Tuesday, September 3, 2013

the love affairs of nathaniel p.: a novel

There is something particularly flattering about an entire book dedicated to the kind of person you are, even if that portrait itself isn't very flattering. I felt reading Adelle Waldman's debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. that slight swelling of the chest, as Hitler's ghost must whilst browsing the WWII section of every decent American library, to see so many words about one such as me. All kidding aside, I've steamrolled over a number of objectively decent relationships in the past few years for the same reasons as the titular literary Brooklynite at the center of this novel: because despite initial interest, after awhile, I just didn't feel it. And following simple laws of physics, Nate (and myself) finds that feelings of the other sort rush in to fill the void in ways that are often insufferable.

The novel opens with Nate running late to a party and running into a former lover, Juliet, on the street. Her reaction to the random encounter is less than civil and Nate seems stunned by it. True, the last time he saw her he did accompany her to the abortion clinic and pay for the procedure because of his role in that state of affairs. And then he had remained the whole of the day to comfort her before summarily abandoning Juliet because he hadn't truly liked her that much in the first place. But we, Nate included, shouldn't take this to mean Nate is heartless or cruel or indifferent to the sensibilities of women. After all, he is the "product of a postfeminist 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege. Moreover, he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience." This self-reassurance, by the way, is a quote you will see snipped and inserted into almost every review. And for good reason. It neatly summarizes Nate's opinion of himself (it is, after all, relayed to us through our ongoing privileged access to Nate's headspace) while also revealing his blind spots.

But I get ahead of myself. Nate is on the way to his ex-girlfriend's house for a dinner party consisting mostly of his friends. With this Elissa, the ex, Nate has not extricated himself from a frequent ritual of conversations and recriminations punctuated periodically by backsliding. This inability to let go, Nate tells us, stems from both his guilt over ending the relationship and his sympathies for Elissa's career plight as he sees it. At this party, he meets Hannah, an acquaintance of Elissa's that he initially downplays.

A few flirtatious emails later, thanks to the highbrow, left-leaning social conscience that defines and operates Nate's inner circle of friends, Nate and Hannah go out, followed by sex and a relationship, and ultimately, another breakup. The novel narrates the rise and demise of the couple through a series of set piece conversations and Nate's internal monologues staged at coffee shops, diners, parties, and the couple's respective apartments.

Despite eavesdropping on Nate's internal monologues, we actually learn very about him and his motivations directly from him. Sure, he tells us his irritation at Hannah is irrational or his cruelty is often perverse. He repeatedly complains to himself about the stifling realities of a relationship (the other person there all the time! they ask you things! you have to care about their emotional well-being!). And yet his relationship with Elissa lasted several years, through both career and personal highs and lows. And transitioning out of his relationship with Hannah, he takes up with Greer, an autobiographer of her sexual and other flittering, a woman with much the same jejune personality as Elissa without the real-word albatross of a stalled career to weigh Nate down (Elissa's dinner guests at the novel's opening gossip negatively about Greer's very sizeable advance for her next book).

Hannah is the type of girl Nate feels he should be attracted to: smart, successful, witty. She is not, however, the girlish kind of pretty Nate typically pursues. Nor is she the histrionic sort. Despite what Nate might say and perhaps even believe for a time, the high maintenance and conventionally attractive is the kind of girl he is interested in. To put it bluntly, the novel winds up and then unwinds Nate's punishment of Hannah for falling in love with him when she is none of those things. He comes to loathe her "neediness," her simple desire to make things work with him and pain caused by his failings; his failure to try, his failure to recognize what he wants, and his biggest failure, the inability to be honest with either himself or her.

For all the robustness of Nate's inner life, his careful reflections of why he did and harsh assessments of what motivates others, he actually tells us precious little about his desires. His contradictory desires are expressed through his two friends Aurit and Jason. In various conversations throughout the book, Aurit and Jason's advice rather than Nate's own thoughts give voice and reflection to Nate's inner life.

Aurit: female, intelligent, articulate. A woman of which Nate uses the word "maternal" as an insult. She and Nate have never dated. Their relationship is purely Platonic. Aurit blames men for relationships breaking down and attributes these failures to men's personal, often psychological, disorders. Nate chafes at her insistence that the normal state of a man and a woman is in a relationship and men who are not in relationships are somehow pathological. Aurit likes Hannah and feels Nate should work on the relationship. Nate, not openly, feels Hannah is too much like Aurit.

Jason, on the other hand, is priggish and prickish. He is controversial for the sake of controversy, to perform so as to suck the spotlight squarely onto himself at all times. He unironically suggests that pretty but not too bright women should marry the rich and litterati so as to prevent these upper classes from being dominated by uggies. Jason suggests to Nate that he doesn't want a smart but only moderately attractive as a mate; that he doesn't seek a mate who can be an equal, who can challenge him. In fact, he secretly desires pretty, melodramatic women of whom he can complain about the "pains" they cause him on the surface. Nate initially prickles at such a suggestion. By the end of the book, as he settles into his life with Greer, their petty fights, her demands for indulgences, his sidelining her thoughts for the much more serious and sober verbal sparring when out with his friends, confirms Jason's diagnosis.

Aurit and Jason, with Nate in the middle, do not represent the Freudian triumvirate of superego, id, and ego. Rather, Aurit and Jason are external manifestations of Nate's internal wrestling with what he truly wants out of life. And this struggle plays out as Nate stands at the threshold of success, the publication of his first novel. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. shows this seemingly bright, capable, and modern man to be rather boorish and superficial but with the good manners not to be blunt about it.

Slate's Katie Roiphe describes the novel as "deftly skewer[ing] the new literary man, the bookish, ambitious, N+1ish young man, with his stylish torment, his self-seriousness, his dangerous admixture of grandiosity and insecurity, and old fashioned condescension toward women gussied up as sensitivity, his maddening irony, his very specific way of treating people badly while worrying about liberal politics." Said targets would be the protagonists of Keith Gessen and Benjamin Kunkel's recent novels. Perhaps she's right, but only from the perspective of the jilted ex.

At her best, Waldman's novel feels less like grinding her own personal ressentiment axe against all the Nathaniel Piven's of the world. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is nominally about Nate, as it is through his eyes, ears, and voice that we experience the world. But where Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men treats women merely as the overlapping props that connect the three male protagonists (Sam, Keith, and Mark) post-college, Waldman seems instead to give a voice to women who come into contact with the "sad young literary man" type; Hannah, confused and hurt by a Nate that runs erratically hot/cold; Elissa, whom he keeps on a leash through emotional affairs and backsliding; and even brief Juliet, whose reprimand "You could have at least—oh, never mind." truly baffles Nate.

Adelle Waldman's debut novel is indeed a reaction against the N+1 ilk, but not an agressive takedown. Instead, in clever, witty, and insightful prose, she not only examines a bright man, a type really, for whom Socrates' maxim to do so is merely an empty refrain, but also surveys the landscape for emotional craters left on a country's single female population as these self-assured, ambitious solipsists pass untouched and unaware over their lives.

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