DESPITE WHAT THEY SAY, I initially judged Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by its cover — or in this case, by the press materials that accompanied the debut novel. “Ever wonder what that cute guy you just met is thinking?” asked one magazine blurb. Another referenced He’s Just Not That Into You. The book jacket itself asked if romance were dead, to which I thought: I sure hope so.
Whereas love is a vital, hot emotion with connotations both sweet and scary, epitomized by serious literature like Revolutionary Road, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises, romance brings to mind tales of flowers, chocolate, and chivalry told in disposable, mass-market weeklies and hackneyed movies starring the ingénue du jour. It strikes me as a dated, conservative notion that celebrates the heteronormative status quo of guy finds girl/guy sweeps girl off her feet/guy marries girl, in short, guy dominates girl. While I’m happy to argue the serious and literary merits of horror, science-fiction, and fantasy — by which I mean, the conventions of these tales not only entertain but provide grist for moral conundrums and all sorts of intellectually challenging problems — I never thought that a romance novel could carry the same heft.
The eponymous protagonist of Waldman’s novel would likely share my feelings in this regard. Nathaniel Piven, a thirtysomething novelist and critic living in Brooklyn, engages in witty verbal sparring and sharp philosophical debate with his friends — mostly male, hip young writers with Ivy League backgrounds and budding reputations in the New York literary world — in other words, people just like him. He has learned to date only women in publishing, young women intimately familiar with The New Yorker who, if they haven’t actually read Italo Svevo or Thomas Berhnard at least know who they are (“Zeno’s Conscience, right? Doesn’t James Wood, like, love that book?”). So I can’t imagine Nate being compelled by a novel about romance — and I feel I can imagine him quite well, because Waldman does such a superb job of conjuring him on the page.
Nate’s story is a relatively straightforward one to relate. At a party, he meets an attractive, intelligent woman named Hannah. They don’t talk much, but later she emails about some things Nate said about an article he’s working on, and though he’s not sure if he wants to get to know her better, he’s flattered and intrigued, and responds. Eventually, a relationship develops, but it’s not one that Nate is sure he wants to be in, for no reason other than that he’s not sure he wants a relationship, period.
So far, so good. But the real pleasure of Nate’s story, the aspect of this novel that just blew me away, comes from Waldman closely following his thoughts, the way in which she’s unafraid to break off narration or dialogue and dive into his consciousness. My favorite passages, some several pages long, focus solely on Nate’s brilliant, pathetic, self-conscious (to a degree), and wryly funny thought process.
When out on a midweek date with Hannah, his mood darkens as he imagines life stretching out before him, “Sitting across from Hannah at various tables, in various restaurants and bars […] Ad infinitum.” Waldman bears tightly down on this existential angst, tinting Nate’s very perceptions with it:
Though it was the last day of September, the evening was warm. Hannah had taken off her jacket. Underneath she was wearing a strappy tank top. It became her. She had nice shoulders. But when she moved her arms in emphasis of some point, Nate noticed that the skin underneath jiggled a little bit, like a much older woman’s. It was odd because she was quite fit. He felt bad for noticing and worse for being a little repelled. And yet he was transfixed. The distaste he felt, in its crystalline purity, was perversely pleasurable. He kept waiting for her to wave her arms again.
Disgusted and yet transfixed — Nate frequently vacillates between extremes. He seems almost unable to hold an opinion without also at least considering its opposite. Even — especially — when it comes to sex, or more generally, the body:
[Nate] had always had a hard time talking about sex. That is, he had no problem discussing sex in general terms or sex as an intellectual or psychological or historical concept. When he was younger, he had enjoyed discussing various real or ideal women’s bodies with his friends. But the other kind of sex talk, about what felt good and what didn’t — this thing of giving instructions, saying, “touch me this way,” “please do this, not that,” even “faster” or “harder” — he found, had always found, excruciating. The prospect made him feel lecherous and animalistic and most of all unsexy, as if whatever modicum of sexiness he possessed was derived from careful, curatorial self-presentation.
Nate comes across as a fully realized, vibrant character in part because he’s messy and inconsistent. He wants to be a nice guy, but he’s not always able to overcome his immature selfishness, and this dichotomy frustrates and confuses him, presenting a cage that he’s aware of, and that he made, but that he cannot escape. So while he resists his girlfriends (both past and present) and dreams of settling down in domestic bliss, he can’t quite bring himself to celebrate confirmed bachelorhood:
If only, like those cock-swinging writers of the last century — Mailer, Roth, et al. — he could see the satisfaction of his sexual desire as a triumph of spirit, the vital and needful assertion of a giant, powerful virility whose essence was intellectual as well as erotic. Either Nate was less poetic, unable to rise to such dazzling heights of imaginative fancy, altogether more pedestrian and earthbound — and no doubt he was — or he was less self-dramatizing. He didn’t, couldn’t, adorn his basic desire to get off, to squirt his stuff, with such baroque justification; so it was harder to see why his desire ought to trump everything else, trump women’s post-coital unhappiness.
