Monday, January 20, 2014

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P echo the Ratpack, retro modern to me.

This novel centers on well-educated young people, mostly in the publishing industry, engaged in the age-old ritual of making their place in the Uber urban testing ground of  New York City. The narrator, Nathaniel P, is now at the top of the heap. His novel, which earned him a good advance, is about to be published, and he's on the preferred list of authors for the magazines of his dreams. Yet personal happiness has evaded Nathaniel. His serially disappointing love life provides the plot of the somewhat satirical THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt & Co.).  Nathaniel, who is concerned but not overly so, realizes he cares far more about his status as a writer/intellectual in the publishing pecking order. Not being with a girl he likes is more about inconvenience than angst. It's the hardship of having to meet and flirt with new women on the possibility they will have sex with him.

Nathaniel is an unreliable narrator of his love affairs, though he does try  to make sense of what went wrong. It's a matter of  the protective blinders he wears. Predictably his post mortems lay the blame on the inadequacies of  his women. He knows he has shortcomings, he's modern with post feminist values, yet he knows no one could stay with these women. In truth, his egocentricity and lack of accountability appear a throwback to Ratpack era male stereotypes. Like the free and charming user of women in Frank Sinatra's Pal Joey, or the shallow guy looking for love in Sondheim's Company, or the Fosse type choreographer in "All That Jazz." Nathaniel excuses himself because he's a "reasonable man" who loves women.

When this stereotype thinks sentimentally of women they've loved, they extol the period of discovery and infatuation and moan about the inevitable emotional stickiness that ruins the affair. Caddish? This was supposed to be the essential man, so endearing in his looks, personality or talent that women wanted him anyway. I never pitied Nate's solitary narcissism, he was mostly happy with himself, but I did root for his glimmers of conscience and wonder why the women in his life wanted the guy. Made me think of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."

Whether the author intends this as satirical or not, she appears to be sending up this cliched male in the context of our era. This man, who supposedly respects women, is merciless in his appraisal of female looks,brains, and potential for success. He also expresses a misogynist's disgust for female vulnerability. Graceless, pedantic, with less talent than drive,  I had a hard time understanding Nathaniel's attractions without reading a page of his deathless prose. You get a pretentious title of an essay but nothing else.

When you read Byron's Don Juan, you can see why Byron fascinated women, a kind of male fatale. And you might pity their exercise of female masochism, though it doesn't excuse Byron's legendary bad behavior. Nathaniel P never reaches a level of literary intensity, though we are to understand he saves his true passion for the page. Perhaps Nathaniel P is a thinking woman's romance novel, because the romance is mostly in the thoughts of the woman he's involved with. They each fill in his blanks, erring in assuming they are in a "relationship," when the man's primary object is himself. His designated woman is a reflector of that object. There is no mutual relationship to nourish.

Since his affairs are external, Nathaniel reacts negatively to the unfortunate revelations of his partners' emotional "clay feet." Display of vulnerability or insecurity lessens their value in his estimate. And, as he withdraws and belittles them, they sink further. As the novel begins, Nathaniel, on his way to his ex-girlfriend Elisa's dinner party, runs into Juliet with whom he conceived a child that was aborted. Nathan's late and has no time to talk to Juliet. When he dismisses her and she calls him a name, he doesn't get why she's upset. He paid for the abortion, stayed with her and made the day reasonably pleasant. Just because he never contacted her afterward (why give her false hope?) is no reason for her to treat him like that.

Willful opacity or convenient emotional ignorance continues at the party, where he is warmly greeted by beautiful Elisa, the stylish daughter of a well-known professor who works at a famous magazine. Though he lived with her for months, in the end he found her needy and immature. After the dinner, he also deems her pathetic for not yet being over him. At her party he's attracted to, yet doesn't pursue a range of women, from model-like editorial assistants, to smart and attractive Hannah, who writes for a health blog and has her own unfinished book proposal. All these women know about the book he sold, and so, through Nate's eyes, are interested in him because his status has risen.

The people Nate respects are his male friends, and Aurit, his one female friend, who has never been attracted to him.  Because his friends are all witty, intelligent and perceptive, he feels at home with them and likes the competitive sport of  intellectual exchange. He also likes that because they know his background, as the child of Jewish Romanian immigrants, he can displays his vulnerability--the sense of inferiority he can't quite shake. Though Nate went to Harvard, he's not been successful in his parents' eyes. His career choice disappointed these people, who sacrificed for him. But now they accept his success. When you realize Nathaniel is on a personal search for what's of value, you think he might yet grow up enough to have a relationship between equals. And, when he's being honest with himself, this is what he fantasizes about.

Hannah seems a good candidate. She's from a down-to-earth Ohio family and her writing career has made her an odd bird. Nate's taken with her wit and intellectual challenge, as well as her basic honesty. Hannah is on target, when she says he only likes a woman, until he knows she likes him. His sense of inferiority is such, that it's the old cliche that she becomes less valuable. A dime-store shrink would agree Nathaniel has serious "intimacy" issues. And when poor Hannah, like those before, wants more emotionally than he can give, he brutally distances himself. The crux of this novel of character is that while Nate admires Hannah's essential honesty, and knows he lacks it, he again makes her not his equal in a nonrelationship.

And like Elisa before her, strong, independent Hannah becomes more and more undone; self-doubtful, despairing, wondering what she did wrong, focusing on her lacks, and not pursuing her career. In fact, Nate's women do well once they are out of their one-sided relationship with him. And in the end, though Nate misses Hannah's rare understanding, he finds happiness with a successful writer of  women's novels, who, most importantly doesn't plumb depths. Rather than seeking meaningful exchanges in conversation with his friends, or topping them, like Hannah, she performs for their admiration. Nate's perfect complement, this woman equals his self-absorption and he can never be sure of her.

Nathaniel P is a woman's cautionary tale, not just of men to be avoided but of the kind of traps women set for themselves. While juggling the pressure of jobs and standards for external achievement, all too often modern women have a similar set of expectations for a relationship. Literature is a kind of prop here for the impossible emotional depths these women may expect from men, especially one like Nathaniel P. He's the kind of error women make in ironically "aspiring" to men of talent.

There's a long list of such men, sometimes called "geniuses." Though a Picasso or Byron might plumb the depths of a woman's essence on a canvas or a page, they use life--their affairs--as emotional resources for art. While there never seems to be a shortage of women trying to love such men, it is insanity to think that the emotional depths they may find together will be there in a committed relationship. Too often such women, like Picasso's ex, Francoise Gilot, find their commitment to life after becoming a shadow of themselves with a talented man..

Though only 229 pages, this is not a slight novel but a sly one that is more than it seems. Adelle Waldman might want to read Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy for the female inverse of Nathaniel P.

S.W.