The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Almost a decade ago at the National Book Festival, Tom Wolfe, the father of the so-called "New Journalism," hit the bookish crowd-surrounded, as it happened that day, by anti-war marchers-over the head with his familiar refrain that young novelists should quit staring at their own navels and go out into the world to look for signs of "status." The small details that reveal status and open up otherwise-closed worlds are key to Wolfe's Zola-derived idea of literature. Perhaps his novels have all been relatively disastrous failures, but every novelist of manners knows the value of a well-observed status detail.
The Baltimore-born novelist and journalist Adelle Waldman's first book, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., takes up an interesting version of Wolfe's challenge: She turns her gaze toward the status symbols of the navel-gazing literary set in Brooklyn. I know, fucking barf: another book about Ivy League trust-funders living in the land of the 1 percent and wringing their hands about how the part of Brooklyn they moved to way back in, like, 2003 is now gentrified.
Honestly, this initially turned me off and kept me from reading the book. Certainly part of me, the part a sophisticated Brooklynite would call oh-so-provincial, felt that Brooklyn is in fact the least interesting place on earth and a young writer the least interesting subject, especially the romantic entanglements of a young writer. I mean, there are so many books I'd like to review, why would I waste my time-and yours-with one that seems, on the surface, to amount to little more than literary gossip transformed into a novel?
Of course, the other thing one hears about this book, as a sort of reverse Madame Bovary, is the way that Waldman-a woman!-gets inside the head of a male character to detail all the dickishness of the supposedly sensitive, young American male in the 21st century. Again: It is no news-flash that most young men are, if not outright abusers, dicks to the women who date them in a million small ways.
Getting past all of these prejudices, I started to read the book and was immediately struck by Waldman's brilliance as a novelist of manners, a sort of Edith Wharton of our own Gilded Age 2.0. Part of what makes her portrait so sharp is the way that the sexual and social mores of her characters are so infiltrated by the same distaste that had kept me from the book in the first place. Not only does she find the symbols of status in the capital of cool, but she notes, witheringly, how part of the status comes from being aware and wary of the status symbols that invest meaning in one's own life, as if Wolfe's sincere cry for reportage has been cross-pollinated (at a local organic greenhouse) with David Foster Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," which argued, back in 1993, that television had already colonized the irony that had helped previous generations of writers stay fresh. When the titular Nate tries to apologize to Hannah, the book's other main character, Hannah pulls on every Will Ferrell movie ever and replies: "Ah, the self-deprecating dude routine . . . 'What a loveable fuck-up I am.' The annoying thing is that it makes you look good but doesn't get me anything."
Every play has already been played-and yet they must go on. This hyper-awareness cloaks an acute lack of awareness throughout the book, creating a fascinating frisson. It has been a while since I have read anyone as good at detailing the minute thoughts going on during a romantic argument. There is something positively Proustian to the ruses of conscience one finds in the book, which is then doubly funny and ironized: Throughout the book, Nate is writing an essay on the "commodification of conscience." (Waldman even picks at herself a bit; Nate's novel finally gets off the ground when he realizes it should not be a portrait of a young artist but should focus instead on his immigrant parents.)
But I feel I've been dodging what for many is the main point. I was recently asked by the leader of a book group, how I felt about this book "as a man." In many ways, Hannah is correct when she describes Nate's erotic interest as "the affliction of shallow morons everywhere," i.e. "wanting what you can't have."
Nate is not a shallow moron, though. He may find himself unintentionally disgusted at a bit of loose flesh hanging from a lover's arm-but then he feels bad about it. Or he may look at the ass of a passing woman, but, again, he is aware he is doing it and feels guilty. Katie Roiphe wrote an essay for the New York Times where she lamented that contemporary male novelists are afraid to write about sex in the way that Philip Roth or John Updike or Henry Miller once did. "The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex," Roiphe wrote. Despite his occasional leer, uncharitable thought, or viewing of internet porn, Nate is one of these new, neutered males. All of his small selfish acts and reflections are spot-on-I can say this as a continually reforming selfish asshole-but none of his sexual reactions strike one as realistic. He never once mentions a vagina or an anus or bodily fluids (he does use the word "cunt" at the end, in a moment of rage rather than sex) and instead, only vaguely, if rather often, thinks of a woman "going down" on him or, more explicitly, finding his "penis in her mouth."
These are clearly the sexual thoughts of a male as seen by a female-or as told to a female by one of these new prude male writers. The only sexual scene that has any sense of specificity or realism comes when Hannah asks him how he would like her to blow him. He says nothing, but he thinks about it in very vivid detail, the kind of removed detail that would be more familiar to someone who sucks cock than someone who has it sucked. The whole point of the scene is that Nate is, in fact, unable to talk about sex. Which is telling, because, while male novelists are afraid to write about sex, their female counterparts are tearing it up. Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?, Jamie Quatro's I Want to Show You More, and even Lena Dunham's HBO show Girls are far more explicit-and gorgeously ugly- than the pusillanimous work of writers like Nate. It may not be an accident that Nate's main love interest shares a name with the protagonist of Girls.
That Nate eventually ends up with Greer, a woman who wrote a "sex book" that he finds shallow and distasteful, is also telling. His squeamishness about the female body is the other side of his overly critical eye, which unwittingly catalogs every flaw or failure.
This is where Waldman's two themes come together: Nate's consciousness-especially of sex and women-has ultimately been gentrified (if not commodified). His perceptions of sex are the equivalent of high-end comfort food at quaint new bars designed to look like dives. But for all of Waldman's genius in satirizing Brooklyn and a generation of smart, clueless, and ultimately milquetoast men, the satire ultimately becomes stultifying, and I found myself wishing for a little more of Greer's frank sexuality and a little less of Nate's fusty and calculated pussy-footing.