In the middle of last decade, amidst the publication of several novels by and about (to borrow the title of just one) sad young literary men, The Awl’s Choire Sicha wrote a brilliant essay in the New York Observer hazarding a guess at just what was making all the young literary men so sad. “These writers, our boys not overseas, are friendly,” Sicha wrote. “And ambitious and ashamed of ambition.” Sicha was identifying in novelists a broader trend. Men everywhere are (for this process is still happening) responding to feminism by redefining masculinity so that it no longer clashes with their own feminist values. They have earnestly imbibed feminism, but it has dawned on them that if, as the feminists insist, the personal is political, then that goes for them, too. Men, no less than women, cannot only advocate pro-woman policies in the ballot box or on their Twitter feeds, but also in their professional, day-to-day, and intimate interactions.
And that, in Sicha’s analysis, presents a problem: Men, even postfeminist, remain men, and therefore cannot help but possess many of the practically anti-woman traits that feminism sought to curb in the first place. “Ambition,” of the masculine variety, is one such trait Sicha homes in on, in the case of the novelists. “Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged,” Sicha observed. The ambition remains even as the means for fulfilling it has become unacceptable, even taboo. The novelists’ solution to this quandary, Sicha realized, is to subject us to their mopey novels of narcissism, which is its own kind of masculine chest-thumping. They redefined masculinity in response to feminism in a way that did not strip being a man of all its privileges. Boys will be ashamed of being boys. But they will be boys.
Nate Piven, the 30-ish, Brooklyn-based sad young literary man of Adelle Waldman’s new, debut novel, the fiendishly readable The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., is much like the heroes of the novels Sicha was talking about, although, of course, his author is a woman. Very few of the novel’s details feel false, and some are eerily on-the-money, such as Nate’s sudden panic as he realizes his ex-girlfriend Elisa is coming on to him at an impeccably drawn Greenpoint dinner party she is hosting—“he felt, he imagined, like a soldier who had been having a rollicking time on guard duty until he heard the crackle of approaching gunfire.” (I wonder who was Waldman’s source among the male half of Brooklyn’s writer set, and what bureaucratic frustration precipitated the leak.) Most importantly, Waldman gets the big detail right: When it comes to women, Nate’s “clamorous conscience” comes into conflict with the exercise of his natural advantages as a single, successful, attractive heterosexual man in a sexual economy that, for him, is very much a buyer’s market.
The meat of the plot is Nate’s relationship with a cute writer from Cleveland named Hannah. They fall for each other; enjoy each other; and then, as he wises to her imperfections, he draws away from her with casual carelessness. “Nathaniel Piven,” Waldman tells us on the third page (she is also a journalist, and knows how to write a nut graf), “was a product of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege.” Or, as Waldman puts it elsewhere, “Sometimes, he wondered whether he was a bit misogynistic.” He is misogynistic and ashamed of his misogyny.
Waldman tips her hand to her intentions with an epigraph from George Eliot and an opening episode involving a pregnancy—Nate runs into a (different) ex who'd had an abortion while they were together, and to whom Nate had been an asshole. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. wants to emulate the great 19th-century novels. The reason so many of those books also had unwanted pregnancies—think of Hester Prynne, Tess Durbeyfield, and Eliot’s own Hetty Sorrel, she of the “coquettish tyranny”—is because it was a convenient device for illuminating the thing that tends to stress out most people—fictional or otherwise—which is the collision of transcendent truisms (like the fact that when young people have sex, the woman frequently gets pregnant) and social conventions (like the fact that, 150 years ago and also today, this could be seen as an irreversible stain on the woman’s character).
The collision Nate must navigate is of lower-stakes, but is structurally identical: He must resolve the contradiction between having his pick of women (and having a part of himself that would like to exploit this privilege) and knowing that if he just blithely sleeps with every one available to him, his values dictate that he must hate himself in the morning. “Men in New York—far outnumbered by women, and with time on their side—sometimes seem to hold all the cards,” is how The New Yorker’s Sasha Weiss describes Nate’s situation. To some extent, that is an unchangeable truism—indeed, as with all those 19th-century girls in trouble, it is partly rooted in biology itself, including gender-specific fertility clocks set at two different speeds. And it collides with the feminist mores of a liberal 21st-century city and, much more dramatically, with the feminist beliefs of this liberal 21st-century city-dweller.
What makes this predicament particularly tricky is its extremely personal nature. While bien-pensant liberals are horrified when the privileges men enjoy over women—or white people enjoy over people of color, or wealthy people enjoy over poor people—are abused in the aggregate, everyone tends to be a little more tolerant at the individual level, where the stakes are more personal, the power is more diffuse, and the rules are unwritten. The distinction is sketched most cleanly in a conversation Nate has with his friend Aurit, who always spouts the most principled critique of privilege (that she is Israeli is a clever touch). Aurit compares her parents’ “fucked-up dynamic,” in which her father holds all the power, to white privilege in America. Nate takes her point. But then he compares the situation to his own. “Hannah wasn’t a disenfranchised minority, Nate thought, leaving the window and padding from the bedroom to the kitchen. Why should he have had more power? He didn’t ask for it.”
The central question of the novel is whether Nate is responsible for abusing his unsolicited power. And the answer is pretty clear: Yes. Nate is awful. But we only know that because at certain key moments, as when he silently mocks Elisa for keeping her “middlebrow” books in the bedroom out of the sight of most guests, Waldman tips the scales pretty heavily against him. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is widely being read as revenge on the crop of novels that Sicha was talking about; The New Yorker’s Weiss argued that it “could well be the book Hannah finally got it together to write.” But actually, I think this generally excellent novel is at its weakest when it is making Nate maximally loathsome, and at its best when, without judgment, it displays a supple understanding of Nate’s predicament—the undeniable fact that he did not “ask for” his amazing advantages.
For example, when Nate remembers his break-up with Elisa, he tries to blame himself, but cannot. From our perspective, this is ridiculous: He is condescending, refuses to work on the relationship when work is clearly required, and ends up, with a torn Achilles’ tendon, staying at her place and being tended to, after which he ends it. At the same time, there is external evidence—such as his friends’ opinions of the relationship—that he and Elisa just weren’t right for each other. He begins to feel “culpable.” After all, her traits that he didn’t like were on display from the outset. “If he had wanted her when he knew she was immature,” he wonders, “could he really use that as a reason to throw her over now, just because he no longer wanted what else she had on offer? Well, yes, he could, the answer was obviously yes—but still it made him feel bad.”
Like it or not, Nate will always, “obviously,” be able to act like this. Perhaps Waldman simply had to make it clear that Nate is ultimately indefensible, since it is precisely because better versions of Nate could do Nate-like things—and, because nobody is perfect, occasionally do do Nate-like things—that Waldman can use Nate to challenge his fellow menfolk to live up to the high standards they claim to espouse. “I think I identify more strongly as a zealous moralist in wanting all of us to be better,” Waldman said in a recent interview. Yet it would be a curious kind of victory if men read her novel and decided not to be like Nate just in order to avoid the disapproval of perceptive moralists like Waldman. In fact, that would be a flat-out misreading of the novel, which ends with Nate apparently living happily ever after. Nate is not a cautionary tale; for him, crime pays. Rather, he is a reminder that self-improvement must be self-driven. Only the conscience can make mensches of us all.
This article has been updated.