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Hannah and Nate, Love and Hate: Gender in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

01/24/2014 02:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2014

It's almost been two weeks and I can't stop thinking about Nate. I don't want to think about him -- he's a slovenly, self-centered, smarmy ass who is just as likely to wake up next to last night's pizza crust on his pillow as he is to girl of his dreams, which he has managed to do twice in the last year. He speaks down to people, especially women, and tunes out of conversations that aren't about him or his book reviews.

But try as I might, he's gotten underneath my skin.

Nate is the protagonist in Adelle Waldman's debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I'll admit that I was a little reluctant to read the novel because I wasn't interested in a story about privileged, heterosexual relationships or that perpetuated male and female gender stereotypes: emotionally stunted men and overtly emotional women who begin sentences with I feel. As it turns out, I was only half right. The characters are privileged, but gender stereotypes are far from static in Nathaniel.

Nate and his friends Aurit, Jason, Peter, and Eugene, are an intellectual -- indeed privileged -- group of late 20s/early 30s Brooklynites who spend a lot of time having conversations that they probably started in graduate school, e.g. Is Yoga the New Orientalism? Nate, an only child of immigrant parents, is a recovering high school nerd who has suddenly found himself flush with social and sexual capital since landing a book deal. Since receiving his sizable book advance, Nate has become deeply invested in dating girls that will gain the envy of his friends and avoiding girls that his friend Jason would call "a seven, coworker material."

Despite his fear that she isn't pretty enough, Nate tells himself to stop "acting like a girl" and asks out the so-called seven, Hannah, with whom he finds an abundance of common interests, including writing. One date turns into many and soon enough Nate and Hannah are spending nearly every night together. He introduces her to his friends and Nate is relieved that they approve of her. (Conveniently, he seems to like her too). And just as soon as it looks like relationship might become something, maybe it, the relationship crumbles. Horribly so.

Nate, it turns out, has little patience with women, believing that they are too emotionally vested in their own experience to have a sound opinion on most anything:

He thought women were every bit as intelligent as men, every bit as capable of figuring how how long it would take for train A to crash into train B if the two were moving toward each other at an average speed of C. They were capable of rational thought; they just didn't appear to be as interested in it.

He begins to resent Hannah for her womanness: her turning dinner into a thing -- "Why should he be made to feel bad just because he wasn't in the mood to make a romantic fuss about a Tuesday night?"; her asking if she pleased him in bed -- Why did she have to be so unsexy about it -- so like a wounded dog? How the hell was that supposed to make him feel?; and worst of all, her tendency to ask if he's mad at her -- "He didn't want to feel like the big bad wolf just because he wouldn't play this particularly feminine parlor game." Soon enough, the relationship ends.

Though Waldman is skilled at crafting painful, gut-wrenching scenes, the true brilliance of the novel lies in the exposure of Nate's erroneously, and porously, gendered world. He himself embodies traits that he would read as womanly and therefore inferior. He has "body issues," worrying about his growing paunch and sucking in his stomach when Hannah touches him. He obsesses about when he is going to call Hannah even more than she does: "It occurred to him how ridiculous he was being, how neurotic. He was making way too big a deal out of this. He made up his mind to call her the next day." Though Nate quips about his so-called neurosis as a lapse in his state of mind, he reads Hannah as overcome by her own, helpless to her innate womanness. "Hannah was allowing herself to give into neurotic compulsion. That wasn't something he wanted to award." Being neurotic, being overcome by unreason, is the ultimate epithet in Nathaniel.

Additionally, and perhaps most interestingly, we learn that Nate's creative drive is -- by his own measures -- more feminine than masculine. Indeed, his novel was originally a memoir -- a form of writing that he previously categorizes as feminine because it relies on experience rather than knowledge:

The writers who impressed him most weren't by a sense of personal grievance. (They were unlikely to, say, write poems called 'Mommy.') Of course that wasn't an accurate characterization of all, or most, writing by women. Still, the fact was that when he read something he admired, something written today -- fiction, non-fiction, didn't matter -- there was an 80 percent chance that a guy wrote it.

Yet when Nate describes his novel, it's revealed to be saturated with the same first-person grievance that he loathes. "He first intended to write a scathing critique of the suburbs, featuring an immigrant family with one child. A son. This son was intended to be the book's central from whose lips precocious wit and wisdom would flow and whose struggles -- girls and popularity -- would arouse readers' sympathy." Though the book changes, the contrast that Waldman creates between Nate's interior self and his world view is striking. Hannah's book, on the other hand, is a historical analysis of Ivy League schools as the United States own "version of aristocracy."

The point of this inquiry isn't to start a witch hunt of the feminine, as though so-called feminine traits -- or so-called feminine traits among men -- is something undesirable or suspect. Rather, the goal is to tease out how gender stereotypes and roles in Nathaniel traverse boundaries even as the characters, particularly Nate, police them. We see female characters display only sexual interest rather than emotional attachment, as Nate's next girlfriend reveals that she was never interested in his success but just wanted to have sex with him -- a fact that Nate finds just as arousing as astounding. Who knew, he might say, that women just want to have fun?

In the end, it isn't surprising that the novel is so adept at resisting gender stereotypes. After all, Nathaniel Piven is a character created by (gasp) a woman -- Adelle Waldman. Although many critics have been surprised, however patronizingly, that Waldman was able to craft such a believable, understandable, and hated male character, Waldman's creation -- and success -- suggest that experience does not delineate perspective. Perhaps the anxieties, insecurities, projections, and defense mechanisms that arise in the dating theatre aren't germane to gender or even sexuality.

While many critics have wondered where Waldman ends and Nate begins, perhaps the better question is what is at stake when a female author captures the male experience so vividly? Is it that the male perspective, or the male gaze -- where ever that is -- can be mimicked or performed? Perhaps. But I'd like to suggest that the brilliance of the story is the way it shifts the discourse about dating -- sex, lust, hate, love, rejection -- from a frivolous topic to one that concerns all lives and all genders. Perhaps Waldman is speaking through one of her characters when she exclaims:

Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You're sizing people up to see if they're worth your time and attention, and they're doing the same to you. It's meritocracy applied to personal life, but there's no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact... But who cares, right? It's just girl stuff.