The narcissistic mind and ‘Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.’
Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” chronicles just that: Nathaniel Piven’s love affairs. Nate lives in Brooklyn. He’s a writer. The constant portrayal of Brooklyn in the media has made the New York borough ubiquitous. Despite this crisis of setting, Waldman has an uncanny way of getting into the mind — and cold heart — of Nate. And although the novel is about his love affairs in Brooklyn, this is really a novel that reveals — astutely — how Nate thinks.
Nate is a Harvard grad, the son of Eastern European immigrants who have high expectations for him. Though he is accruing accomplishments — he reviews often for an unnamed important literary journal, and he has a lucrative book contract for a novel being published by a prestigious, unnamed publisher — his financial life, as with his romantic life, is unstable.
Nate lives in post-college squalor: “his apartment was like an ungroomed human body…" It is from this home base that he moves through a host of women: from wholesome Kristen to false, beautiful Elisa to insecure Juliet, whom he got pregnant, to the intellectually satisfying journalist Hannah to the emotional, hysterical memoirist Greer.
Nate is a classic narcissist; in addition to his need of praise, his self-belief, his jealousy of his friends, he is painfully aware of his impression upon others. The way the people in his life — his college roommate, his distant mother — view him is paramount. His hyper-awareness is exhausting, bringing to mind the fragile consciousness of Sylvia Plath and the “peanut-crunching crowd” she writes of in her journals.
Despite the diary-like feel to the prose, it seems that the third person narrator knows more about Nate than Nate does: “Nathaniel Piven was a product of a post-feminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct 1990s education. He had learned all about male privilege.” Despite Waldman’s oft-compassionate take on Nate, lines such as this make it difficult to discern whether she is skewering or celebrating her hero.
The plot of “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” is rather thin — there is little propelling the story forward — but the book is an exacting character study and Waldman an excellent and witty prose stylist. She gets at the ebb and flow of relationships, as when Nate and Hannah are about to split up and then, after downing a late night bourbon, in a single moment they are closer than ever before. These scenes unfurl slowly, organically, replicating how our feelings can move to intense extremes in a single moment.
In the course of the novel, we get Nate’s thoughts on women ("…treading on weakness is exactly what dating felt like, with so many of these women — with their wide-open hopefulness, their hunger for connection and blithe assumption that men wanted it just as badly”, on himself ("..he was a man with a book deal”), and his opinions on everything from women’s rights to the gentrification of Brooklyn to breakfast cereal. He is a frog in a wax tray, sliced open and pinned back, his innermost private thoughts on display for inspection by the reader.
The novel bears uncomfortably close comparison to Keith Gessen’s “All the Sad Young Literary Men,” a recent novel that serves up a similar striver. But one of the elements setting “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” apart is Waldman’s gender, and praise is due for the astute way she manages the thinking process of someone who is not built exactly like her. But does the fact that the author is a woman change our reading of Nate? Does it make the reader more curious or compassionate toward him than it would if this personality were being served to us a by a male writer?
Whatever the case, although we know who Nate is, there is very little at stake for him. Even those small tensions that could create suspense are stricken from the narrative: Nate has signed his coveted book contract before the novel begins. Its publication is a nonevent. And it’s hard to pull for any of the women, as we get the sense that, no matter what, Nate will find a mate and then let her go.
It is Hannah who takes up most of this novel’s real estate and most of Nate’s attention — we see the duration of their relationship on the page, as opposed to flashbacks of his previous romances, and his final liaison, still in play, which is skimmed over at a manic pace. But it is unclear why Nate loved Hannah and whether her mark has, in fact, been imprinted upon him.
Readers may resist or relent to the impulse to peg the actual identities of the characters, the venerable magazines, the real-life restaurants. Such vagueness, when set in relief to the sharp focus of Nate’s rich and problematic insides, transforms the novel into a puzzle of who and what and where. But that puzzle can distract from what Waldman does offer on the page.
Is Nate’s great love ever identified? How does he find the best and least damaging way of pleasing himself? One must read the magical ending to understand that although his thoughts on women will leave many outraged, his dissected frog’s heart still beats.
Gilmore is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Mothers.”
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Henry Holt & Co.: 256 pp., $25
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