There was a time when artists and writers flocked to inexpensive cities to allow themselves the trials of making art over the trials of making a living. In North America today, the main site of literary activity or literary business – which more and more amount to the same thing – is Brooklyn. Yet it’s probably one of the toughest places for a writer to live cheaply and noodle about, wearing rags. What happens when artists gravitate to places where they can make art only with great financial effort; where writers have to be journalists, adjunct professors, or work in cafés to pay the rent, leaving little time to write their novel, while learning every few months that one of their herd has secured a six-figure advance for their first book? What do their relationships and values look like, and how do their love stories unfold? This is the world of Adelle Waldman’s first book.
In the opening chapter, Nathaniel Piven, a writer in his thirties awaiting the publication of his first novel, explains to a dinner party that he’s writing an article ‘about how one of the privileges of being elite is that we outsource the act of exploitation … We get other people to do things that we’re too morally thin-skinned to do ourselves.’ It’s not hard to imagine that his argument moves beyond the disinterestedly speculative into his actual life, since we’ve just seen him on the street, on his way to the party, running into a woman he once dated. She tells him he’s an ‘asshole’ for his behaviour after her abortion in the wake of one of their trysts. (He phoned only once in the weeks after the operation, a quick check-up.) He’s annoyed by her accusation, and defensively soothes himself as he walks away: ‘She could have called him,’ he thinks.
He struggles to convey to the half-interested party guests what his article is about, then hits his stride: ‘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 behaviour by admitting to their contempt for the poor.’ Nate is like these Dickens characters, though it’s not the poor he has contempt for: it’s the women around him. Though he’s mostly adept at hiding this from himself, to the reader it’s clear. Listening to a woman talk about Lolita, Nate ‘felt intuitively that she was paraphrasing someone else (a professor? Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature?) and that the someone else was a man.’ Like others in his world, he wears a disguise: he’s ‘a product of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege.’
The day after the party, one of the guests, an aspiring writer called Hannah, sends him an email, arguing with the thesis of his article in progress. It’s not openly flirtatious, yet why else would she have written such a long email the very next day? He assesses her coolly:
She was nice-looking, sort of striking and appealing at certain moments, when her expression was animated, but there was something about the stark line of her eyebrows and the pointiness of her features that wasn’t exactly pretty. And while she had a nice body, she was on the tall side and had something of the loose-limbed quality of a comic actor, goofy and self-conscious, good-humoured but perhaps also a bit asexual.
Being the product of a postfeminist education, he immediately realises that his assessment is a bit unkind, but justifies himself by recalling that ‘many of his friends were far colder and more connoisseur-like in their attitudes towards women’s appearances,’ their eye ‘the cool eye of the seasoned appraiser, who above all knows how to calculate the market rate’. Scanning her email a second time, he thinks: ‘Dickens this, child labour that. Even if she weren’t offering outright to suck his cock, she was, in a sense, doing just that.’
After showering, ‘he still hadn’t decided how to respond to Hannah. As he pulled on a pair of brown socks, he noticed that one had a dime-sized hole near the seam. He rotated the fabric so the hole wouldn’t catch his toe as he walked.’ Is there a more clever way of showing the link between his easy privilege and that of a man stepping past a child beggar on the street? He takes his time attending to a matter of little importance while Hannah, of even less importance, waits. Finally, he determines: ‘Fuck it … maybe he should go ahead and fuck Hannah, as well as every other willing girl from Red Hook to Williamsburg. Maybe he’d start at the coffee shop, with Beth, the cute girl who worked behind the counter.’ Later, he tells himself that he replied to her email because he’d felt ‘restless’ that day.
So begins the ‘love affair’ that carries us through most of the book. Yet in what universe can all this be understood as ‘love’? Though it’s never stated, the novel seems to take place during the years it was written: days coloured by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Waldman returns again and again to the ways of capitalism in her examination of romance in this micro-milieu. What does courtship look like in a world where people worry about breaking up in light of how much they’ve ‘invested’ in a relationship? In which the ‘market rate’ of everyone – women especially – is as unarguable as a number? And how delicious is it to read a story in which neither of the lovers is particularly loveable, just as there’s nothing loveable about their environment.
