Currently Reading

More accurately, just finished reading. Over the last two weeks, I read My Education, by Susan Choi, followed by The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman. It was interesting to read the two novels back to back because My Education has a female protagonist in her early twenties, and by and large chronicles her love affair with a thirtysomething woman. On the other hand, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. follows a thirtysomething male protagonist as he navigates relationships with multiple women in the Brooklyn literary scene. The books have some commonalities: both take place at least part of the time in New York, both main characters are writers, and I could relate to certain elements of both stories being that I, like Regina of My Education, am in my early twenties and I, like Nate of Love Affairs, live in Brooklyn.

Despite the fact that I probably have more in common with Regina, Love Affairs hit me on a gut level that My Education did not reach. This is how I know: I was devouring the book on my couch while my boyfriend was watching the Super Bowl. Boyfriend Alex decided to cuddle up next to me when the post-game episode of New Girl came on. “You don’t want to watch New Girl, babe?” he asked sweetly, knowing that I like the show.

“No, I’m reading,” I replied without even glancing at the television screen. The book’s main character, Nate, was in the midst of a horrible breakup with his girlfriend Hannah—horrible for her, I should say. I was reading through a scene in Prospect Park where she admitted that it wasn’t working out, to which he nodded his head. I knew, as I read, of the pain of that nod; the night before I’d been out with a girlfriend who had broken up with her boyfriend days earlier. “He didn’t even put up a fight,” she said, somewhat anguished. “I was surprised.”

I was mortified for Hannah, and mad at Nate, and at the same time completely enveloped in Nate’s perspective of the discussion/breakup. The book is written in close third and thus kind of reads like a decoder ringso this is what men are thinking! (I should note, it’s written by a woman. I am reading this blog post to Alex and he is not buying that it could correctly represent the male perspective, but it felt very, very real, and very male.)

Anyway, after I brushed off Alex’s New Girl suggestion, he jokingly said, “I feel like we don’t share anything anymore.” He was not being serious, not at all. Normally, knowing his sense of humor, such a comment wouldn’t bother me, wouldn’t even register for me. I would just smile indulgently. But so disturbed was I by the preceding 200 pages of Nate’s point of view, so wrapped up was I in his stark judgement of women and relationships, so angsty was I over the in-progress breakup, that I set the iPhone on which I was reading down and cried, “What are you talking about? Are you serious?”

Alex was understandably taken aback. He quickly reassured me that he was joking, that it was a stupid joke. I persisted. “Are you sure there’s not some truth to the comment?” I said.

Memories of Hannah and Nate’s fictional miscommunications filled my brain. I thought of how she, in his eyes, became meek and overly emotional, while it was clear to me that she was reacting to his increasing disengagement. She would beg him to tell her if something was bothering him. He, turned off by that very begging, would deny that anything was wrong and continue to shrink away.

“You can tell me!” I nearly shrieked, suddenly irrationally convinced that Alex’s ill-advised joke portended the demise of our heretofore stable, two-yearlong relationship. In a flash, it seemed that our shared cat Chives, Brooklyn apartment not so unlike Nate’s and life together could be on the line.

Alex, remarkably calm, reassured his crazy girlfriend that all was well, and I settled down. I went back to the book. About an hour later, once I’d finished, I admitted the source of my freakout and apologized. Alex laughed patiently. He’s always great, but he was looking pretty damn incredible in comparison to Nate.

It’s not that My Education was bad, or not as well-realized. I fully bought Regina’s progression: her descent into all-consuming love, her deep depression after the breakup, her move into adulthood and motherhood and the professional world. But in My Education men are largely on the periphery; this is a book about two women’s sexual and emotional entanglement, and it looks at love, sex, motherhood, and work from a perspective that I recognized, if not necessarily related to. Nate’s perspective, on the other hand, was quite alien to me, and at the same time particularly affecting because he exists in a Brooklyn that I inhabit. Waldman peppers the novel with images of the gentrifying borough, often through the lens of Nate’s Privileged White Male Guilt Complex. Nate taps away on his laptop in cafes that sprout up like flowers (or weeds, depending who you ask) next to bodegas. Nate hears a cabbie grumble about delivering his passengers to Brooklyn. Nate observes the church across the street from his apartment. I encounter all of these sights and sounds every day, and so it was particularly interesting—and worrying—to imagine Nate-like men just strolling around my neighborhood.

