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Adelle Waldman’s Impressive Second Act

The Nathaniel P. novelist is back with a prequel to her acclaimed 2013 debut

Batya Ungar-Sargon
May 16, 2014
Adelle Waldman's e-book New Year's(Macmillan)
Adelle Waldman's e-book New Year's(Macmillan)

I learned long after everyone else that Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., is an excellent book. When the book came out in the summer of 2013, friends would say, “You have to read this book, it’s about this guy who treats women really badly.” And I thought, I do not want to read that book. I thought, surely this book will enjoy its protagonist’s misogyny; surely such a book will not be able to help but luxuriate in the horrific little ways its small hero finds to degrade women. I thought, this book must surely be written by a woman who hates women. I know how this world works. I wasn’t born yesterday.

How wrong I was.

Now the novel is back in the spotlight following its paperback release, plus the publication of an e-book that offers a 45-page prequel of sorts, narrated by Nate’s castigating Israeli friend Aurit. And I, like a character from Jane Austen, to whom Waldman has been compared, find that I must have my share in the conversation.

Waldman has been embraced by critics for delivering a magnificent narrative. She has also been championed by those outside it (“this book will inspire laughter, chills of recognition and desperate flights into lesbianism,” Lena Dunham proclaims on the paperback). Most notably, though, Waldman in one fell swoop provided the literary world with a response to the complaints of Jennifer Weiner and Claire Messud: It’s not that we don’t want women, it’s that we don’t want you, they seemed to say with every glowing review; it’s not that we need likable characters, we just need them finely drawn and consistently executed.

The comparison to chick lit—or contrast, really—was something that greeted Waldman readily after the book’s publication. In an interview with Salon, Waldman responded that the difference between literary fiction and chick lit was that, “serious fiction… would, I hope, try to be very honest about how people are and less concerned with providing escapist pleasures and more concerned with providing the pleasures of incisive analysis — and maybe humor.” She went on to suggest that having likable protagonists was unrealistic, ultimately geared more towards the production of vicarious fantasies associated with romance.

I respectfully disagree. Certainly Waldman is miles away from Jennifer Weiner, whose work is more devoted to the kinds of pleasures offered by fantasy fulfillment. But she is equally distant from a writer like David Foster Wallace, whose fiction, while cleverly and artistically wrought, positively denies the reader’s desire to be pleasurably absorbed in a plot. In other words, unlike genre fiction, which sacrifices the literary to the pleasure principle, or certain kinds of literary fiction, which focus on style to the exclusion of pleasure, Waldman has managed to turn her excellent style into the handmaiden of enjoyment. For in addition to her excellent command of language and narrative structure, she inspires curiosity! She stokes desire! She dangles recognition just out of the reach of her characters, just enough to leave the reader with the satisfying taste of superiority.

In the summer buzz of Waldman’s original success, author Gary Shteyngart tweeted at New Yorker columnist Emily Nussbaum, “why did she make it so short? There better be a sequel”. His wish was Waldman’s command, and the e-book New Year’s is the perfect digestif for Waldman obsessives. The same rhythms of the novel reappear—the conversations over food and drink, the long inner monologues, the parties. The same pleasure suffuses the narrative—What will they say to each other? How will they react? What IS the difference between intellectual and sexual chemistry?—which comes from truly realized characters who, petty though they may be, are crafted so well as to transcend even the recognizable types Waldman is trafficking in.

But what becomes most clear in New Year’s is that Waldman has found her voice. She brings the same distancing quality to Aurit that served her so well when narrating Nate for another scathing portrayal of that Moebus strip of self-love and self-loathing. Though Aurit is very different from Nate, they inhabit the same universe. Aurit, like Nate, is painfully self-conscious, desires admiration above achievement, and is obsessed with the power dynamics between individuals. It is no small task to convey an unreliable narrator, particularly one who sheds light on the neuroses of an entire social caste. With the meticulous strokes of her pen, Waldman does just that. And if it’s fan-fiction of its highly-praised predecessor, as one reviewer suggested, well, so was Joseph Andrews, one of the 18th century’s most beloved novels.

I stand with Shteyngart: MORE.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.