Fiction

Inside the mind of a modern man

 

What, exactly, does the intellectual rising star Nathaniel Piven want from women?

Bright young men, do you feel that chilly wind of exposure? Somehow, Adelle Waldman has stolen your passive-aggressive playbook and published it in her first novel. You’ll want to tell your female friends that you’ve heard it’s not very good. Mutter something about how condescending it is to women. In the bookstore, reshelve copies back in the “Gardening” section.

An overreaction? I don’t think so. My daughter just graduated from college, but her education won’t be complete till she’s studied Waldman’s brilliant taxonomy of homo erectus brooklynitis. I’m making her read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. in exchange for paying off her student loans. Waldman offers a delectable analysis of contemporary dating among literary wannabes. You might think it’d be easier to find a parking space in Manhattan than to say anything new about that subject, but this dark comedy delivers one prickling insight after another.

Like an episode of Girls, this svelte novel moves through a series of loosely structured conversations — in an apartment, at a trendy restaurant, on the way to the subway. Unlike an episode of Girls, though, Waldman’s novel concentrates on the experiences of a young man. Nathaniel Piven is an ambitious intellectual, a few years out of Harvard (which he finds some humble way to drop into every conversation). Naturally, “the well-groomed, stylishly clad, expensively educated women of publishing found him appealing.” He writes book reviews and cultural criticism for Very Important Magazines, and he’s just sold a book for a six-figure advance, which gives him extra cachet amid this tiny subspecies of New Yorkers who chart each other’s ascendancy with the solemnity of Renaissance astronomers.

I don’t want to give the misimpression that there’s anything trite or grasping about him. Waldman’s hero is a perfectly upstanding guy. “Nathaniel Piven,” she tells us at the opening, “was a 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.” That noisy conscience, the epitome of modern “latte liberalism,” is the real subject of this novel. Nate feels guilty about almost everything: about homeless people on the street; about black janitors cleaning up after him; about taking the earned income tax credit, “since it was clearly intended for real poor people, not Harvard grads.” But Waldman demonstrates that all his ready guilt is really a kind of salve for a man who’s impenetrably selfish. In his mind, low-level remorse has become a viable substitute for actual reformation.

We first meet Nate when he runs into an old girlfriend who tells him off, even though “he had done everything that could have been expected of him.” Her animus is a mystery to him, deeply troubling. “Contrary to what these women seemed to think,” Waldman writes, “he was not indifferent to their unhappiness. And yet he seemed, in spite of himself, to provoke it.” Over the next 200 pages, Waldman shows why.

The novel concentrates on one promising relationship with an attractive freelance writer named Hannah. We see them meet, date and become a couple, but the real action of the novel remains in Nate’s analytical mind, his tireless attention to the filament of desire. Falling in love is so lovely, but this is a time-elapse photo of the bouquet withering. “When you’re single,” Nate thinks, “your weekend days are wide-open vistas that extend in every direction; in a relationship, they’re like the sky over Manhattan: punctuated, hemmed in, compressed.”

Waldman’s finest work here is letting us see the first spores of mold settle on Nate’s heart. Panicked, he grows cold; confronted, he apologizes. Rinse and repeat in a pose of perfect reasonableness until his lover is reduced to a madwoman whose fury and tears he can pity and forgive — and abandon.

Neither chick lit nor lad lit, The Love Affairs presents a series of scenes that lay out exactly what’s so maddening about this young man — and many of the grasping, self-absorbed women who throw up their hands at him. Waldman has captured a whole group of privileged people who’ve been seduced into believing that their choice of a spouse is just one more consumer purchase.

Handling them this wittily and wisely, Waldman attains something like the universal truths an older female writer articulated by recording the antics of a group of genteel folk in early 19th century Bath. How far have we come in the 50 years since John Updike’s Rabbit bounded across America, satisfying his appetites, nursing his hurt feelings and offering up his glib apologies?

In a dead suburb of Pennsylvania or the hippest neighborhood of Brooklyn, he still runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

Women, let him go.

Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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