Sympathy for Nathaniel P.


As presumably the last Brooklyn-dwelling woman of a certain demographic to have read Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., recently issued in paperback and blessed with an ebook prequel, I had no doubt that I would love it. And I did. I polished off the short novel in well under 48 hours. But apart from my enjoyment of it, I had a somewhat different reaction to Nathaniel P. than I’d expected. For over a year, the book was sold to me, by critics and by friends, as a stinging indictment of the Brooklyn literary bro. Certainly, that’s part of it. What surprised me, though — as someone who isn’t known for her generosity towards bros of any stripe — was how often I was shocked to find myself sympathizing with protagonist Nate Piven, a character whose name has already become synonymous in some circles of women with intellectual men of the most irritating variety.

Oh, there were times when I hated him, for gawking at other women while out on a date or not calling or relying on his girlfriend’s support while writing, then abandoning her. In fact, I’m certain that I hated him more often than I liked him. But it’s to Waldman’s credit that she isn’t just a brutal satirist and keen observer — she’s an author who truly thinks through her character’s motivations, tracking not just how her protagonist rationalizes his sometimes-reprehensible behavior, but how mood and circumstance change those justifications. She even gives him a few genuinely admirable attributes. And occasionally, in the midst of a self-righteous internal monologue, Nate makes a point that resonates. Consider this tirade against the truly unfair expectation that everyone needs to be in a relationship:

Perhaps the salient issue was not why but simply that he didn’t want to be in a relationship. His work fulfilled him, and his friends provided all the conversation and companionship that he needed. Was this so wrong? Why do women get away with pathologizing men for not wanting girlfriends? There are entire Web sites written by supposedly smart, “independent” women who make no bones about calling such men immature at best, assholes at worst…. But what right do they have to demonize a counterpreference? If Nate’s idea of a nice dinner involved hunching over his kitchen table with a Celeste Pizza for One and a copy of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, who is to say that his ideal is worse?

There’s something persuasive about Nate’s love of literature, and his seriousness about his own work, that tempers my exasperation with his caddishness — even when he lets all that slip in favor of more frivolous pursuits (don’t we all, sometimes?). Of course, he screws it up big-time between the above ellipses, with a gender-essentialist rant claiming that, unlike many men, all women actually do want commitment:

Nate wanted to argue, if only he had someone to argue with, that women want to be in relationships because on a gut level they don’t like being alone. They aren’t noble, high-minded individuals, concerned about the well-being of the nation or the continuity of the species. They simply swoon at images of cooking dinner together, of some loving boyfriend playfully swatting their ass with a dishtowel while the two of them chop vegetables and sip wine and listen to NPR (preferably in a jointly owned prewar apartment with an updated kitchen). And that’s their prerogative.

Much later in the book, Nate’s female friend Aurit, a smart and opinionated writer who never hesitates to judge his romantic choices harshly, provides her own take on men’s vs. women’s need for relationships:

[Aurit] was railing about a guy who had broken up with her. She felt he was mistaken about what he wanted. She said that men and women both need relationships just as badly; men just don’t know it. They misattribute their unhappiness to other causes, which is frustrating for women, who watch men make choices that harm both of them. Nate had argued that the word need loses its meaning if you define it that way. If you think you don’t want to be in a relationship, and find happiness in other things like friends of work, how can anyone claim that you’re suffering from a deep-seated longing to be in a relationship?

Aurit is a more sympathetic character than Nate, but her pronouncements about men — and scrutiny of Nate in particular — are, if not as infuriating, just as driven by her own interests as the self-serving thoughts running through his brain. The tragedy is that these supposedly conflicting agendas are what really keep the novel’s men and women from hearing each other. They make each of Nathaniel P.‘s characters a different mix of wonderful and terrible, honest and deluded, real deal and fraud. And most importantly, Waldman’s understanding of them makes her the perfect chronicler of a community where ruthless ambition and genuine artistic talent share such close quarters.