Dark Comedy

How to Get Laid in Brooklyn a la Adelle Waldman’s Nifty Novel of Manners

Adelle Waldman’s novel ‘The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.’ brilliantly portrays and often eviscerates a goatish, ambitious author and his ilk.

Nathaniel Piven is a Harvard-educated, 30-year-old temp worker, freelance book reviewer, and full-time player in the Brooklyn dating game. Despite getting lucky with a sizeable advance for his forthcoming first novel, Nate wishes he could be like “those cock-swinging writers” Mailer and Roth of an earlier time. But Nate is the product of a politically correct education and wants to have sex with similarly educated women in publishing, so he torments himself with scruples that never lead to changed behavior but do produce some of the most sophisticated (and comic) rationalizing since Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert defended child-molesting in Lolita.

When The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was published last July, it was designated a “Hot Read” here at The Daily Beast. In December, former editor Lucas Wittmann called the novel the “best debut” of the year, and in the Beast’s aggregated list of other publications’ year-end best-fiction surveys The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. tied for fifth with more votes than, for example, National Book Award finalists by Pynchon and Lahiri. But if you read only this website, you never saw a review. Adele Waldman’s book having now come out in paperback, we’re making amends to her and to all those women afflicted in the meantime by Nates. Yes, “nates” is another word for buttocks, and Waldman’s characters belatedly conclude he’s an “ass.”

In the opening scene, Nate runs into Juliet, whose abortion he paid for after only three or four dates. She’s angry he has called only once and he’s guilty about not being sensitive, but he rushes away from her to a party at a former girlfriend’s where he meets his future girlfriend, both of whom also experience Nate’s bad behavior if not his gymnastic self-justifications. Nate’s thinking is so cleverly sophistical that a man might sympathize with him. Several of the women characters do. Even the author seems to! And this sympathy or its near simulacrum is how Waldman succeeds at telling her story through Nate’s point of view. A character tells him, “Don’t be an unreliable narrator.” If Nate were a first-person narrator, he might get away with his good-guy self-defenses or maybe make himself a hero of style like Humbert. But using third-person narration, Waldman allows Nate just enough rope to hang himself but not enough to swing off to safety like some Park Slope Tarzan. Given what Waldman “reports” of Nate’s life, she is a heroine of forbearance. That could be the reason male, as well as female, reviewers praised her book.

At a weak moment, Nate worries that he’s “girly.” This may be why he discards women who come to seem “aggressive” or powerful, and also, not quite paradoxically, why he is both drawn to and irritated by women who are as insecure as he is in his set of Brooklyn writers. Or it’s possible that he projects his vulnerability upon the women, which gives him a convenient out when his sexual interest fades. The novel’s talk-sex-talk plot traces these psychological quirks and binds in Nate’s four-month relationship with Hannah, a 30ish writer without a book or even a book proposal. She’s attractive (if not conventionally beautiful), witty, and confident. But after she moves from possible “hook up” to “date” and then to “girlfriend,” Nate starts to feel restless and invents reasons for his dissatisfaction, which he subtly communicates to her, which makes her anxious and “needy,” which leads—this is no spoiler because Nate is supremely predictable—to their breakup and to his rebound relationship that I won’t reveal. Waldman retains at least the illusion of sympathy throughout, giving Nate at the end just whom and what he thinks he wants, even if she and we know better.

Most of last summer’s reviewers praised The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. as a comedy of manners, a millennial Austen’s survey of postmodern mating among the expensively educated young creatives of Brooklyn. I’m closer to being carbon dated than I am to the dating scene of the novel, but from the conversations I overhear on subways and in restaurants in the borough, Waldman has her rather narrow demographic’s rituals dead to rites. She fillets several men who are less decent than Nate, and uses her women characters—his post-college girlfriend, Kristen, now a doctor and married, his former girlfriend, Elisa, who still wants to be friends, Greer Cohen, who uses her sexuality to get a bigger advance than Nate—to show Nate at his charming best and creepy worst. Despite the limitations of Nate’s point of view, the author also finds ways to dramatize Hannah as a substantial—and not wholly blameless—character. I expect there’s a lot of wishful thinking by women in Greenpoint and Prospect Heights that The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a roman a clef and that they are the real Hannah or, better yet, the real Aurit who knows Nate best and therefore knows better than to date him.

Aurit is, Nate thinks, “one of the smartest women” he’s ever met but a person, he says, who makes up intellectual defenses of her personal preoccupations—which is to say she’s Nate’s double. She’s also the figure with whom Waldman nudges readers to see her novel as more than high-IQ chick lit or vengeful dick lit. Aurit tells Nate, “Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is …. It’s meritocracy applied to personal life, but there’s no accountability.” Aurit knows how Nate and, perhaps, some male readers will respond to her claim for dating—“But who cares, right? It’s just girl stuff.”—but Waldman shows how dating is a metaphor for the freelancer life of Nate and other characters and, further, how freelancing represents a large swath of 21st-century employment for her characters’ cohort.

