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In the Act

Rachel Ingalls

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The robot dream girl, built by the mad scientist to be his ideal romantic partner, simplifies the clumsy business of sexual negotiation: She agrees to everything. Permanently, preternaturally consensual, she nullifies the possibility of rape. A relief, and a horror. In Rachel Ingalls's 1987 novella, In the Act, recently reissued in beautiful storybook format by New Directions, the foibles of actualizing male fantasy at the cost of, well, humanity are explored with a wry and mordant vigor. When Helen first encounters the lifelike robot her husband, a pathologist, has been secretly building in their attic, she thinks he must be pioneering research on victims of road accidents with a highly advanced crash-test dummy. That is, until she looks under its skirt.

Known for her cult-classic 1982 novel, Mrs. Caliban, in which a grieving housewife falls in love with a humanoid sea creature, Ingalls artfully weaves B-movie kitsch into the already eerie afternoons of airless domesticity. In her work, sexual desire often crawls onto the bare shores of women's lives - a friendly alien, if you can get past its unusual guises.

In the Act swivels toward the cruder shades of heterosexuality, but it too rejiggers a common science-fiction device to explore the murkier truths of marriage. In some ways, Ingalls, who died in 2019, had a talent for restoring cliché to the profundities of its origins. Aside from the rich trove of mass-market fantasies about men building their own lovers, the novella draws themes from the 1870 ballet “Coppélia,” which follows two men and a woman as they negotiate the use of a dancing mechanical doll.

Helen and her husband, Edgar, were not getting along, pre-fembot. He yells at her for not separating all the segments of his grapefruit; she speaks to him in a fudgy, forgiving drone she’d found effective with the children. But when she discovers his masterwork, Dolly, who can do little more than gyrate, compliment and copulate but still appears convincingly real, her rage breaks through.

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It is unclear if Helen registers Dolly's existence as infidelity or as the embodiment of Edgar's self-serving neglect, the product of thousands of hours spent apart. Perhaps those assessments are one and the same. Helen stuffs Dolly into a suitcase and stashes it in a train-station locker while she negotiates an appropriate ransom with Edgar: a sex robot of her own, the Ken to his Barbie. An A.I-only open marriage? The possibilities loom.

Helen’s plan is interrupted by Ron, who survives by nicking other people's bags at the station with a repertoire of walks calculated to throw off suspicion. He breaks into Helen's locker and takes the suitcase home, where he finds what he initially believes to be a corpse. But after he accidentally flips her switch, he becomes infatuated with the girl; it's like having a wife, except that not being human, of course, she was nicer.

Sex and a shoulder to cry on aren't the only pleasures Dolly provides; Ron particularly enjoys dressing her, sending away for flats, heels and rubber boots to match a variety of ensembles, as well as a cosmetics set replete with nail polish, instructions and an expensive box full of tiny brushes. I would have committed terrible crimes for such comprehensive doll accessories at one point in my life.

Meanwhile, the robot Edgar produces for Helen is sexually "without subtlety, charm, surprise or even much variety," modeled after Dolly's subservience. Helen repurposes him to help her practice conversational Italian. What is fantasy, if not the dancing silhouette of some unspeakable comfort? Ingalls understands that Dolly's appeal is not only in her heights of enthusiasm, but in her fixity. As Helen, Edgar and Ron collide, each madly in love with a slightly different type of permanence, their hubris has slapstick consequences. Ingalls manages to balance Helen's righteous fury and Ron’s strange, sometimes upsetting tenderness toward the robot, without diminishing either. Clusters of longing dot her ironic parable.

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