Nate – Harvard-educated, yet not as wealthy as most of his classmates – isn’t a natural capitalist like his friend Jason, whose greater confidence and indifference to women lend him a power Nate lacks. Nor is he rebellious and angry, like his only female friend, Aurit, who ‘like Freud … had a coherent theory of the universe … all internally logical and surprisingly convincing, as long as you accepted her initial premises’. Floating somewhere between Aurit’s sense of injustice and Jason’s droit de seigneur, Nate is possessed of a ‘clamorous conscience’, unable to feel secure in either the moral universe he is given, or a moral universe of his making.
After Nate and Hannah have been dating a month (Nate’s feelings have grown since the day he checked his sock), he meets up with Aurit. She’s excited that Nate is with Hannah (Hannah is smart). Nate senses her excitement, and is annoyed:
He didn’t see his getting together with Hannah as quite the epic, life-defining event that Aurit’s relationships were for her. His new relationship, though consuming when he was with Hannah, wasn’t the only thing on his mind, especially as time wore on and he became more acclimated to her presence in his life … He had gotten a journalism assignment that he was pleased about, a big and well-paid piece for a glossy magazine … The relationship, nice as it was, shared space in his mind with other things – with his interest in thinking abstractly, about things other than his personal life, for one, even with his interest in sports.
That the relationship ‘shared space in his mind with other things’ is a mark of the relationship’s relative lack of importance in defining his sense of self. The most sublime passage in the book sees Nate at work, in his solitude, and not once does his mind turn to his ‘personal life’ as he writes a book review, lit up by the pleasures and beauties of creation:
He finished the book around midnight and began making notes. Several hours later, he turned out the lamp to take a short nap. He was back at his desk, bent over his laptop, when the first hint of salmony orange began tingeing the darkness outside. He walked to the window. Even the storefront church looked austere and dignified in the dawn mist. The city doth now, like a garment, wear/the beauty of the morning, silent, bare … He vowed to pay attention to the sunrise more often.
It’s exciting to come across a book that binds dating and politics. Formally, not just factually, it’s important that the author is female. This is hardly the first book in which a woman inhabits the mind of a man, but here it seems we’re never meant to forget that a woman is behind the writing. Just as we later see Nate outsourcing his conscience to the women around him, it’s as if the novel’s subject – the dissection of the male psyche in the context of dating – has been outsourced to Waldman, a writer who has the talent to write about anything but was given this subject because she is a woman; because the men in her milieu who have written about Nates haven’t looked so closely at the pain these men cause: her book is less an apologia than the case for the prosecution. It is methodical; Waldman has done the work of imagining so we can all understand this sort of guy’s behaviour and mentality. It’s almost a public service.
Waldman is especially sensitive to what’s at stake in love for her female characters; for women in literature, love always represents certain destinies. For Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, the stakes of love are economic. For the women in Waldman’s world, it’s their personal dignity that hangs in the balance. The difference between the way the women see themselves and the way they appear to the men they’re involved with is what they have to reckon with: they have to hold on to their sense of their own value, against the lack of value they have in the eyes of the men they date.
Near the end of the book, Hannah admits to Nate that she keeps ‘negotiating down’ what she thinks is ‘okay’, and says: ‘this thing that we’ve become is sapping something from me.’ Nate suddenly becomes ‘almost unbearably lonely’, as if he was ‘flawed on some deep level’. He worries ‘whether – in spite of all the friends who seemed to think he was a good guy (and he was a pretty good friend), in spite of being a fairly decent son – there was something terribly wrong with him’. It’s the first time he sees that he could lose Hannah, that she’s not just a passive object of his variable desires. As soon as he senses that power can shift, that his position is unstable, he becomes vulnerable, and is aware that ‘from the beginning, he had felt at home with her.’
In the wake of this near break-up – the conversation continues long into the night – Nate ‘felt close to her, perhaps closer to her than he’d ever felt, as if they’d been through something together, seen each other not just at their best but in some real capacity, and they were still here. She – she hadn’t given up on him. He buried his face in her hair, mumbling something about love.’ In another story, this might mark a turning-point in Nate’s sentimental education. But in Waldman’s world it’s an emotional flicker, like you might get watching a sentimental YouTube video, before turning off the computer to attend to something else.
When they finally break up, Hannah is articulate about her unhappiness: ‘Whatever happened between us was not going to affect you much one way or the other because the most important thing for you is that your book is coming out … There was a power imbalance … It wasn’t fun being on the wrong side of that.’ Not quite hearing her, he replies: ‘Sometimes I think I’ve lost something, some capacity to be with another person, something I used to have. I feel pretty fucked, to tell the truth.’ She is unmoved: ‘I feel like you want to think what you’re feeling is really deep … But to me, it looks like the most tired, the most 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.’
