Adelle Waldman’s Journey From Brooklyn Literati to a Big Box Store

A good friend of mine, when talking about the New York dating landscape that led her to choose single motherhood, often refers to Adelle Waldman’s 2013 novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” An unromantic comedy, the book is a note-perfect depiction of Obama-era literary Brooklyn and the Ivy-educated cads who think of themselves as sensitive and enlightened even as they treat women as disposable.

It was a big hit, making lots of year-end best-of lists and inspiring a bunch of way-we-live-now essays, themselves relics of a bygone time when elite culture was coherent enough to have zeitgeist-defining novels.

But instead of capitalizing on her sudden stardom, Waldman didn’t publish another novel for more than a decade. “To my surprise, I just didn’t have another idea,” she told me over lunch near her house in the Hudson Valley town of Rhinebeck. Especially after the shock of Donald Trump’s election, she lost interest in exploring the romantic and psychological struggles of the upper middle class. So in 2018, not knowing what to write about instead, she got a job unloading trucks at a nearby Target, vaguely hoping to find inspiration in the lives of people far outside her own milieu. At first, her shift started at 6 a.m.; then management abruptly changed it to two hours earlier. “The thing that took me by surprise,” she said, was how quickly the workplace itself captured her imagination: “I’ve got to write about this.”

The result is the poignant, funny, stealthily ambitious “Help Wanted,” which follows a group of low-wage part-time employees at a Target-like big box store as they scheme to rid themselves of their toxic manager and secure a promotion for one of their own. While “Nathaniel P.” had delighted me with its uncanny familiarity, this new novel thrilled me for the opposite reason. It depicts a universe that my privileged cohort encounters all the time but often doesn’t really understand, at least in the granular way that Waldman portrays it, and that rarely makes its way into fiction.

Reading it, I kept thinking how odd it is that so few contemporary novels have as their theme the structure of the modern economy, including the decline of brick-and-mortar retailing and the corrosive effects of the just-in-time scheduling.

Part of the reason, surely, is that it’s hard to make such stories entertaining. I doubt there are many authors who could write a literary critique of neoliberalism as breezy and almost sitcom-like as “Help Wanted.” There’s also the fact that the publishing industry is dominated by the sort of expensively educated people who populated Waldman’s first book, and both editors and readers naturally gravitate toward narratives they can relate to. But there’s a third reason that novels grappling with big questions of political economy have become relatively rare: the widespread worry that writing outside one’s own experience will be met with condemnation, a concern that at times made this latest project feel risky for Waldman.

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