaching” the machine that is his father. Does the fact that this machine is growing to seem so much like his father make it human? In a computer-driven world where, as Neill’s boss would insist, “seeming” and “being” are one and the same, the answer to this question becomes more complicated than it might first appear. Can a machine love? For that matter, asks the novel, are we sure humans always can?

The ways in which this novel fails are predictable and perhaps even negligible. It is a debut novel, after all, and if the recent debate over the purpose of book reviews has taught me anything, it’s that debut novels often follow the inverse of Chekhov’s happy families: the good facets of debut novels are all unique, but every failure is the same. At the sentence and even the paragraph level, Hutchins’s novel shines, filled as it is with such lines as this, the most poetic and creepiest way to describe pickup artistry I have ever read:

When he wasn’t in the mood to dance or meet anyone datable, when he just wanted a sweet night with a strange body, a lee in which to pitch the Bedouin tent of his soul, he checked into one of the city’s big youth hostels.

At the end of the novel, however, there are loose threads remaining, storylines that either lack a resolution or whose endings seem particularly weak. Although I would never call closure necessary — far be it from me to insist on something so Victorian — what matters is intention, and these unfinished endings feel unintended, forgotten, or lost. One of the subplots involves a series of sex shop arsons, and although Neill believes he knows who is responsible, his ultimate reversal of intent to take action feels both vaguely insipid and somewhat uninspired. This is, in some ways, only a further indication of the inaction that plagues Neill throughout the novel. It’s this inaction, the hallmark of the mid-life crisis narrative, that is the most frustrating aspect of the book. From the beginning, it is clear that the novel is headed toward a very specific resolution, so the fulfillment of this promise comes as no surprise. It even seems anti-climatic, considering how long the conflict has been drawn out.

When it seems that the “pressing questions of adult life: Really? and Are you sure? and Now what?” can only be translated into poetry with great difficulty, Hutchins’s good humor seeps through. These questions are pressing ones, and he handles them with a gentle deftness. The true beauty of this novel, however, lies in Hutchins’s focus on place. There may be something about San Francisco that invites mythologizing, and Hutchins has put his finger directly on that impulse. Some of it feels like an ode to San Francisco, or a hagiography of the city:

Maybe, like all transplants (converts?) I’ve asked too much of the city. I would never have moved to Pittsburgh or Houston or L.A. expecting it to save my soul. Only here in the great temple by the bay.

Hutchins’s clear desire to accurately portray San Francisco (called Atlantis by Maupin, and Lemuria by Pynchon) extends even to the Peninsula, where his characters drive past Kepler’s on their way to work and get breakfast from Le Boulanger. Even more than the physical aspects, Hutchins has managed to capture the spirit of the place: the humor, drive, and appealing naïveté that distinguish San Francisco from any other city. Of all places, it would appear that San Francisco seems the kindest to mid-life crisis, and as Neill’s boss would insist, seeming and being are empirically identical. But only in San Francisco, a city living in perpetual danger of the power of the San Andreas Fault, could love be seen as a “territory all its own[,] prone to seismic trickery.”