I wanted the protagonist of my novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., to represent the creative man-child as accurately as possible: as someone who is at moments surprisingly sensitive and yet seems to wreak emotional havoc on the women he dates — women who mistook the moments of sensitivity to indicate that he was a different, and more reliable, type of male person.
I wanted to write about this guy because men like him so often tell the stories that make up our collective culture. They’re often talented and funny and committed to their work — and still, like all of us, they often have a blind spot when it comes to themselves. I wanted to shine a spotlight on one of these men, to be fair but unsparing, and scrutinize in particular his treatment of women.
There’s no real mystery to it. Take an adolescent male whose interests are primarily intellectual and who, for that reason or others, has trouble connecting with his peers. Fast forward ten years until he’s grown into his looks. Expose him to a wide variety of adult women until he finds a few who dig his blend of introversion and melancholy, who mistake his tendency to withdraw as a signal to advance, and who don’t complain to him too often.
I don’t know if there’s a cure, really. The journals indicate reliable treatments, but flare-ups can occur even after years of diligent medication. The safest bet is prophylactic, for parents to warn their daughters. Yes, his taste in art may suggest a deep and fulfilling inner life, but, because he’s grown so accustomed to sustaining himself for so long – cooking his own cheap meals, going to the movies alone, writing inaccessible blog posts – he’s no good at relationships. Those skills needed to connect to another human being, like generosity and sharing and communication, are atrophied. It’s not that he’s not aware that he’s hurting you, the dude’s keenly aware, it just doesn’t occur to him that there’s anything he could do about it. Calling him damaged goods feeds into the mystique (“yes, yes, I am an asshole; I’m no good for you”; weary drag on an American Spirit, thumb rasping along the stubble).
If conservative, they tend to be libertarian: the type who’ve never had trouble fending for themselves, so they can’t imagine why anyone else would. If liberal, they tend to be the academic sort of progressive: the sort of male who’s deeply angry about racism, but who draws his shoulders in and his eyes down when a bunch of teenagers are being loud at the other end of the trolley car. You’ll find them at the open mic or the tattoo parlor or the bus station, pining for that perfect specimen of hipster girl: pale, sleek, uninhibited, a sidekick who laughs at all of your witticisms, then waits just inside her apartment door until you summon her again.