Joan Didion once wrote that the New York City-based creative-types from some of Woody Allen’s most cherished films — “Annie Hall,” “Interiors” and “Manhattan” — wallowed in an achingly privileged “subworld,” one where their “concerns and conversations are those of clever children, ‘class brains,’ acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life.”
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That's a pretty shrewd summarization, as it happens, of the frequently insufferable literary set that permeates Adelle Waldman's debut, "The Love of Affairs of Nathaniel P." At the novel's core is Nate Piven. Neurotic, status conscious and waterlogged with guilt, he's a 21st century composite of Didion's alleged Allen-esque tropes. But what made Allen's characters ultimately endearing is a characteristic Nate crucially lacks: an inclination for self-deprecating humor.
Take Nate's self-conscious meandering over a question about a failed fling. He imagines retorting with "a joke about how lying in wait for him on the streets of New York was an army of hostile women." But, as per usual, "[h]e didn't make the joke, though. He did not in fact feel jokey about it. He felt bad. When he thought about it. He tried not to think about it."
So it goes with Nate. He's a 30-year-old, Harvard-educated, highbrow-inflected writer on the rise. He goes from freelancing on the dole to landing a regular book-reviewing gig to a "six-figure advance from a major publishing house" for his "sprawling" novel.
On the surface, the sustaining plotline involves his trials and tribulations as a perpetual flake when it comes to romantic relationships. We meet the ex named Juliet, an "affluent, 34-year-old professional," but she's someone, alas, he finds a "bit dull." In a flashback to his Ivy League days, there is Kristen, who "was, in the world's crude judgment, a catch for Nate, several notches above him in the college social hierarchy." Yet, after following her to Philadelphia post-graduation, things fizzle. The beginning of the end was her "lack of literary sensibility, the sheer practicality of her intelligence, as well as a certain rectitude or squareness on her part."
The longest running involvements presented here, which are deftly drawn by Waldman, are with Elisa and Hannah. Elisa works for a "Very Important Magazine" and comes into the picture before his book deal. She's hyper-refined but not "fringy" like Nate. But, as his professional prospects rise, his enthusiasm for her plummets. Hannah, on the other hand, who is "almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice," ultimately (and obviously at this point) suffers a deflating break with Nate as well.
But what gives this seemingly strained and trivial state of affairs its irresistible appeal is Waldman's acutely wrought execution. What she's done here is vividly composed — a cutting comedy of manners masquerading as a coming-of-age tale. Written in indirect third-person, Waldman continually casts suspicious sympathy on Nate, while continually undermining him. Waldman's narration is unswerving. "Nate had not always been the kind of guy women call an a—. Only recently had he been popular enough to inspire such ill will."
Elsewhere, for instance, she injects a satirical analog with Nate's conflicted views about sex with some of the popular arguments swirling about the schism between America's former unit of elite male novelists and our current ones. He longs to "see the satisfaction of his sexual desire as a triumph of spirit" (per Updike, Mailer and the likes). But the "[t]he dreary voice of Kant — insisting on impartiality" (à la Franzen and Eggers) "were, for him, lodged too deep." One imagines Waldman being thoughtful about the dilemma — and then rolling her eyes.
The book begins with an epigraph from George Eliot about an authentic account of life needs more than sincerity, and that seems to be the overarching concern with the book. Or, as it's put better in the coup de grace wielded by Hannah to Nate following a slushy explanation as to why he's awful at dating:
I feel like you want to think what you're feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential s—. But to me, it looks like the most tired, average thing in the world, the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what you can't have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere.
So, in the end, is dealing with Nate's navel-gazing worth taking in Waldman's ardent insightfulness and talent? Absolutely.
Eric Allen Been is an associate editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books and has written for several publications.
"The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P."
By Adelle Waldman, Henry Holt, 256 pages, $25Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun