"Water, as they say, eventually finds its level," writes Adelle Waldman at a key moment in the excellent new novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. The remark, on the surface, is a vindication of the hero's ambition to "make it" as a writer in New York, but appears also to refer at a deeper level to his apparent inability to find the right woman. In the course of the novel, Nate Piven will enjoy and/or despise the companionship of several women; just one of them will offer him real love, a meaningful connection rather than the shallow, calculating or convenient relationships that proliferate in the careerist turmoil of single Manhattan. The quality of Nate's character is thus tested: will he recognize the real thing, and rise to the occasion when it comes? Or will he sink into some lesser, emptier, lonelier existence?
Waldman is a staggeringly talented prose stylist, easy and elegant in every particular, learned, undeceived, and with a dash of sly, quiet humor in nearly every line that irresistibly recalls Jane Austen. I've never read a contemporary writer who struck me as remotely Austen-like, though I've read many, many (many!) who've tried to come off that way. So I don't say this lightly.
Waldman has created a profoundly, wonderfully irritating (and believable) character in Nate Piven, and her decision to tell the story from Nate's point of view is appealingly ballsy. I daresay many in the "media world" will find him so familiar as to feel he might almost be one of their colleagues.
"Nathaniel Piven was a product of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege. Moreover he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience." But the clamorings of Nate's conscience tend to center in plain vanity: how he wishes to be perceived, rather than in anything remotely resembling personal conviction. He's carelessly, instinctively self-indulgent. When a girlfriend signs them both up to be guides at a 5K for the blind at Fairmont Park, Nate bristles, for he had planned to stay in bed and read, and then go out for a Bloody Mary or two: he nearly shouts, "Why does everything always have to be so goddamn wholesome and sunny and do-gooder-y?" Then, guiltily, he winds up going to the park anyway.
I'd been unfamiliar with Waldman's work until I saw a recent essay she wrote in The Millions contrasting the works of eighteenth-century novelists Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. This essay is GREAT, and I recommend it highly, even if you're not the biggest fan of eighteenth-century novels; it's also rich in keys to the techniques and messages in Nathaniel P.
Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile —full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
Waldman recounts her own early and abiding devotion to Richardson, in particular to Clarissa. Richardson is manifestly a cerebral writer, as Waldman describes so deftly here: "I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice—the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating."
This way of thinking about fiction is evident in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Waldman, too, is a cerebral writer. Nate and his lovers and friends in Brooklyn drift in and out of dinner parties, coffeehouses, bars and beds. They talk, and talk; they think and think. They think, actually, a great deal too much. They are comically, pitiably self-centered. Their narrow concerns with their clothes, what they eat and drink ("Is it arugula? Bamboo shoots?"); their book proposals and their assignments, their abstracted, fantastical politics, their ideas about literature and dating and sex, coalesce into a prophylactic between themselves and the rest of the world. They're forever wondering whether they are coming off too snobby, or insufficiently snobby; they're just exactly self-aware enough to worry about their own lack of principle, their lack of spontaneity and warmth. One of them keeps her "impressive" books in the living room, for show, and the chick-lit in the bedroom where no one can see it.
All this could be said to be in Richardson territory: character is destiny. As she grew up, she says, Waldman came to appreciate not only Fielding's "affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement" but also his very different flavor of moral consciousness.
I took the opposite path to Waldman's, as a reader. For a scary number of decades, Tom Jones has been the answer I most often give to the question, "What's your favorite novel?" (I snorted audibly when she called his novels "yarns.") And not until later in life did I become able to appreciate (grudgingly) the emotional sensitivity of Richardson (a dimension of understanding made possible for me, I think, by long consideration of Fanny Burney's Evelina, which weds a preoccupation with states of feeling to an enchanting, fairy-tale-like love story).
All Waldman says about Fielding's detractors is true, and yet it misses entirely what this lifelong fan, at least, loves most about Fielding. For me he is a moral authority: someone to turn to for help and advice, as I do to Austen and a very few others.
Sometimes the novel's "fictive dream" is just for fun, a thrill ride. But in Tom Jones, Fielding makes the case that human fulfillment lies in the giving of love that transcends the boundaries of self. In situating one's consciousness, intellect and the operations of conscience all in the world outside; in seeing oneself as a minute and evanescently brief part in the great sad hilarious pageant of the world, instead of the center of it. There is nothing lightweight about Fielding, however many mock-heroic poems and pompous aunts and horny schoolmasters and ludicrously scheming barbers may tumble through his pages. He is serious as a heart attack.
It happens that the thing Fielding understood best of all is romantic love.
I desire of the philosophers to grant that there is in some (I believe in many) human breasts a kind and benevolent disposition which is gratified by contributing to the happiness of others. That in this gratification alone, as in friendship, parental and filial affection, as indeed in general philanthropy, there is a great and exquisite delight. That if we will not call such disposition Love, we have no name for it. That though the pleasures arising from such pure Love may be heightened and sweetened by the assistance of amorous desires, yet the former can subsist alone, nor are they destroyed by the intervention of the latter. Lastly, that esteem and gratitude are the proper motives to love, as youth and beauty are to desire, and, therefore, though such desire may naturally cease, when age or sickness overtakes its object, yet these can have no effect on Love, nor ever shake or remove, from a good mind, that sensation or passion which hath gratitude and esteem for its basis.
That is just the thing that Nathaniel P. is in sore need of figuring out. I hope someone gives him a copy soon.
But I can't help but imagine that Adelle Waldman understands the meaning of this passage very well. Consider that in writing the sometimes not-so-admirable character of a modern young man, she must have consulted the one closest to her often, and deeply; a suspicion amply borne out on the acknowledgements page. She is married to the writer Evan Hughes, and thanks him in the loveliest terms at the end of her book: "He is a brilliant editor and a wonderful observer of people and has endured endless conversations about Nate and company. Evan, to say I couldn't have written this book without you is true—and beside the point. I can't begin to imagine my life without you."
That might be the first time I ever cried at the acknowledgements page of a novel. Or maybe it is the novel's true last page. The understanding between these two writers has, I believe, produced a really remarkable gift to readers interested in The Way We ___ Now.
Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. Image: Detail of an engraving of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales and Leopold I, by William Thomas Fry, 1817; courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.