On a date in Bryant Park, Nate mentions William Whyte, author of The Organization Man and later a student of intimate urban life. Whyte warned about the conformity demanded by corporations in the ’50s, how employees sacrificed individuality for security. Characters in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. are “The Contingent Man and Woman.” Few of them have positions or even jobs. If they do, the jobs are low-level, part-time, temporary, insecure, and require supplementing with freelancing. Like singles in bars and cafes, the freelance writers must make their pitches, rely on their status and self-promotion for continued assignments, and please editors who, because of the oversupply, have no need for a permanent “relationship” or marriage of true minds. It’s Williamsburg Ivy entitlement up against Manhattan MBA outsourcing, and as Aurit says, there’s no accountability and plenty of arbitrariness. (Partial disclosure: I’m an unworried freelance writer because I have the luxuries of a pension and a working spouse.)

If dating is a metaphor for independent contracting, contingent economic existence also makes literal dating more fraught, for the characters lack basic security. Aurit’s “meritocracy of personal life” has everyone anxious and Waldman sympathetic. Even Nate with his book advance worries before his novel comes out what he will do for a second book because publishers have no loyalty to their authors. Waldman’s novel is not, though, a lament for the poor, underappreciated literary novelist. Instead she shows how persons in their 20s and 30s trying to break into the hypercompetitive knowledge industry must be novelists of themselves, creating (like Nate) likable personas, using social media to edit and promote these personas, constantly checking their audience’s likes and retweets for signs of success and status. These crafters of personal brands are the new Brooklyn Willy Lomans with only themselves to sell.

Nate thinks of himself as “deep,” but his creator is more profound because she understands that the danger of careerist self-fashioning is the aestheticizing of personal relations. Nate has a biological and acculturated appreciation of beautiful women. Aurit dislikes “ugly” men. Fine. But Nate goes beyond physical appearances and “appraises”—a frequent word in the novel—strangers, male friends, and girlfriends as “interesting” or “boring,” as if humans were exhibits in a living gallery. He initially appreciates Hannah for being “more like an aesthete than an educator,” but eventually decides their relation won’t work because, among other reasons, the flesh on her upper arm jiggles and she wears unflattering jeans. Although Nate likes to think of himself as moral, his judgments of both women and men are ultimately aesthetic. If I may be allowed a bit of freelancer self-promotion here, the first responders to The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. generally did not realize that Nate stands for more than boorish, unacknowledged male sexism but represents a way of judging others rife among both women and men.

Waldman provides readers a context for “appraising” Nate’s way of thinking with quotations from two 19th-century writers concerned with the moral and the aesthetic—George Eliot and Henry James. Aurit quotes from Middlemarch to predict that Nate will end up, like that novel’s Lydgate, with “the dumb blonde,” a dishonest memoirist who sees writing as a “way of monetizing her charisma.” Nate uses for his own purposes a quote from “the amoral Madame Merle” in The Portrait of a Lady where James, like Waldman, writes from the perspective of a character of the opposite gender. James’ protagonist, the fiction-influenced and ambitious Isabel Archer, wants a “beautiful” life and chooses for her husband the interesting aesthete Gilbert Osmond, who turns out to be even more amoral than his former lover, Madame Merle. In Waldman’s interviews after the publication of her novel, she consistently praised 19th-century novelists for their explorations of “moral life.” Her characters write theses on Baudrillard and read or pretend to read Bernhard, but Waldman puts her people in what might be called an old-fashioned novel if it were not so up-to-the-minute in its hipster settings, cool accessories, and café cant. Like novels of classic realism, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. demonstrates with admirable subtlety the effects of economic circumstances on social life, intimate relations, and moral choices.

Austen, Eliot, and James sometimes complemented their essential seriousness with humorous minor characters and subplots. Waldman overlays her comic situations and satiric conversations with ironic literary allusions and witty wordplay. The title seems to echo “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock prepares “a face to meet the faces that you meet” but never sings his song; image conscious Nathaniel P. never really has a “love affair.” Nate several times refers to Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, a novel about an extremely self-deluded man, but perhaps Nate didn’t read it or read it obtusely. Waldman’s Greer Cohen seems to be named after Germaine Greer, and Ms. Cohen is no female eunuch. Nate is pleased to learn that Hannah reads Nabokov, but Nate himself is a bit fuzzy on the master aesthete’s work. The most cynical male in the novel calls Nate “Miss Lonelyhearts,” though Nate displays little of the compassion that drives Nathanael West’s protagonist crazy. Although Nathaniel knows he has the name of a great American novelist, everyone shortens it to Nate with its associations of “natal” and, as I’ve said, buttocks. Like Nate, the novel is literarily self-conscious, but Nate often reads to show off. Waldman uses her reading to show up her protagonist’s pretensions and, perhaps, call out authors of what she calls “lad lit”—the male founders of the intellectually hip Brooklyn journal N + 1, particularly Keith Gessen, whose All the Sad Young Literary Men has a character named Mark whose treatment of women Nate’s behavior resembles.

In the coils of Nate’s consciousness when I first read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., I confess I didn’t fully appreciate Waldman’s intellectual reach and artistic ingenuity, how her novel about one man’s dating history could represent economic, social, moral, and aesthetic issues while maintaining an amusing surface and bemused tone. Thanks to the paperback edition, I’m no longer an obtuse male like Nate. Or at least not obtuse about The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.