The Geek Doesn’t Always Get the Girl: A Novelist on Hacking Romance

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inherently unknowable—that there is a limit to what you can see of other people’s minds. And that engaging in a relationship with another person involves dealing with something that is ultimately opaque, and that you have to go ahead in your life and figure out how to proceed with that.

Eric is really good at solving problems of complexity, but the problems in his relationship with Maya aren’t just problems of complexity, they’re problems of ambiguity or opacity. That is what he has recognized in the end that he didn’t know at the beginning. But unfortunately, he has recognized it too late.

X: For Eric to be able to hack a relationship, he wants all the variables to be known. But as you’ve just described, it’s important for the arc of the coming-of-age story to have him learn that this just isn’t possible. Is that why you gave Maya’s character this issue where she’s struggling with what may be repressed memories of sexual abuse? That was a big cultural theme in the 1990s, and it still seems like a question that just can’t be unraveled.

GR: I think the answer is yes. Structurally, putting her in that situation is a way of giving Eric a problem to solve that will be the problem that tests him and ultimately breaks him. You want to put your character in a situation that is not just as difficult as possible, but difficult in a way that reveals something about who he is. Giving Maya this aspect that is so important and so entirely unknowable and unresolvable seemed like a good way to do that.

In addition, I think that was an interesting period in our history. It seems to have begun in the late 1980s with the McMartin preschool case, and to have died out by 1999 or so. After being a central cultural preoccupation for a while, it disappeared just like that. It was something I was interested in at the time, and when I went to study it more thoroughly for the book, I came to think that this was a situation that our culture had gotten itself into where it had raised questions that it was unable to answer. Here was something that was sort of exciting and in a way titillating and psychologically gripping, but suddenly it became too complicated for the culture to really figure out, so we just agreed to stop talking about it. That was interesting to me.

X: In the end, you seem to leave it deliberately unclear whether Maya was abused or not.

GR: I am not going to disagree with that.

X: I worried a little about Maya’s character. As I made my way through the first third of the book, before you really get into the repressed-memory stuff, I was afraid she might turn out to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl—the kind of female character that doesn’t have an inner life or a story of her own, except to the extent that it advances the male protagonist’s story. It didn’t turn out that way, but by the end I felt like she might be another kind of character type—maybe the Manic Depressive Dream Girl. Did you struggle with how fully realized you wanted Maya’s character to be? Or was it important for the plot that she stay somewhat opaque?

GR: Well, let me say first that in a novel like this one, there are some characters who are intended to be round and some who are intended to be flat, to use a distinction that E.M. Forster made. There are some characters in the book who are supposed to be lively and funny and serve a function, but they are not intended to be fully rounded humans. My intention was for Maya to be as round a character as possible. And to the extent that she isn’t, that is just my failure as a writer—that is not to do with intention.

It’s difficult, obviously, when everything is so firmly locked into one character’s point of view, to make the other characters round when you want them to be. You have to do it through their actions and dialogue, mostly. I had the benefit of getting to do some storytelling from Maya’s point of view when she talks about her childhood, which at least gives the reader a sense of her voice and what things looked like from her perspective.

At the same time, as you brought up, there are central things about her that the reader can’t know for sure—that are just not resolved. And that’s the way it has to be for the book to work. Maybe that compromised my ability to make her a fully rounded character, but anything beyond that is just the result of my shortcomings as a writer.

X: Going back to a technology question. At one point Eric says: “With enough calculations per second you can generate the impression of spontaneous compatibility, the way a grid of tiny pixels becomes a photograph.” That made me wonder what Eric, or you, would say about the Turing Test. Do you think it will ever be possible for a sufficiently advanced computer to fool a human into thinking that it’s human?

GR: I don’t know. There are people who have spent long enough thinking about that that it would be dumb for me to venture an opinion. What is interesting about the question is that it is exactly a version of what a novelist is trying to do, and of what we were just talking about. Is Maya a rounded character, or is she a caricature? Well, either way, both are just arrangements of letters and punctuation marks on the page. That is literally all they are. It’s a very limited set of symbols—only around 100—that you can manipulate, and out of that I have to make real, alive human beings, at least for the duration of the book, and insofar as you are willing to suspend your awareness that they are not real. Any programmer working on passing the Turing Test is engaged in an activity that novelists have been doing for hundreds of years.

X: I’ve also been reading Scott Hutchins’ book A Working Theory of Love, which is another first novel set in San Francisco, and is also, in a way, about the extent to which relationships can be reduced to algorithms. Do you think it’s somehow symptomatic of our times that writers such as yourself are driven to explore these questions about technology and human consciousness and emotions?

GR: I’m aware of the book, but I didn’t read it, just out of superstition. But here’s what I think, and I sort of suspect this would be true for Hutchins as well. I think novelists in general, and me in particular, are interested in what it’s like to be alive. That is a fundamental and only very loosely timely question. What it’s like to be alive may change over time, but it changes pretty slowly.

In the end, talking about computers and programming and having a character who is a computer programmer is not so much out of a theoretical interest in technology or programming. It’s more about trying to find a different way of talking about the experience of being alive and the way human beings relate to each other. This material happens to be there, and it hasn’t been worked over as much as some other stuff, so that is what I am going to use.

But that’s probably the wrong thing to say to make your audience read the book!

X: Well, I’m a little surprised to hear you soft-pedal the technology part. Maybe it’s just the position I’m in as a technology journalist, but it seems like technology actually is changing what it means to be alive, and far faster than in the past.

GR: And I think there is a ton of interesting stuff to say about that. But much of the interesting stuff points to the future. Already, I can see how life is different from a few years ago, before social media. How will the experience be different for my kid, who is now very little? I have no fucking idea, but it’s going to be crazy. And there are novelists using fiction to think about that question—William Gibson is probably the greatest of them—but that is not quite the kind of book I was writing. I don’t know that I have the insights to go into those kinds of future-oriented questions.

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2 responses to “The Geek Doesn’t Always Get the Girl: A Novelist on Hacking Romance”

  1. Bill Ghormley says:

    Wade — this seems the quintessential battle between Memetics and Biology.
    “The Unkowns” as you depict it sets up the Man/Meme vs. Man/Gene problem in bright light — having to give in to the unknowns of a relationship to reproduce, as opposed to building an engineered world through solving for unknowns — building one’s memetic legacy. This interview was poignant, and powerful, on a number of levels — thanks.

  2. Jerry Jeff says:

    Really good stuff, Wade.