It was in the fall of 2017 that I first had the thought. That was when every week another much-admired man was accused of doing something monstrous to women, and my entire life started to be taken up by the process of learning the details of this monstrosity, reporting them back to the public, analyzing them, and then reciting them over and over again to my friends at cocktail parties, while everyone whispered, “Can you believe it? Can you believe he did that?”
“My god,” I thought, “I feel as though I’m in a constant state of having just read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”
Or maybe I had the thought before that. Maybe I first had it in 2016, right after Trump was elected president and I saw a man posting victoriously on Reddit’s most misogynistic forums about how this proved that incels had won, that women truly were inferior to men and everyone knew it, that he could keep a woman in a fucking cage if he wanted to and no one could do anything about it.
Maybe it was in the fall of 2014, after GamerGate took off, and woman after woman started posting in public the death threats and the rape threats they were getting every day for, as far as anyone could tell, having opinions on the internet. Or maybe it was earlier that year, after Elliot Rodgers went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista to punish women for sexually rejecting him.
It seemed that every time I turned on the news this decade, there was a story that felt designed to emphasize just how disposable, how unimportant, how exploitable our culture believes women to be. And The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is the only piece of art I have encountered that made me feel the truth of that overwhelming disdain in all its exhausting, depleting force.
What I mean by that is: Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, is a book about low-grade, nonviolent misogyny — misogyny that is so common and pervasive that it’s easy to convince yourself it’s not worth noticing. It chronicles such hatred in exacting, encyclopedic detail, showing us men who zone out when a woman is talking because they can’t stop thinking about the flab on her upper arms; men noting that, while they are “as capable of rational thought” as men, women “just didn’t appear to be as interested in it;” and a man reacting to an email about labor reform from a woman by thinking, “Dickens this, child labor that. Even if she weren’t offering outright to suck his cock, she was, in a sense, doing just that.”
What’s at stake here are the casual ways in which men are encouraged to dehumanize women, even when they are progressive men who identify as feminists. Nathaniel P. is exploring small-scale and petty actions, not anything as horrific as the violent misogyny that has shown up in the news this decade again and again and again. But it explores that pettiness with such pinpoint exactitude that the links between casual everyday misogyny and the violence of a Harvey Weinstein or a mass shooter feel uncomfortably clear.
The protagonist of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. doesn’t hate women. But he doesn’t totally treat them like human beings either.
Published in 2013, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a comedy of manners concerning a 30-ish
Nate is an enlightened soul, “the product,” Waldman informs us, “of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education.” As the novel opens, he is working on an essay — Nate is a rising novelist and cultural critic — about the idea that “one of the privileges of being elite is that we outsource the act of exploitation.” Rather than personally hiring an undocumented immigrant to do their apartment repairs for below minimum wage, Nate points out, good liberal elites will allow their apartment manager to hire and then underpay that immigrant for them, while their hands remain ostensibly clean.
Life for people in his social class is not significantly different from the way it was for the wealthy gentleman scholars of Victorian England. It’s still subsidized by the suffering of the poor, he concludes. “We’ve just gotten better at hiding it — from ourselves most of all,” he says. “People back then at least justified their behavior by admitting to their contempt for the poor.”
What Nate never quite admits over the course of the novel, but which becomes extremely clear to the reader, is that he’s got the same kind of privilege over women that he has over the poor. He is more socially powerful than women, and he even personally benefits from making women suffer. But he cannot admit to his contempt for women, and so instead he’s outsourced the act of exploiting them onto his vague awareness of various social pressures.
The woman Nate most exploits is Hannah, a writer who’s a little younger and a little less advanced in her career than he is, but whom he nonetheless recognizes to be smart and talented. Nate romantically pursues Hannah only after minutely cataloguing her physical defaults (her brows are too heavy, her features too pointy, 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”).
He smugly recognizes when he asks her out that he is bucking stereotypes by going after his intellectual equal. “Why did women say,” he wonders, after Hannah scores a point off him during an argument on an early date, “men were threatened by women who challenged them?”
But Nate remains uncomfortably aware that Hannah is not as pretty or as immaculately groomed as other women he’s dated before. He thinks that one of his friends would probably rate her a seven at best: “coworker material.” He keeps noticing that other women are “technically” prettier than Hannah, always doing so with the resigned use of the word technically, as if to say that if it were up to him, Hannah would be considered the prettiest girl in the world but, well, the system got her on a technicality.
In fact Nate’s friends like Hannah. They pronounce her a “cool girl” and inform him that she has a nice rack. Still, Nate allows himself to outsource his guilt for his treatment of Hannah to them, to note constantly that it’s not like he himself is calling Hannah a seven. It’s just that he’s pretty sure his friend Jason would.
As the last of his attraction to Hannah fades over the course of their five-month relationship, Nate finds himself resenting her furiously. In the past, he’s always been able to dump his girlfriends when he stops being attracted to them, because then he has the space to notice personality flaws that establish legitimate grounds for a breakup.
Nate doesn’t have a real excuse to break up with Hannah: She’s still the same smart and nice and interesting person that she was when they started dating, and she’s done nothing bad to him. And Nate doesn’t want to be the kind of guy who dumps a girl for being just pretty instead of technically pretty, not when she’s also nice and smart and interesting to talk to. He doesn’t want to value looks over intellectual companionship.
But he can’t stand to be with Hannah anymore. As he becomes less physically attracted to her, she instead starts to repulse him. He spends a date thinking over and over again about how the jeans she’s wearing make her butt look disproportionate and flat. “He wondered why none of her girlfriends had told her this, about the jeans,” Waldman writes of Nate. “Why hadn’t she herself noticed? After all, a gigantic, full-length mirror took up most of her bedroom.”
Nate doesn’t want to think these superficial things. Most of the time, he knows that they’re gross, misogynistic criticisms. But he does think them, because he’s living in a culture that teaches him to calculate women’s human value through their erotic capital, to believe that his career success is interchangeable with his social success, and both are interchangeable with his ability to win the romantic attentions of a certain kind of woman. A technically pretty woman. A 10. What the incels online these days would call a Stacy.
The most astonishing accomplishment of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is to catalog this way of thinking in merciless and unsparing detail, to depict exactly how this constant weighing and reckoning of women’s market value plays out and justifies itself in men’s minds. And that system is what has underlain the vast outpouring of misogynistic rage and violence we’ve spent the past 10 years observing and chronicling.
Nate’s belief that his social success is inextricably entwined with winning a technically pretty woman for himself — and that, since he has a book deal and is professionally successful, he is in a sense owed a pretty woman — is the same mindset underlying the Isla Vista shootings. It’s what allowed men like Harvey Weinstein to prey on less-powerful women with impunity, to allow Donald Trump to remark, “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” It is a state of mind that treats women as status symbols, trophies, objects through whom and upon whom men can demonstrate their own power. It is a state of mind that cannot ever quite allow that women are people in their own right.
Nate’s not a predator in the vein of Weinstein or Rodgers. He doesn’t physically attack anyone. He’s not even that much of an asshole, as these things go. He’s just a kind of lazy and thoughtless boyfriend.
But Nathaniel P. makes it devastatingly clear that Nate has been thoroughly inculcated by the belief system that warped men like Harvey Weinstein. The difference between his hatred and their hatred is not a difference of kind. It’s a difference of degree.