Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lovable fuck-up of a man

In the seventies the American fiction’s landscape was dotted with male characters that were predominantly machoistic. Famous writers like Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Saul Bellow turned up men who were nothing if not macho.

These men wouldn’t know what unrequited love means. They were constitutionally incapable of taking any form of rejection and would eventually find their way, especially with women. “All I had to do was go down into the subway. It was like fishing down there. Go down into the subway and come up with a girl,” says a Roth character in Human Stain. In Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man where the protagonist finds out that his girlfriend is ‘cheating’ on him with a sex toy, he goes on a self eulogy, “Every woman I was ever with told me I was the best. I knew how to move, how to groove and I was a handsome bastard too. I had a nice frame, about six feet even. Hundred and sixty-five. Straight hair, dark skin, dark eyes, sensuous mouth, so I heard.” At the slightest provocation here’s a man going on about himself and his virility.

These overtly macho men are not to be seen around anymore in modern American fiction. They have been replaced by the lovable fuck-up of a man whom women don’t usually mind and some considerate ones would even try to ‘redeem’ him. The best lovable fuck-up I came across this year was in Adelle Waldman’s maddeningly alluring debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. This 240-page novel about the eponymous self-absorbed writer living in Brooklyn is hootingly funny, extremely well-written and bracingly vivid. What particularly struck me is the way Waldman captured the essence of aesthete culture of modern-day Brooklyn through her lead character, who is in turns repulsive and charming. If there’s one novel in 2013 that I would unreservedly recommend to everyone, it’s this consistently sparkling one.

The novel opens at a subway station where Nathaniel bumps into the girl whom he impregnated during a brief affair (and later accompanied her for abortion). His evasive disposition towards her sets the tone for rest of this gorgeous novel. Waldman, a print journalist, quite possibly etched out the quintessential lovable fuck-up of a man of our times. Sample this: “When he was younger, he had imagined that as he grew up, he would become progressively less shallow and women’s looks wouldn’t matter much. Now that he was, more or less, grown up, he realised it wasn’t going to happen.” This matter-of-fact voice of her character is what makes Waldman a writer to look forward to.

It’s not a coincidence that Waldman’s favourite writer is Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections is nothing if not a minor ode to the subject under review. Chip Lambert’s frightful insouciance towards women, life in general is emblazoned on the cortex of every reader. Praising Waldman for creating such a believable male protagonist will invariably smack of sexism but I’m taking my chances because she genuinely deserves kudos. In fact, in an interview she expressed her admiration for Franzen for creating absolutely authentic female characters.

This year I also finally got around to reading Ben Lerner’s debut novel (published 2011) Leaving the Atocha Station. Lerner, a poet, tried his hand at fiction for the first time and came up with the character Adam Gordon, who is participating in a prestigious Spanish scholarship in Madrid circa 2004. Reading both these books simultaneously I couldn’t help but think of the bromance that would have bloomed between Adam and Nathaniel. While Nathaniel would judge his girlfriend for not taking care of her body, which is getting a bit bloated, Adam would lie to a random girl at a party that his mother died, just for her fleeting affection.

Both the men behave like drama queens (entertaining ones at that) at the slightest whiff of rejection from the opposite sex. These men are markedly different from their predecessors of seventies. They are sensitive, worldly, culturally evolved. There’s a beautiful passage in Leaving the Atocha Station where Adam wants to bid farewell to his sort-of-girlfriend. He maxes out his father’s credit card to take her out to the best restaurant in Madrid and later to a five-star hotel to spend one last night together. At the end of the chapter Adam says that ‘‘I thought of the artist for a while’. The heartbreaking brilliance of this particular scene is an absolute must-read.

"Here's the most average thing in the world: the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what he can't have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere,” says Hannah to Nathaniel. Despite this outburst, Nathaniel leaves her and gravitates towards someone else.

You might ask what’s the charm in knowing about such men. It’s another facet of human race that needs to be amply chronicled. If Nathaniel needs his friend Jason’s approval of his girlfriend in terms of looks, I would like to know all about it. If in a fit of rage and utter dejection, Adam gives away the ring he bought for a girl he loves to a random person at a museum, I would love to know more than just the token dismissive phrase reserved for such occasions: “they are boys wrapped in a man’s body”.

With women no longer dependent on men and gender dynamics changing so rapidly, the lovable fuck-up of a man is here to stay much to everyone’s delight.


At 10:40 AM, Anonymous -b9 said...

God blessa youse
-Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL


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