by Jeremy Gordon and Yannick Lajacq)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P is a novel about a young, male Brooklyn writer attempting to navigate New York love, so we decided to have a pair of young, male writers (one of whom also lives in Brooklyn!) read the book and discuss how it compares to real life.
A few weeks ago you texted me on a Sunday evening and said, “I don’t like this book.” My response was, “Why? Too real?” and then we laughed for a minute. What else could we do? The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P isn’t a book that any straight New York boy with a hand in media wants to empathize too strongly with — despite Adelle Waldman’s sympathetic enough handling, Nate is still largely an unformed dope. He’s well-educated and well-heeled in the ways that one is supposed to be well-educated and well-heeled in a scene like his, but like any number of solipsistic young men in modern society is paralyzed by his own dick.
I hadn’t actually finished the book when I first texted you. Now that I’m done with it, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. But at least I think I see what Waldman was trying to do in telling Nate’s story the way she did. It feels like it’s deliberately told in stereotypes. Nate is a writer, but we only learn the vaguest details of what he actually writes about. There’s talk of a “Very Important Magazine,” not The New Yorker. A prestigious literary award, not a PEN/Faulker. When I got the end of the book, I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about the book he’s working on throughout the novel. I don’t have any inside information on Waldman’s creative process, but reading the book felt like she took snippets from a lived experience –either hers or others like her in Brooklyn – and sanded away many of the bumps and scratches that would make it less allegorical I guess?
Ironically I think that’s sort of her point. There’s a great moment I remember early in the book when he’s sitting at home, thinking about women in these terms that are crass yet uncomfortably polite at the same time. Like he’ll say something rude, but then use the word “misogynistic” a minute later to try to reassure himself that he’s on the right side. Then he walks over to the window, and looking outside suddenly finds himself quoting Wordsworth. Fun fact about that: I Googled the quote because I didn’t know what it was, and the first result was from the poetry section of Rap Genius I didn’t know existed! Anyways – that moment showed me that Nate’s willing to romanticize the city itself more than the people he actually knows within it, to mythologize his life as a writer in New York more than he is to really live it. And I wonder if that’s the ultimate cage that’s meant to make this book feel artificial yet “realistic” at the same time. I mean, I feel like I do what Nate does there all the time. Don’t you?
Speak for yourself, bro. I feel like the more I’ve lived here, the more sensitive I am to the expectations of “being a writer” in NYC. Not to quote David Foster Wallace, but to quote David Foster Wallace, being in NYC when you’re a writer is like having the eye of Sauron on you at all times. I’m not trying to go to Mount Doom; I’m just trying to hang out in the Shire.
But anyways. We’ll get to the subject of “liking” the book later, but no one could deny that Waldman does a good job getting into Nate’s head and delineating the habits and contradictions that constantly cycle through his mind. Do I say this? Do I do that? Nate is a lot of things, but he at least sounds like a person grappling with some very deep issues — or at least someone who thinks he is. Sometimes the answer seems as easy as, “Just say what’s on your mind, dummy” or “Stop going to book readings in Soho, dummy.”
Then again, I don’t exactly live in Nate’s world, and don’t know what’s okay to do or say when you’re around the people Nate is. I suspect that the closer you get to the heart of liberal ass, n+1 tote-carrying, Park Slope-aspiring New York, the more you’d begin to recognize. Thankfully, that New York is not the only world. Which is my question for you: How much did Nate’s world feel like your own?
Age is definitely key, yes, but let me get back to that. There are plenty of moments in Nathaniel P. that felt “real.” “Too real,” even. I’ve had the moments of brooding numbness or overwhelming panic that are intensified by the realization that life as a writer is, objectively speaking, a life of incredible privilege despite how oppressively difficult it is. The weird undercurrent of socioeconomic and racial tension that’s described in Nate as a “long and intimate relationship with guilt” hits very close to home, regardless of which direction I’m taking the subway away from the fancier parts of Manhattan at night.
I guess what annoys me about trading in stereotypes like these is that they feel too neat, too clean. Take Hannah’s long, desperate email to Nate at the end of the book after they’ve (Spoiler Alert) broken up. I thought the way that Waldman framed the email – challenging the reader to actually sit through the whole thing in a way that Nate clearly isn’t willing to – was genius. But the thing is: I did sit through the email. And when I finished I couldn’t help but think: who actually writes like this? So, I don’t know, properly? I’ve received those emails. I’ve sent those emails. They’re always messy, furious, and ugly. I remember one time sitting down at my desk on the first day of a new internship and opening Gmail to see a whole series of notes from an ex, the last of which began by saying that she regretted sending the first three or four and had tried to log into my account to delete them. At that point, she was upset that I’d changed my password because she took it as a sign that I didn’t trust her. Needless to say, neither of us made sure to dot every one of our i’s when we were corresponding at that point in our relationship.
Right, there’s an element of predestination to Nate’s actions that robs the book of any challenging dramatic quality. Of course he’s going to wimp out and avoid telling Hannah what he thinks about their lovemaking; of course he’s going to start idealizing Greer as soon as his relationship with Hannah is beginning to hit the rocks. For someone who’s built his career through rigorous intellectual examination, Nate isn’t very good at looking at his own behavior and thinking, “What gives, bro?”
But that’s the whole thing, for me: he feels clueless but also intensely introspective, like he’s always watching himself to make sure he’s acting the way a writer should. Is that what we’re all like?
