A Debut Novel About Sex and Hypocrisy in Brooklyn

Reading between the lines.
July 12 2013 12:00 PM

Sex and the Single Intellectual

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. exposes the personal hypocrisy of the chattering classes.

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Illustration by Jeff Zwirek

Also in Slate, Katie Roiphe explains how Adelle Waldman perfectly captures the archetype of sensitive literary man.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

When we first meet the hero (or maybe antihero, depending on your perspective) of Adelle Waldman’s provocative debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., he’s in a bit of an awkward situation. Nate has just run into a former flame—Juliet, a woman whom he got pregnant, accompanied to the abortion clinic (chivalrously paying for the procedure), comforted for the remainder of the day, and then summarily abandoned—near the waterfront in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Juliet bristles at the sight of him and begins a reprimand: “You could have at least—oh, never mind.” Nate wonders, “Could have at least what?

Waldman spends the remainder of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. inviting us to complete Juliet’s truncated sentence. What could Nate have done to behave more honorably toward Juliet, whom he just didn’t like all that much? What could Nate do to behave more honorably toward all the women he dates?

Nate isn’t some ignorant clod; he’s “in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience” and an impressive intellect that he’s put to use writing criticism and a soon-to-be-published novel. We get a sense of Nate’s worldview later in the first chapter, at a dinner party full of other thirtysomething professionals, where he discusses his plans for an essay on how privileged people “outsource the act of exploitation”—benefit from economic inequality while maintaining enough distance from it that they never have to confront their own complicity in it. He explains,

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“You know how you read a Dickens novel where these eight-year-old boys work in factories or beg on the streets? And you wonder why didn’t anyone give a fuck? Well, we aren’t so different. We’ve just gotten better at hiding it—from ourselves most of all. People back then at least justified their behavior by admitting to their contempt for the poor.” 

Nate, Waldman’s novel suggests, is one of the morally squeamish elites he derides—and in more ways than one. Nate is at least conscious of his economic hypocrisy, but he is for the most part blissfully ignorant of his sexual hypocrisy. He sees the way he benefits from contemporary capitalism, understands how it hurts other people, and feels bad about it. But he has far less clarity when it comes to his personal life—he benefits from contemporary sexual mores, but he hates thinking about how they hurt other people (especially the women he sleeps with). Men used to justify their behavior by admitting to their contempt of women; what’s Nate’s justification?

Author Adelle Waldman
Author Adelle Waldman

Photo courtesy of Lou Rouse

Judging from much of the novel’s advance press, publisher Henry Holt is making two related assumptions about Nathaniel’s appeal. The first is that the most interesting thing about the novel is that its author is a woman but its protagonist is a man. Waldman “succeeds in crossing the gender line, imagining the world from behind the eyes of a male character both sympathetically and unsentimentally,” reads one of the blurbs on the back of the book; or, if you prefer, Cosmopolitan has it that the book is “written from a dude’s POV.” The second is that the primary audience for Nathaniel P. is women. (Perhaps Holt is resigned to the stereotype that men don’t buy books written by women.) “It’ll have you screaming because you have so dated this guy,” raves Glamour rather presumptuously; another novelist calls it “a laugh-out-loud treatise on why he didn’t call.”

Both of these assumptions are wrong. The gender discrepancy between Nathaniel P.’s author and its protagonist is perhaps the seventh or eighth most interesting thing about the novel, and Waldman seems to be making no bets about the perspective or prejudices of her audience. She holds her cards rather close to her chest, actually. Nate and his various girlfriends—most notably Hannah, the “nice and smart” fellow writer whose five-month relationship with Nate the novel spans—are alternately likeable and baffling, sympathetic and infuriating. It would be just as easy to come away from the novel disillusioned with women as disillusioned with men—but if you do either, you’re missing the point. Unlike Nate, Waldman is smart enough to avoid making generalizations about either sex. The main target of her gimlet eye is not men; it is the very narrow population among whom Nate (and Waldman) (and I) reside: economically privileged, liberal-minded, well-educated, mostly white writers and editors living in gentrifying Brooklyn.

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