I know assholes exist, but it’s not often I am privy to their innermost thoughts.

I don’t mean to oversimplify Love Affairs, by the way, by making it sound like the white male narrator is such a dick that it’s not worth the read. One of the pleasures of the book is seeing how Waldman manages to keep him likable without giving him some hero’s journey. Alex is saying, now, that he wants to read it to see if it’s “true.” I don’t know if it would resonate with him, though, because his truth is not Nate’s truth (thank God!!!). As I read, it might have seemed like some sort of secret window into the male brain, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it couldn’t be. And nor should it be. Remember when everyone freaked out that Lena Dunham wanted to be the “voice of generation”? (Which she didn’t; her character did, and we were supposed to laugh at that.) People were mad because, here we go, a rich white girl wants to speak for all women. But on a deeper level the notion that anyone could speak for everyone of a certain type upsets people, as it should. (It probably partly speaks to our senses of self; what does it say about my individuality if some voice accurately speaks for me? And if that voice does not represent my experience, what does that say about how society devalues my perspective?) Nate, then, is not any more representative of a certain type of man than Hannah Horvath is of a certain type of woman, but his voice—the voice that Waldman cultivates—is fresh and interesting and, ultimately, enjoyable, even if it did momentarily freak my boyfriend out.

***

And a quick currently watching note. Went with the coming-of-age tales this week, with The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back. Both bildungsroman, both revolve around young men, both fairly predictable. The Way, Way Back felt like a retread of countless other such tales (mom has a boyfriend, trip to a beach town for the summer, awkward kids gets a summer job, meets older mentor who is also kind of emotionally stunted, but fun—you know how this goes), but it’s breezy and sweet and Allison Janney is great, always. (Also, why does Amanda Peet always get cast in that part?) The Spectacular Now is also easy to call—reminded me of the underrated gem Keith—but Miles Teller gives a beautiful, effortless performance, like he just lives that character. Can’t wait to see his future work.

Currently Reading

So, I finished the Eggers book and I feel conflicted about it. On the one hand, I tore through it and was intrigued by the central mystery, or maybe more the heavy feeling of doom that hangs over the text. I liked the main character’s descent into, virtually, madness, and the development of her addiction to social media.

But the book was a bit preachy; and I am not speaking from some place of defensiveness, like “Dave Eggers is attacking my generation’s way of life!” Not at all. I blog intermittently on WordPress or Tumblr, but I have never had a Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I am not morally opposed or anything; I just never saw the need. So it’s not that I think the book is too harsh on social media or something like that—if anything, if you remove the social media element, it still reads as an interesting analysis or depiction of mass fervor, of the way a society slips under one tyrannical thumb.

But there are some parts that are just heavy-handed. For one thing, the shark. The shark metaphor was clear enough, probably too clear, before Eggers went ahead and spelled it out in the final chapter. And while Eggers’ post-private world felt well-realized, did his characters? This was the big struggle for me. The main character, Mae, is so intensely unlikable, selfish and, worst of all, stupid. But does that make her not fully developed? And if she feels empty, wouldn’t that be a realistic symptom of the character traits valued in the book’s world? I keep thinking of this novel I read a few months ago, The Art of Fielding. It was so excellent because the characters were, whether likable or not, living and breathing people. I could imagine talking to them in real life. They felt like they would exist in the real world. Eggers’ characters never approached that for me, but again, maybe that’s because nobody really exists in the Circle’s world—except for digitally. The people are so focused on the construction of their identities that they are not fully alive. They are like impressions of human beings. Which is exactly how they felt on the page.

So while the writing may have been good, the character work logical, it put me in an uncomfortable place as a reader; because Mae was so self-absorbed, I acted as judge or scolding parent. Making the reader her friend, pulling the reader into her world rather than simply letting us judge it from a place of moral authority, would have the greater challenge, I think.