Book Review: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
by Adelle Waldman
Henry Holt, 2013
Adelle Waldman’s finely-polished debut The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. catches its title character, Nate Piven, at the first real upswing of his fortunes. After years of cobbling together a career as a Brooklyn book reviewer and freelance writer, he’s finally sold a novel and begun getting the kinds of ‘big subject’ magazine essay commissions that, he realizes, editors only give to writers who’ve already arrived. He’s moved out of his garret and into a better apartment, and he’s begun to use his newfound literary cachet to enhance his appeal to the ladies. His closely-narrated thoughts are filled with low-grade posturing, self-justification, and an endless, almost forensic cupidity
In short, he’s a boor. A schmendrik. In the parlance of the day, a douchebag.
He’s the type of arrogant, attractive young New York intellectual for whom literary activity (he mentions the long hard work he put into his novel, but we never even momentarily believe in it) has become a rote little distraction in the ongoing quest to get laid. He’s virtually a null set when interacting with men (“Why would a guy want to talk to him?” he asks himself, without a hint of understanding how damning such a question is), and his tiny sliver of success has made him even more of a ponce with women (“Not every woman he hooked up with liked him!”) than he was able to be back in his garret days. A former girlfriend calls him an asshole at the very beginning of the book, and a former girlfriend calls him an asshole at the very end of the book, and it’s thoroughly warranted both times. This is a Bildungsroman in which the ‘bildung’ has been cut out and replaced with back issues of The New York Review of Books.
The novel follows Nate from one sex partner to another as his book moves closer and closer to publication, and along the way, Waldman turns in several scenes of the Brooklyn literary world that are rife with brand name shout-outs and mildly bookish name-dropping. These scenes have prompted virtually every reviewer within a tri-state reach of Red Hook to claim the book is a “cringe-inducing satire,” that “faces must be red with embarrassed recognition,” that every bearded, hat-wearing Brooklynite wannabe novelist is “wincing” from Waldman’s spot-on satire. In every single published case of such faux-schadenfreude, the writer is obviously, glowingly proud of the attention, not galled by it, and the reason isn’t far to seek: Waldman’s spot-on satire is entirely free of barbs – and barbless satire is just a wimpy version of affection. In fact, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a love-letter to feckless self-absorption.
And not all parts of that love letter are equally lovable. In what Waldman would no doubt characterize as her earnest attempt to inhabit Nate’s mind-frame, the book abounds with a sexism that becomes increasingly hard to stomach. Whether it’s Hannah, the great love of Nate’s life (who, naturally, comes to consider him an asshole), brainlessly ruminating on whether fashion really has become more ironic lately:
Or does it just start to seem ironic as you get older, because you’ve seen all the trends come and go, and you can no longer take them seriously? You’ve watched the waistlines of jeans move up, up, up and then down, down, down and now up again. And the glasses! They got smaller and smaller until it seemed like you needed glasses just to see your glasses, and then, boom, one day they are all of a sudden big and owlish again? But maybe to twenty-year-old, who haven’t become jaded by this cycle, those big glasses just look cool? Not ironic, but just nice, the way people our age genuinely thought tapered jeans looked nice in the nineties?
Or Amy Perelman, once an erotic fixation of Nate’s and now a clueless investment banker so leadenly uninterested in anything even remotely intellectual that Nate must keep re-injecting his bragging into her droning monologue:
It didn’t help that she failed to pick up on his relative success in life. When he’d seen Amy last, he was a struggling freelance writer who lived in a tiny garrett in Brooklyn. “Not much has changed,” he told her now, although, he added quietly, he did have a book coming out shortly. She responded as if she didn’t really get it, a bland “That’s great.” Maybe she thought he was self-publishing or something?
At what passes for the book’s climactic scene, when he confesses to Hannah “Sometimes I think I’ve lost something … Some capacity to be with another person, something I used to have,” she comes back at him immediately with, “Ah, the self-deprecating dude routine … ‘What a lovable fuck-up I am.’ The annoying thing is that it makes you look good, but it doesn’t get me anything.” And she ends up being right: the routine doesn’t get her anything. But it doesn’t stop either.
Most insulting of all is Greer, a young woman whose sex-book commanded an enormous advance and with whom Nate drifts into a relationship despite the fact that she’s described as having the mental development of a bright six-year-old:
Like a finely honed sports car, her mind wasn’t weighted down with unnecessary encumbrances, but she was naturally gifted in the dialectical mode of argument, quick to point out the holes in your logic and to come back with counterarguments. When dialectic failed her, she had at her disposal another powerful tool: tears. This rhetorical device she considered perfectly legitimate: tears fell under the rubric of sincerity.
(She’s also compared to an exotic plant, naturally).
That Nate’s book-long frustrations about dating allegedly smart women eventually prompt him to enter into a long-term relationship with a woman who’s described as basically a yellow lab is not only the book’s strongest stink-bomb but also its last – readers leave its pages with the sure conviction that although Brooklyn literary guys may be narcissistic twerps with no personal integrity, at least they’re a hell of a lot better than Brooklyn literary gals. Nate reflects: “He thought women were every bit as intelligent as men … They were as capable of rational thought; they just didn’t appear to be as interested in it.”
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is written from first to last with sharp, quotable intelligence. But to put it mildly, Adelle Waldman now owes the sisterhood a book.