Monday, June 30, 2014

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. - Adelle Waldman (2013)

I was on a doc review project in the Willis Tower for about six weeks in May and June of 2014. Now we are always told by doc review agencies never to browse the web while we are working. I find it hard to believe that anyone actually follows this rule. On a previous project I was paid $16.50 an hour, and for that, I felt it was my duty to browse as often as possible. This recent one paid a fair rate of $25.00 (some still believe that fair is $30) so I was more wary of that rule. I indulged in reading a fair number of book reviews, among other things (but this post isn't a special comment about the vaguely disregarded notion of web browsing at work), and found the book reviews done by Entertainment Weekly to be fun, because they give everything a grade. The reviews themselves cannot hold a candle to what I do here (they are too short and limited in scope) but they seem to have a unified concept of what makes for good literature. (The only “A+” review I saw was for Building Stories by Chris Ware, and truly that looks like an A+ “book.”) 

Naturally, I wanted to see if I had "gotten in right” with The Circle. They gave it a B+, which is about what I would give it, and they said it was “about fifty pages too long,” which I basically implied. Intriguingly, they gave The Goldfinch a B-, which heartened me some, though now I feel obligated to read it. I kept looking through 2013 reviews, vaguely hoping that I would find the book I was currently reading. And there it was! Apparently The Love of Affairs of Nathaniel P. was a big enough deal at the time of publication that EW ran a review of it. Almost a year ago, they gave it a B-. Strangely, they seem to indicate that it’s pretty well-written, but there’s nothing revelatory about it. While I agree to a certain extent, I would have to say it is better than a B-. I would give it a B+. I would say it is not quite as good as Taipei, but was a good “companion piece” to it, as my review of that book led to this recommendation.

Before I get into the plot (which is super easy to tell), I considered this book something of a challenge. I have had a problem in finding female writers that I enjoy. Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorites, but there just haven’t been many others that have moved me. I can’t pin this down because I don’t want to sound like a misogynist, but I’m afraid it’s inevitable. The challenge for me was to read this book and see if I called “bullshit” on it with regard to the depiction of how men view relationships. I could not do that. This book is better than that. I am sure that there is plenty of “chick-lit” that could get me really pissed off, but this book did not make me throw it down in anger and shout, “You’re wrong about us!”

Nathaniel P., always referred to as Nate, is a writer in Brooklyn who has just gotten an advance for his first book, which is loosely based on his parents’ experience of living as immigrants in the U.S. We first see him run into an ex-girlfriend, Juliet, on the street. She had needed to get an abortion and Nate paid for it. He never really talked to her again after he paid for it, and she is clearly upset over this. He then goes to a party at the home of another ex-girlfriend, Elisa. There he meets Hannah, whom he will eventually date. Their relationship comprises the bulk of the novel’s 242 pages. Along the way, Nate circles back to reflect on growing up, and the girls he liked in high school and college. He eventually gets “serious” with Kristen in college, and lives with her for three years. However that ends because they began “drifting apart” while she went to med school. Eventually, he moves to New York and somehow makes a living as a writer. This is the first and only part that I call “bullshit” on. Ostensibly Nate works a temp job that becomes full-time, indefinitely termed, to pay the rent before any income from his writing emerges. Honestly I do not believe this is realistic. Or rather, while I do think that type of job could cover a person’s costs in NYC, the next paragraph is what I find unrealistic:

“Looking back, he was proud that he’d ‘persevered,’ by which he meant that he hadn't gone to law school. He’d moved to a cheaper apartment, which allowed him to quit the private equity job in favor of shorter bouts of temp work and freelance proofreading for a law firm. He worked on fiction and pitched articles and book reviews, getting assignments here and there. His critical voice improved. He began to get more assignments. Toward the end of his twenties, it became evident that he’d managed to cobble together an actual career as a freelance writer. The achievement was capped off when a major online magazine offered him a position as its regular book reviewer.” (34)

Now, I am sure some people can make it work as a freelancer, but can they afford an apartment they do not share? I doubt it. Hannah is also a freelancer and similarly lives alone in a pretty nice area in Brooklyn (Prospect Heights?). I never tried to be a freelancer and maybe I regret it after reading this book? I didn’t persevere. Aside from my nit-picky demand for “economic reality,” I can’t complain about much else. This book is very well-written, and it’s just subtle enough to appear true-to-life. I remember one particular observation about intellectual tastes at Harvard that seemed so obscure that it had to be true:

