Admittedly, Waldman isn’t much for plot. Like an episode of “Girls,” this svelte novel moves through a series of loosely structured conversations — in an apartment, at a trendy restaurant, on the way to the subway. Unlike an episode of “Girls,” though, Waldman’s novel concentrates on the experiences of a young man. Nathaniel Piven is an ambitious intellectual, a few years out of Harvard (which he finds some humble way to drop into every conversation). Naturally, “the well-groomed, stylishly clad, expensively educated women of publishing found him appealing.” He writes book reviews and cultural criticism for Very Important Magazines, and he’s just sold a book for a six-figure advance, which gives him extra cachet amid this tiny subspecies of New Yorkers who chart each other’s ascendancy with the solemnity of Renaissance astronomers.
I don’t want to give the misimpression that there’s anything trite or grasping about him. Waldman’s hero is a perfectly upstanding guy. “Nathaniel Piven,” she tells us at the opening, “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.” That noisy conscience, the epitome of modern “latte liberalism,” is the real subject of this novel. (By my count, the word “guilt” appears more than 20 times in these pages.) Nate feels guilty about almost everything: about homeless people on the street; about black janitors cleaning up after him; about taking the earned income tax credit, “since it was clearly intended for real poor people, not Harvard grads.” But Waldman demonstrates that all his ready guilt is really a kind of salve for a man who’s impenetrably selfish. In his mind, low-level remorse has become a viable substitute for actual reformation.
Do you know this man? Are you this man?
We first meet Nate when he runs into an old girlfriend who tells him off, even though “he had done everything that could have been expected of him.” Her animus is a mystery to him, deeply troubling. “Contrary to what these women seemed to think,” Waldman writes, “he was not indifferent to their unhappiness. And yet he seemed, in spite of himself, to provoke it.” Over the next 200 pages, Waldman shows why.
It’s not that Nate is a cad in any ordinary sense. Indeed, he’s extraordinarily sensitive, so unlike his male friends, who are still rating women’s breasts and telling him to “stop overthinking . . . like a girl.” While they brag about their sexual exploits, Nate sips constantly from a “cocktail of guilt and pity and dread.” But there’s something intoxicating about that cocktail, and Waldman traces it coursing through his blood with clinical precision, as though she’s diagnosing the symptoms of a functional alcoholic.
Although “The Love Affairs” makes reference to several previous (and future) love affairs in Nate’s life, the novel concentrates on one promising relationship with an attractive freelance writer named Hannah. We see them meet, date and become a couple, but the real action of the novel remains in Nate’s analytical mind, his tireless attention to the filament of desire. Falling in love is so lovely, but this is a time-lapse photo of the bouquet withering. “When you’re single,” Nate thinks, “your weekend days are wide-open vistas that extend in every direction; in a relationship, they’re like the sky over Manhattan: punctuated, hemmed in, compressed.”
Waldman’s finest work here is letting us see the first spores of mold settle on Nate’s heart. Panicked, he grows cold; confronted, he apologizes. Rinse and repeat in a pose of perfect reasonableness until his lover is reduced to a madwoman whose fury and tears he can pity and forgive — and abandon. “It was not always unpleasant to deal with a hysterical woman,” Waldman says in her best 21st-century Jane Austen voice. “One feels so thoroughly righteous in comparison.”
Neither chick lit nor lad lit, “The Love Affairs” presents a series of scenes that lay out exactly what’s so maddening about this young man — and, to be fair, many of the grasping, self-absorbed women who throw up their hands at him. Waldman has captured a whole group of privileged people who’ve been seduced into believing that their choice of a spouse is just one more consumer purchase — like an expensive coffee maker, something to be considered according to its pros and cons and then constantly reevaluated for how much it satisfies the original expectations.
In one comically poisonous scene, as Hannah tries to figure out why he’s grown so distant, Nate stops listening to her and notices that “when she moved her arms in emphasis . . . the skin underneath jiggled a little bit, like a much older woman’s. It was odd because she was quite fit. He felt bad for noticing and worse for being a little repelled. And yet he was transfixed. The distaste he felt, in its crystalline purity, was perversely pleasurable. He kept waiting for her to wave her arms again.”
These are rarefied creatures, to be sure, with their “cushy jobs and preening social consciences,” but handling them this wittily and wisely, Waldman attains something like the universal truths an older female writer articulated by recording the antics of a group of genteel folk in early 19th-century Bath. How far have we come, really, in the 50 years since John Updike’s Rabbit bounded across America, satisfying his appetites, nursing his hurt feelings and offering up his glib apologies?
In a dead suburb of Pennsylvania or the hippest neighborhood of Brooklyn, he still runs. Ah: runs. Runs.
Women, let him go.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.