After their break-up, part of him knows he was unkind. Yet ‘whenever he’d felt bad about it, he told himself that he wasn’t forcing her to stay with him. She could break up with him any time she wanted.’ Then he remembers how ‘Aurit argued that for the person with more power in a relationship to refuse to take seriously the unhappiness of the other, simply because nothing is forcing them to, is the ultimate dick move: “It’s like if the United States in the 1950s said: ‘Sorry, black people in the South, but if you don’t like the way you’re being treated, you can go back to Africa.’”’
Nate, like the people he condemns in his essay, outsources his conscience to free himself from guilt, to secure himself the luxury of behaving however he pleases. Aurit and Hannah serve to trouble his worldview; they provide a wider context (wider than his own self-interest). Hannah is forced to break up with him when she realises he won’t do it himself. He outsources the work of the break-up to her. The women around him do the heavy labour of making relationships honest and tender, because that’s their position culturally: they’re the ‘immigrant labourers’ in the business of love. (Interestingly, the woman Nate winds up with, Greer, doesn’t become his conscience – she’s too amoral and self-involved to serve as such. Perhaps this is a hopeful sign? Perhaps it means he will develop his own? Or maybe he’ll discard it altogether like a vestigial limb.)
Soon after his break-up with Hannah, Nate calls the most morally upstanding person he knows, his ex-girlfriend from university, Kristen, now married, a doctor, owner of several dogs, a WASP-ish do-gooder who seems to find him a touching figure. He confesses his angst about how he behaved, wanting to be condemned, wanting someone to point out what he’s done wrong – not just with Hannah, but with all women, perhaps even with Kristen – but she doesn’t bite: ‘Isn’t that what dating is? Trying to make up your mind? … You get a pass for being unsure about the person for the first few months.’ He hangs up, deflated, sensing that she replied so blithely because ‘she had always lacked a certain kind of imagination.’ What sort of imagination? The imagination for how passively cruel imbalances of power make us.
In the end , Nate falls for Greer, about whom there are many negative things to say: she ‘trades on her sexuality and calls it feminism’, she’s shrill and needy, unstable and vulnerable, embarrassing in intellectual arguments. For a writer, she’s not particularly well-read. Yet she’s also confident and sexy and funny and vital. Her market value is high. People gossip about her, she’s a memoirist, ‘a skilled narrator of her own emotions’, so different from Hannah, a girl whose memoirs – particularly riding on the force of her persona – could never sell for six figures (as Greer’s do). Greer is a brand. Hannah will never be one: she lacks charisma, is morally cautious, has an average body.
Throughout the book we observe Nate fretting about his fluctuating desire for Hannah, never coming up with a satisfying reason for his uneasy commitment, as though it was some big mystery. But the reasons were never that complex. There were good-enough answers everywhere, as when he glumly admitted to himself that ‘Jason would probably call Hannah a seven (“co-worker material”).’ Hannah wins nothing in the end – even being free of Nate isn’t seen as a gain – because she’s not winner material.
Greer is exactly the sort of woman Hannah fears Nate will choose. Hannah is the more classically virtuous; Greer is the more compelling package, tempestuous and commanding, and in literary Brooklyn (or perhaps any literary scene ever), that’s who comes out on top. It’s hard to feel that Nate has made the wrong choice. Greer has more sparkle. She is ever interesting and changeable, and Nate can’t feel too much in control with her. Perhaps he’s chosen morally in choosing Greer, because he’s chosen not to have all the power. He’s opted to be desperate, never stable or satisfied, perpetually longing: the ideal state for a consumer and a lover, both. In this way he’s succumbed to the values of his environment, and also triumphed by its measure.
In the book’s final scene, Nate moves in with Greer, and while it’s a victory personally and socially, we’re warned against taking this as a happy ending: Nate will never quite remember the sweet, humble loneliness that punctuated his life before Greer, ‘the exact scent of the air from his bedroom window at dawn, after he’d been up all night working’. There’s always a price to be paid for winning, and it’s the loss of another prize, perhaps one less valuable in his world. In his victory, Nate loses his solitude, one of the few things that can’t be monetised or ranked or witnessed or admired. It’s also an experience that Hannah, that tireless female worker in the factory of love, has never had the luxury to savour.