 “Growing up, Nate discussed current events at the dinner table; as a family, they watched 60 Minutes and Jeopardy! Apparently, though, some parents read the New York Review of Books and drank martinis. In time, Nate would learn to make finer distinctions between the homes of his most sophisticated classmates—the old-school WASPs versus the academic intellectuals (Jew or gentile)—but in the first weeks of college it seemed to him that all of them, from the children of well-known leftist firebrands to the spawn of union-busting industrial titans, spoke the same language. It seemed that way because they did. (Many of them had gone to the same prep schools.) When it came right down to it, these groups were like the Capulets and the Montagues. Whatever their differences, they were both wealthy Veronese families. Nate’s family was from Romania.” (24)

Maybe that wasn’t the exact quote I was looking for, but it’s close enough and illustrates the point: Waldman is very articulate when it comes to the characteristics of the people she writes about, skirting a fine line between stereotype and fully-realized human being. That is to say, these characters are not stereotypes, and though sometimes they come very close to looking like one, Waldman is effectively writing about a stereotypical cadre of artists in Brooklyn. Nate himself is certainly given a thorough psychological profile. Most of the time it seems like he is the type of guy that most girls would call an “asshole,” but he doesn't come across as a bad guy in the typical sense of boyfriend-material. He is just passive aggressive and doesn't always say what’s on his mind, and Hannah notices this, and calls him out on it. Some of these scenes are great in their intensity—but on the other hand, the actual “incidents” that lead to a fight are petty. This is really where the novel hits hardest. Dating is all about trying to find “the one” that you can share the rest of your life with, and the process of figuring out what you want out of life. Hannah knows this, and she teaches Nate to understand that.

The other characters are a lot more interesting than Nate or Hannah. Nate and Hannah are both perfectly likable but almost stock characters. Aurit, to name the most obvious example, is probably the most interesting character in the book, with Jason taking second. Apparently Waldman wrote an “addendum short story” to this novel that is written from the perspective of Aurit. She is Nate’s closest female friend—pretty much a hardcore feminist, but again, not in the stereotypical sense—and he places much of his intellectual faith in her. Jason is like the character the reader may imagine Nate to be after looking at the cover of the book and reading the jacket description. Okay, maybe both Nate and Jason are assholes, but I think it’s clear that Jason is the more offensive of the two—and again, not stereotypically. Some of his philosophical pronouncements are insane, but I find value in at least some of them:

“Nate pressed his palms against the tabletop.
‘You aren’t arguing that the problem is that we don’t really have one—but that meritocracy itself is bad?’ Jason nodded enthusiastically. ‘Fairness in a meritocracy is just homage to exceptional talent. For the unexceptional—by definition, the bulk of people—meritocracy is a crueler system than what it replaced.’ ‘Than slavery? Feudalism?’
‘For every Jude the Obscure,’ Jason continued over him, ‘prevented by a hereditary class system from going to Oxford, there are a thousand other stonemasons who lack Jude’s intelligence. Meritocracy is great for guys like Jude, who had talent. For the others, it’s bad news.’
‘Wait,’ Nate said. ‘How are the other masons injured if Jude gets to go to Oxford? Is this like how straight marriage is injured by allowing gay marriage? Because I don’t get that either.’
‘They’re exposed as lacking. Duh.’ Jason shook his head. ‘If everyone remains in the station he’s born to, there’s no shame in it, but if it’s in one’s power to rise, the failure to do so becomes a personal failure.’” (213)

One other criticism I wanted to make, and this one will probably be insane, but I have to say it: the novel lacks any sort of struggle with sexuality. Clearly a person like Nate, who knows he is straight and who has slept with his fair number of women but has trouble building lasting relationships with them, would at least wonder if he might be gay or bi. This would have made the novel a lot more interesting, but unfortunately it is unpalatable for people to believe that people are not just born gay or straight. It wouldn't even need to be a whole chapter in the novel—a few paragraphs would do. To be a complete and true psychological profile, at least a cursory reference to this issue should be made.

