A young Brooklyn literary man might not seem like a promising subject for a novel. To satirize him would be so easy as to be unfeasible; to treat his pretensions earnestly would yield a book that only the author’s friends would want to read, and then only to see whether they’re in it. To learn that the author is a woman might make the book more appealing, but still gives little sense of the excellence of Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., one of the most incisive psychological portraits in years.
When we first meet Nate Piven—a young Brooklynite soon to publish his first novel—he is late to an ex-girlfriend’s dinner party. To make matters worse, he runs into a woman who recently got an abortion after he impregnated her. To make matters worse still, this woman seems to want to have a conversation—an actual conversation, rather than the gaudily superficial blather that Nate offers (“You look terrific”; “How’s the Journal?”; “you do look great”—the way that Waldman captures the violently dismissive ways we often use words like “terrific” and “great” is, for lack of better words, terrific and great.) When, in exasperation, this woman calls Nate an “asshole” and turns away, he is left wondering exactly how anyone might dislike him. Him, a man so virtuous as to feel guilty about the gentrification of Brooklyn, a man so sensitive to contemporary mores that “even though she had more money than he did, he had paid for the abortion.”
At the dinner party, he strikes up a conversation with Hannah, a “thin, pert-breasted writer,” who is “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice.” They send emails back and forth, flirting beneath the fig leaf of an erudite conversation about economic morality, and soon they find themselves in a cab back to her place. (“He had a Pavlovian reaction to cabs. He rarely took them except on his way to bed with a new girl.”)
Nate and Hannah spend “weeks that ran together in what seemed like a near-continuous stream of conversation and sex, punctuated by bouts of sleep and work.” That’s great until it leads to a relationship, which for Nate is not unlike a book deal: something to be excited about for a few weeks before ennui sets in, and something to anxiously compare to those of his friends. Nate passively picks a long, exquisitely rendered fight about whether to have brunch with a friend from out-of-town, and then flatters himself that he is put-upon when Hannah reacts in a way that is more superficially unreasonable; he spends a double-date worrying about whether his friend’s girlfriend is a more or less desirable commodity than Hannah. Never losing sight of the fact that Nate thinks of himself as a good guy, Waldman shows us how he manages to be shallow by congratulating himself for not being shallow:
“When, finally dividing up the check, Nate happened to catch a sidelong glance at Cara. He was momentarily struck by how good-looking she was. But then Mark had always been a very shallow guy in terms of women. Suddenly, it occurred to him that Mark could very well feel sorry for him, just because technically Cara was better-looking than Hannah (although Hannah was, as far as he was concerned, far more appealing). Still, it was a weird thought, and he pushed it aside”
Things between Nate and Hannah get grimmer from there, and the fights they have are sometimes as painful to read as those between Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, with both of them saying crueler things than their self-images as nice people might allow. The difference between them is that Hannah seems to use the fights to try to improve their relationship, while Nate mostly wants to go to sleep, thinking that he will do better “next time” and that he will devote attention to improving things “later.” Mostly, as above, when he has an unpleasant thought, he pushes it aside.
As the novel progresses, Nate’s thoughts about Hannah grow alarmingly hateful, but Waldman is too subtle a writer to allow her protagonist to behave in any melodramatically misogynistic fashion, or in any way that cannot later be rationalized, or at least forgotten. What he says out loud—at least to Hannah—is not, for the most part, offensive. It’s merely empty. Unlike Frank and April Wheeler, Nate and Hannah do not have children, so they do not destroy anyone else. They don’t even destroy themselves. In their post-novel lives, they will both probably do “great,” “terrific,” or at least “fine.” But that doesn’t mean that what happens between them is not at the very least a small tragedy.
In an astute, generally laudatory 2008 New Republic essay on Revolutionary Road, Waldman argues that that novel is imperfect because it “poises uneasily on the brink of satire, wanting to its detriment to have it both ways—the psychological sophistication of realism and the mercilessness of satire, granting nothing to its characters that isn’t either corrosive or affect.” I would disagree with her that this is a flaw. Perhaps what is most surprising and richest about psychological realism is how agnostic the form is on authorial temperament. Once a writer has done the nearly impossible work of showing us our own thoughts on the page, we tend to follow his or her moral conclusions anywhere, even when we know better and would rather not. Yates’ unrelieved bleakness overpowers us, and so—deny it though we may—does the late dip into schmaltz of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In this novel, Waldman opts for an ambiguous melancholy that stays in the mind for days, particularly after a second reading. It will be interesting to see where she takes us over the novels that come next. It is early in her career, and the great (actually great, not just “great”) tradition of the psychological novel is now unmistakably in her hands.