Conversion Sickness

“Nathaniel P. is George Eliot. Nathaniel P. is Tolstoy.” Thus proclaimed a friend of mine in adulation of young novelist Adelle Waldman’s widely acclaimed debut, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P ...

Nathaniel P. is George Eliot. Nathaniel P. is Tolstoy.” Thus proclaimed a friend of mine in adulation of young novelist Adelle Waldman’s widely acclaimed debut, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Waldman’s Nate Piven is a writer in the New York of the very recent past, after the city’s center of literary gravity slid across the East River but before The Daily Beast devoured Newsweek from the inside out. His Brooklyn is a far remove from Anna Karenina’s St. Petersburg, but Nate is meant to be a Vronsky by way of Hannah Horvath, and so the flannel-clad crowd at Abilene in Carroll Gardens, where my friend made her proclamation, was happy to nod along, though few of us had read the book.

How could we not love it? It was about us, the mostly Ivy-educated aspirants to careers in culture who bounce from bar to bar and bed to bed while tossing off references to Tolstoy. And Waldman, for her part, would hardly find the George Eliot comparison out of place: her epigraph—“To give a true account of what passes within us, something else is necessary besides sincerity”—is from Romola.

Another recent debut novel, critic Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors, covers similar terrain: Jacob Putnam, like Nate, is a young, sexually eager Harvard graduate with literary ambitions. But Jacob is in Prague in 1990, and he’s gay. The Czech Republic’s Communist carapace is falling away in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, and Jacob, teaching English and making furtive trips to gay bars and cruising sites, is, like Prague, still something of an outsider in his own newly shed skin. Crain’s own epigraph is from Stendhal: he and Waldman lay claim to the same novelistic lineage, both applying the tools of 19th-century realism to the problem of how a young man might find himself when looking primarily in other people’s beds and in other authors’ books.

Soon after Waldman’s novel begins, Nate’s search takes him to a barstool beside Hannah, another would-be writer, on a first date. The next 200 pages track the few-months-long relationship that follows. The problem, Hannah shortly finds out, is that Nate is emotionally stunted, bored with his girlfriend’s soon-familiar breasts and conversation, but reluctant to leave an arrangement that promises regular sex. He’ll tell her he’s fine when he’s in fact overtaken by ennui, and he’ll unabashedly ogle passing women. Nate persistently wonders whether certain thoughts and actions are “fey” or “wussy”; and in a landscape of interchangeable white characters, the only friend Nate consistently refers to by full name is Eugene Wu—a habit that seems boorishly designed to mark Eugene’s racial otherness.

Crain and Waldman apply the tools of 19th-century realism to the problem of how a young man might find himself when looking primarily in other people’s beds and in other authors’ books.

Armed with a new book deal, Nate is insufferable, and the novel’s ultimate failure is that Waldman commits neither to fully satirizing Nate’s lazy misogyny, grade-school masculinity, and casual racism, nor to giving him the dimensionality in which we might find room to understand his limitations. A more immediate problem, though, is the banal imprecision of the writing. Waldman too often reaches for the thesaurus headword to capture Nate’s impressions—“pretty,” “interesting,” “smart,” “beautiful”—italicizing the adjective when Nate feels it acutely, rather than finding a word that does more work.

Waldman’s dialogue is equally limited. One of the book’s worst offenses comes in its first pages, during a sidewalk encounter between Nate and his ex-girlfriend Juliet: in ten lines of dialogue they speak each other’s names nine times. A trivial statistic, perhaps, but this soap-operatic trope (“Really? Really, Nate? That’s all you have to say to me?” “Jesus, Juliet! I just thought you might be in a hurry. Come on, Juliet. It doesn’t have to be this way.” “Oh? How should it be, Nate?” “Juliet—”) offers a telling foretaste of what follows.

That Nathaniel P. is ultimately a failure is not chiefly because Nate is unlikable or implausible (though he is both). Of course, many great novels are populated by distasteful characters—Humbert Humbert, Nicholas Bulstrode, and Anna Karenina herself come to mind. And indeed, Waldman can be credited with spotlighting a type of 21st-century man, enlightened in name only, who is both familiar and deserving of scorn. Her Linnaean facility in drawing the Manchildus brooklynia literarium has made Waldman a folk hero to many readers.

Nate, however, is more a stand-in for his species than a rounded individual, overdrawn yet uninteresting even in his loucheness. We might know “a Nate” out in the world, but the Nate on the page too often reads like a paper doll, patch-worked from a catalog of details meant to confer authenticity. His reality is meant be established by our learning that he has a favorite size of breast: the size that fits perfectly in a red wine glass.