While we are on the topic of other things this book should have done, it also appears unrealistic in that Nate does not really even consider online dating. At one point there is a brief narrative involving girls he met when he first moved to New York, that he would meet in public places (like subway trains). However he decides that the easiest way to meet them is through publishing parties. Maybe there are lots of attractive single women in the publishing industry, but I don’t think so. The “reality” of my experience has shown that once you hit your thirties, it is really hard to meet someone that isn't damaged goods or way younger. I think with guys it is different, but I know very few girls my age that are not yet engaged or married or living with their significant other, their careers in a good place and a plan for a bouncing baby a few years down the line already in place. Of course, such a cynical book might become tiresome, and while I do believe that great literature should reflect "reality," any book that is almost exclusively about “the dating scene” (as this one is) should probably be a little bit romantic, if only to give the inevitable lonely reader hope that they will not be doomed to a loveless existence. I've kind of gone on a tangent here, but what I mean is, Nate doesn't seem like the most outgoing guy in the world, and would ostensibly at least dabble, or go on one date with a girl he met online. But to return to the tangent, there are at least signs that Waldman acknowledges “reality” as I know it:

“When he was twenty-five, everywhere he turned he saw a woman who already had, or else didn’t want, a boyfriend. Some were taking breaks from men to give women or celibacy a try. Others were busy applying to grad school, or planning yearlong trips to Indian ashrams, or touring the country with their all-girl rock bands. The ones who had boyfriends were careless about the relationships and seemed to cheat frequently (which occasionally worked in his favor). But in his thirties everything was different. The world seemed populated, to an alarming degree, by women whose careers, whether soaring or sputtering along, no longer preoccupied them. No matter what they claimed, they seemed, in practice, to care about little except relationships.” (40-41)

One of the blurbs on the back of the book compares this book to High Fidelity, and I have to agree that they are quite similar. However, High Fidelity is also about music and I found it to be a much better book overall. Maybe my opinion of that book is colored by my feelings on the film, which I think is one of the most successful adaptations I’ve seen (I saw the movie first—didn’t like it that much when I was 17—liked it much better after reading the book). So I can’t give this book an “A.” Still, for a first novel, it is quite good. The writing is sharp, and a lot of readers will be able to identify with the depictions of the psychological warfare that longer-term relationships almost always engender. Minor quibbles to the side, I would recommend this book and thank the anonymous reader that suggested it to me. I do think a better book on the subject could be written, but it would also be difficult to craft something as satisfying.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I have been traveling and just saw this review now. I'm glad you liked the book, and your comments, as always, are interesting and perceptive. I guess I would say that since I am the one who recommended it you, I did so very soon after reading it, and it seems now like a decent book, but it's fading away in memory.

Also, since then, I've read several novels by young or youngish writers that I thought were more significant. I was totally blown away by Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, which I had up until then avoided, partially because the size of the advance and the publicity inherent had turned me off a bit.

But I found the Harbach truly amazing. It's not exactly like Waldman or Lin, in that while it's about young people by a relatively young person, it's set in a bucolic campus and one of the major characters is an older man (the college president). I don't see either Waldman or Lin ever creating a believable older character, but you can't compare Harbach's novel to theirs because they are looking at a small but very interesting slice of American life and his is more "big picture."

You may have read it already. Let me know if you have because I am sure you have said intelligent things about it. If not, I think you would like it -- it's more a "guy's" book, very Midwestern in some respects, and it paints things on a really broad canvas. You can sense the author was trying to do something ambitious, like a telescope whereas Lin and Waldman use, effectively, a microscope.

The other book that totally blew me away was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I guess she's mid-thirtyish (but I guess even Tao Lin is about 32 now?), but man, she can do incredible things.

As far as Lin, I think his Granta story is the best fiction he's written even if he calls it an essay. I think he does that because he uses "I" but it seems like fiction to me. It reinforced my opinion that the third person handicaps such an interesting personality as Tao Lin when he bases the main character on himself. The first person is like a breath of fresh air, to use a cliche he would hate -- but it opens up his work, gives it room to breathe, at least in my reading of it. I would encourage him to write in the first person and not worry about people confusing him with the "I" character. He may be too overly concerned with keeping the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.

Anyway, thanks for this intelligent review. You are a smart man.

JK said...

I'll definitely check out the Harbach book - a few others are in the pipeline but i should get around to it before the end of the summer. It sounds interesting. I'm on the verge of resuming my "hobby" of fiction writing and would like to digest a good example of a book that got a big advance that was justified.

I've heard of Jennifer Egan before--feel like I saw her at Printer's Row lit fest a few years back so I'd be surprised if she's only in her mid-thirties--but i could be confusing her with others.

I haven't heard about the Granta story but I'll check it out. Thanks for the tips as always. And while I'm not sure the compliments are justified, they are very gratifying.