Well, there’s a difference between introspection and action. I don’t think it’s good enough to recognize problematic behavior in yourself and then do nothing about it. In some sense, this makes the book more realistic: Nate does what he’s supposed to do because people, especially effete Brooklyn literary white men, often do. That’s sort of why I didn’t really enjoy reading the book, though it wasn’t difficult to finish. It went down so smoothly and so predictably that at the end I thought it read like one massive subtweet to the dopes Waldman’s perhaps known in her own life. I’m most gripped by fiction when something happens that I’m not quite expecting, and this book followed its structure so closely without offering any real surprises that I’m sort of glad I didn’t rush out to buy it when the advance reviews were calling it the literary hit of the season.
You know, the book doesn’t mention Twitter at all now that I think about it. How are you gonna write a book about young, effete, self-conscious literary men and not mention Twitter?
We’re so fortunate it didn’t. “Hannah had stopped favoriting Nate’s tweets, he realized.” Gag! Again, I might just be too deep in the game. You know what it reminds me of? Lena Dunham’s Girls, which is fastidiously accurate in the way some millennial New Yorkers act. (Especially if they’re straight, white, and well-educated, just like the characters in this book.) To me, Dunham’s show is most thrilling when it veers off the rails, and most sedate when it seems to be narrating the lives of people I already know and don’t enjoy. I already don’t follow those people on Instagram —why would I want to watch a television show about them?
Interesting that you bring up Girls because reading this book made me gain a lot more respect for the show, weirdly enough. Most of the communication that happened in the book seemed very staged, for lack of a better word. Even the moments when Nate was at a bar, running some inner monologue in his head about the conversation, argument, or date that was unfolding in front of him, seemed oddly poised. Maybe that’s what writing is, I don’t know.
Going back to the point about the whole messiness of sex and dating that I mentioned before, that seems like something Girls has captured well in episodes where, say, Lena Dunham suddenly finds herself spending several days shacked up with Patrick Wilson fucking and never really talking about what the hell it is either of them are doing.
That struck me as honest. Reading this book, I kept thinking about the urgent, desperate way that someone like David Wojnarowicz or Samuel Delany wrote about love, sex and everything in between in New York at another point in the city’s history. I’d say my own life has a lot more in common with Nate’s than it does with Delany or Wojnarowicz. But even some short poem about finding a random guy to have sex with in a public bathroom resonated with me just because it showed how desperate people are to get laid and fend off loneliness here?
I would say “desperation to get laid and fend of loneliness” is Nate’s primary motivation, though for him it’s closer to inertia: He knows he probably shouldn’t, which he thinks about when he first kisses Hannah, but then he’s drunk and convinces himself it’s alright. I’ve just pointed toward being bored with depictions of modern NYC by two women, so I should check my privilege and swivel the spotlight back on ourselves: Yannick, how did you feel about the way Nate and his male cohorts treat the women in their life? Did you feel like you were being subtweeted? How many times did you slam it down and mutter to yourself, “Not all men?”
Well, yeah. Totally. But it was more like “women can do this stuff too, you know.” There’s the whole “battle of the sexes” vibe that I just never really buy as a Wesleyan graduate who was taught to never believe in the gender binary. But I keep coming back to this inkling feeling that I’m not giving Waldman enough credit here. Part of what Nate suffers from in his life and relationships is a crippling self awareness; this eagerness to pretty up his own life and read it in the terms of the writers he admires and not-so-secretly wants to be when he grows up. There were two main tropes I remember Nate for more than anything else: his ability to be bored by pretty much anything that presents itself to him and the way that he’s often described as sitting back in a passive observer role for his own life.
The two go hand in hand, obviously. But I feel like that’s the writer’s curse he’s melodramatically burdening himself with: some inability to experience life outside of a series of literary referents and precedents. I certainly feel a similar neuroses –whether it be ignoring someone in favor of checking in on some Twitter spat, trying to sound like I know more about a Very Important Magazine to impress a girl (or guy, I suppose), or just trying to read profound existential conundrum into the fact that I passed out on the subway one night and woke up in the Bronx the next morning. Does that make any sense?
It does. There’s a scene where Nate gets too drunk at the post-reading meetup and the next day remembers vaguely embarrassing himself. Note that Waldman writes that “four Advils, a large iced coffee, and the passage of several hours” makes him feel better — not “an afternoon of quiet reflection about his behavior and motivations culminating in some harsh but necessary truths.” Not that one bad night needs to make him re-evaluate his whole core — but like I said, there’s a serious level of disconnect between the smooth literary godhead he wants to be and the emotionally inarticulate poser he often is.
Like most of the people in the world, Nate sees himself as the hero of his own story. It’s why he can be astonishingly insensitive about something as fragile and living as a relationship with a real person. There’s a moment where he casually instigates a fight with Hannah, then baits her into an emotional reaction. Waldman writes: “Her discomposure had the effect of making Nate feel more composed.” That’s a pretty fucked up way to react when you’re having a serious discussion with someone you ostensibly care for — that their emotional messiness is just a way for you to look and feel more in control of the situation.
Nate is a writer, and behavior like this why people hate writers: because they have a sliver of ice in their heart, and presumably look at every interaction as something to file away for later use. A review in The New Yorker said that this book is the one Hannah might have written after emerging from her relationship with Nate. I’m scared to think of the book he might write in response.
Ok, one last thing I need to ask. We’re both 25, right? So we’re younger than Nate. Did you ever think to yourself: I really hope I don’t end up like this guy? Because I did.
Sure, but I’m not worried: I’ve already stopped going to book readings.
love-affairsThe Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman is out in paperback now. Discuss it with your own book club today.
Yannick LeJacq is a newly-minted reporter and critic at Kotaku, Gawker’s popular blog dedicated to all things related to video games, pop culture, and pretty much anything nerd-friendly. You can find him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq.
Jeremy Gordon is a staff writer for Pitchfork. He lives in Brooklyn. His Twitter handle is @jeremypgordon.