Even if the novel succeeded in breathing life into Nate, it would still have to answer the question of why we’d want to share his air. After a fight late in their relationship, Nate is “disappointed” by Hannah’s regained composure: “When she’d been acting crazy, he’d had license to give vent to that pent-up tension, and yet to be also beautifully, effortlessly right … It was not always unpleasant to deal with a hysterical woman. One feels so thoroughly righteous in comparison.” And, indeed, her calm is a turnoff: “He felt his cock slackening, as if without noticing it, he had been a bit hard.” Characteristic of these jarring moments, the novel lets Nate’s sentiments hover without reflection or judgment.

Many readers appear to believe that the novel shares our purely negative view of Nate—that Waldman is seeking revenge through representation. In that case, we must ask whether it is worthwhile to witness an asshole being an asshole for 200-plus pages. Hannah’s judgment of Nate serves just as well as an assessment of the book he inhabits: “I feel like you want to think what you’re feeling is really deep…. But to me, it looks likes the most tired, the most average thing in the world.” If there were irony, play, or reflection in the treatment of Nate’s aspirational sociopathy, we might find more value in our time with him. But the problem for Waldman’s novel, finally, is that there are no shades of meaning beneath the thick head of hair Nate likes to touch for reassurance.

More successful is Crain’s Necessary Errors, with its finely drawn cast of young, yearning expats and vivid portrait of a post-revolutionary Prague inching uncomfortably towards capitalism. It is a culture in transition, in translation, one seeking a new language for its experiences, as Jacob discovers when he meets a laborer who cannot understand that an office worker might command a higher salary than a man making something with his hands.

For Jacob and his fellow language teachers gathered from across Europe, this Prague is “a second America, in a way; they were immigrants, living on a frontier.” New countries offer opportunities for reinvention, and Crain incisively captures the pleasures and pressures of these translations—of language and of self.

In an early scene, Jacob finds the underground gay bar listed in his travel guide, T-Club. There he speaks to Luboš, a young Czech man with whom he begins a halting romance across linguistic and cultural barriers. Luboš asks what Jacob is doing in Prague:

Jacob held up an index finger while he sorted through the Czech words he knew. —I want to write, he answered at last. It wasn’t what he would have said in English, but it was something he knew how to say.
—Like Havel.
—Yes, Jacob said. In English he would have said “I guess” or “Sure,” but he didn’t know how to in Czech.

Jacob shuttles unsteadily between the straight aboveground and the gay below, between Czech and English. In these austere negotiations, excess and equivocation are stripped away.

The novel’s best scenes are those that most pointedly capture the ambivalence of transformation. Seeking extra money, Jacob gives private English lessons to a group of aging chemists uncertain of their future employability. But they’re less interested in the English terms for the periodic table’s elements than in the joyful, vulgar jokes they can make in their new tongue. Later, a student from the language school brings Jacob home to tutor her young children. They are spellbound by the language of market transactions, but they end up panicking in search of the words to assert that their beloved dolls are not for sale.

The prices of unfettered freedom are just as present as their profits, and the specter of HIV and AIDS hovers over the story. When Jacob falls ill early on, he wonders if he is suffering from “conversion sickness,” an almost too-apt descriptor for the malaise that hangs over the novel’s characters and the changing city they inhabit.

Crain captures the hesitance of two systems, or two selves, touching along a fragile filament.

If Necessary Errors occasionally frustrates, it is at these moments, when Crain equates individual and social change too neatly, or takes the parallels too far. At one point Jacob and Annie, his mousy Irish friend and fellow teacher, attend a gallery show of illustrations for Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
They conjecture that the cockroach is a metaphor for homosexuality. Or maybe capitalism. Crain would have done better to keep such links sub-textual rather than putting them in the minds and mouths of his highly self-aware characters, instinctive narrators of their own experiences.

Jacob and Annie’s trip to a recently reunified Berlin is much more effective for its understatement. Jacob is thrown by the peculiar structure of the subway system:

Inside the elevated train, a new transit map explained the mystery: Before unification, the transit systems of East and West Berlin had intersected at only one station. Only that station had appeared on the maps of both cities; there had been no need to remind the riders of the existence of places they could not visit. In the new map, the two webs now touched along one filament, hesitantly, and Jacob was able to see both the station where they had boarded and the one near the tourist bureau.

In poignant, limpid language, Crain records what it feels like to be embedded in a specific place and time, attempting to see into places one cannot visit. He captures the hesitance of two systems, or two selves, touching along a fragile filament. Attempts at unification—with the spirit of the age, with another person, with the self one is meant to be—have always been the realist novel’s most fertile ground. Despite my friend’s insistence, neither of these authors is Eliot or Tolstoy, but Crain is an able practitioner of their form—an author one is happy to praise even after having read him. icon