The italics strike me as just right: Nate’s reducing sex to the simple exchange of viscous, genetically loaded fluid that many men agree it is, in a way both literary (notice the cadence of Waldman’s word choices, or the lovely irony of how Nate’s inability to rise to poetic heights is described in such rich imagery) and clear-headed. He can’t enjoy screwing women when he knows that there will be consequences afterward, if not for him, then for her. He’s a sensitive guy, kind of.
He is, as well, very contemporary. Nate likes sex and thinks about it frequently, but he also thinks about his thinking about sex, and is aware that the physical act carries emotional significance, even as some of those emotions remain mysterious to him. His own hostile resistance to committed relationships, for example, is something he just doesn’t get. Nor is his need for his friends to approve of his girlfriend — but perhaps not approve too much. And at times, his unconscious misogyny bubbles forth, such as when he hears Hannah talking about how, in high school, after sleeping with a football player, she consented to serially dating, and having sex with, many guys on the team:
It wasn’t just that [Nate] found Hannah’s blasé attitude toward her virginity sexy, the way atheism and Marxism and other such antiestablishment, intellectual isms are sexy in an attractive woman. It was something far more corrupt. The image of those empty-headed, teenage douche bags fucking Hannah, passing her around from one to the next, of her obliging them because she was nice, turned him on like porn turned him on. Her dumb naiveté, that bovine, Marilyn Monroe-like credulity, transformed her from the Hannah he knew to a girl who allowed herself to be used and shared, a stupid chick who ought to be fucked. And that night Nate fucked her, fucked that other Hannah.
This is painful because it resonates. The war between desires — what our gut wants, and what our head wants — is a powerful one, and takes no prisoners. Nate exists in a state of opposition and hypocrisy. He never thinks of himself as an asshole, even as he treats his girlfriends unjustly; in the same way he would surely call himself an enlightened guy, though he sometimes watches porn and lets its reductive, selfish, male-dominated, paradigm infect his thinking. Well, I’m guilty of the same sins, like so many guys of Nate’s generation and social ilk.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. paints a portrait of our current confusing, contradictory moment of masculine identity. Nate and his buddies talk about relationships, and analyze them — but men aren’t supposed to think, right? We’re supposed to act and fuck and settle down and be happy with our lot, or just say screw it and fuck whomever we want because that’s like flipping the finger to society’s conventions. Either way, we’re active, not discursive. On the page our emotional life is epitomized by minimalists like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. We don’t say much; you have to read between the lines, interpret the actions, or look for what’s not there.
But that style doesn’t reflect what guys of a certain bent and class are like anymore. Men today self-analyze and talk it out. We want to be macho, to a certain degree, but sensitive too, to a certain degree, and then we’re all confused and screwed up, and we want to be held, but goddammit, just don’t hold us down! It’s a mess, really, is what it is. And Waldman paints that conundrum in a full, rich palette — the small vanities, the conflicting sensibilities, the binary desires, in short, the complicated and uncomfortable state of contemporary masculinity for an erudite, urbane man in his 30s — with good humor and sentences that are often striking for their visual richness and acuity.
In many interviews (including one here on the Los Angeles Review of Books), Waldman has been asked about crossing gender lines and writing from a male point-of-view. (One wonders how often male authors — Jonathan Franzen, say, after Freedom — get asked about writing female characters.) I propose that Waldman’s adroit and insightful creation of a male consciousness comes precisely from writing with no masculine ego to worry about damaging. She can observe, report, and imagine without inhibition or insecurity — no one will think her any less of a man, no matter what she writes! She’s able to speak the truth because she has nothing to lose. And besides, the person on the outside looking in often observes what those inside are too close to notice.
As Hannah says to Nate, “‘People expect girls from good middle-class families to be smart — but what they mean by smart for a girl is to have nice handwriting and a neat locker and to do her homework on time. They don’t expect ideas or much in the way of real thought.’ She said, for her, writing had been a way to be heard.” In a way, the response to Waldman’s gender demonstrates the veracity of Hannah’s sentiment. A woman write insightfully about a man? Holy shit. How did she do that?
In an article on Slate about Jane Austen — and Austen is another smart, female author who, no matter how highly other writers (including the very masculine David Gates, a man whose literary opinions I hold in high regard) have sung her praises, I’ve never been able to get into because, you know, all the dippy sighing over handsome, brooding Mr. Darcy, all the romance — Waldman herself wrote: “[Austen’s] real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.”
And indeed, so does Waldman.