In his new novel, Loner, Teddy Wayne holds a mirror up to much of the casual creepiness that has entered the culture of courtship over the last decade or so. The book is narrated by David Alan Federman, a Harvard freshman and a young man on the slow, incremental progression from part-time creep to full-blown psychopath. Aside from an early, off-handed reference to his “fancy prose style” — readers of Nabokov will immediately recollect Humbert Humbert’s assertion that “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” — David initially strikes us as a familiar variation on an innocuous social type: the mildly eccentric dweeb trying to find a social role commensurate with his sense of self-importance. If David is “alienated” when he arrives for his first semester at Harvard, he is certainly no more alienated than the other protagonists of campus novels and films, from Lucky Jim to Everybody Wants Some!! As popular culture teaches us, the twinned desire for sex and for a self is simply the universal impulse of incoming freshmen everywhere.
What sets David apart is not his alienation, but his precocious literary imagination, which allows him to anatomize the painful gap between his social emptiness and his psychological fullness. Upon finding his name inscribed on the door of his dorm room, David’s first thought — of how he would “humbly recall this moment in career-retrospective interviews” — is immediately deflated by the banality of his name itself, a sobriquet so bland and generic that it seems to name “an entity who is hardly here, or maybe he just left — Wait, who were we talking about, again? It was as if my parents, upon filling out my birth certificate, couldn’t be bothered. Tap is fine, they always told waiters.” David’s vanishing self-worth (and compensatory arrogance) are suggested by his signature bathroom stall graffiti tag: “David wasn’t here.”
David’s self-assertion through self-effacement is also in some sense the signature move of David’s author, Teddy Wayne, whose creative imagination is animated by his authorial invisibility. In a culture of literary fiction that still widely celebrates that axiom of the creative writing workshop — “find your voice” — Wayne’s virtuosity lies in an ability to convey his own distinctive ironic sensibility and ethos entirely through the voices of others. In Kapitoil (2010), that voice belonged to Karim Issar, a socially awkward Qatari programmer who comes to Wall Street to help prevent the Y2K bug. The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (2013) was narrated by a pubescent, Justin Bieber–esque pop megastar. To flex his ventriloquial muscle (and curtail the potential tedium of an entire novel communicated in the lexicon of an 11-year-old), Wayne also “reproduces” much of the textual detritus that circulates around Jonny — tweets, marketing reports, articles from teenybopper magazines, concert reviews, legal documents, even an entire “Talk of the Town”–style New Yorker piece. Wayne himself is a frequent contributor of spiky, high-concept humor writing to The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Vanity Fair.
Given the author’s genius for mimicry, it would be a fool’s errand to put forth any sort of pronouncement about Wayne’s “real” voice. Indeed, even the articles that appear under Wayne’s own byline in The New York Times style section may strike his readers as some sort of long-running, postmodern experiment: painstakingly crafted simulacra of New York Times articles that actually do appear in The New York Times. This is an author who once engaged in a three-month Facebook dialogue with a Malaysian scam artist, stringing the would-be fraudster along with unending declarations of love, promises of money, and frequent meditations upon his stress-induced diarrhea. In any event, we can safely venture that the Harvard-educated Wayne possesses the playful erudition and linguistic self-consciousness that define David Federman, who is himself capable of unfurling sentences fit for the style section of a Sunday newspaper:
[Y]our crowd didn’t reveal its class by stock emblems of affluence: navy blazers with brass buttons and chinos, pearl necklaces, the plumage of those crimson-and-blue-blooded WASPs who looked like they’d been born wearing a pair of boat shoes. Yours was subtler and pitted against that bloated, decaying archetype. You had traveled widely, dined at Michelin-starred restaurants without parental supervision, matriculated at schools with single-name national reputations, ingested designer drugs and maybe had a cushy stint in rehab.
The “you” in that passage refers to Veronica Wells, a fellow Harvard freshman whose appearance at a residence orientation meeting is a revelation for David. Veronica is the target of some of David’s most florid ejaculations of “fancy prose”: her lips are “distant twin mountains […] under an elegantly concave philtrum,” her hair, “chestnut flecked with mid-October hues,” and her skin, “the tone of a patiently toasted marshmellow.” She is also addressed in the second-person throughout the book, which places the reader in an occasionally disconcerting position vis-à-vis some of the more, shall we say, “problematic” episodes that arise (as it were) at the novel’s climax.
If David had arrived at Harvard feeling listless and apathetic, Veronica’s entrance fills him with a throbbing new sense of purpose. She instantly becomes his reason for living, a human vessel for his immense longing — not only for sex, glamour, and social validation, but also for something deeper. Veronica is the antidote to the Prufrockian non-self that David secretly fears himself becoming. If he was with her, David thinks, he would be somebody; he would “exist in the minds of all [his] acquaintances,” as J. D. Salinger wrote in “Teddy” (one of Loner’s epigraphs). As our narrator knows, the Veronicas of this world do not just trip into the sack with social bottom-feeders like him. The undergraduate dating ecosystem being what it is, David might have a better shot with Sara Cohen, Veronica’s nice but nerdy roommate — a girl whose idea of sexy negligée is a “raise Ohio’s minimum wage now!” T-shirt. True, David lacks even the faintest twinge of authentic affection for Sara, but that’s irrelevant considering the upsides of the relationship: namely, escaping the toxic quagmire of male homosocial geekdom through the lifeline of a girlfriend, and, more insidiously, maintaining a physical presence near Veronica.
Given the comical extent to which David is outclassed by this ethereal representative of the haut monde, we are almost tempted to root for our underdog narrator. He bides his time, pursuing his ersatz courtship of Sara while scheming scenarios that could bring him closer to Veronica. His pent-up masochism finds the perfect release in Small Penis Humiliation (SPH), a boutique genre of internet porn in which the female performer berates the viewer’s pathetic manhood. He chums around with his “placeholder” friends: “Subatomic” Steve and the Matthews Mauraders. David’s “real” life, his imaginative life, is already bound up in his completely one-sided relationship with Veronica. He lives for the thrilling moments when he can watch her walk across the cafeteria, or stage a seemingly accidental encounter in the doorway of their residence. Like the aforementioned Humbert, standard-bearer among the ranks of romantic egomaniacs, who savors the sound and texture of the beloved’s name on his tongue (“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth”), David finds in the name of his own inamorata a miniature concrete poem: “Veronica Morgan Wells. The quadrisyllable that halves its beats at the middle name, dividing again at its pluralized terminus of subterranean depths. The percussively alert c drowsily succumbing to the dozing s.” VW is not just the name of a “German luxury automaker”; it is the name of desire itself.
Even after our narrator has started physically stalking Veronica around campus, attending the same parties, even choosing the same classes, we are still perhaps somewhat reluctant to condemn David. Is there not something charmingly innocent about the ecstasy David derives from feeling his forearm graze against Veronica’s as they sit next to one another in class? (Besides, David tells himself, just because she betrays no awareness of this physical contact, doesn’t mean she isn’t getting a secret thrill from their elbow intercourse.)
Gradually, however, David’s romantic stratagems become more assertive. Holding a door open turns into offering assistance with an English essay, which turns into actually writing that essay, which turns into a standing offer to write all of her essays. David has absorbed from Nietzsche the lesson that every social interaction, including even the most “selfless” display of romantic chivalry, involves an attempt to exert power over another person. His application of that lesson however, soon turns out to be increasingly literal and calculated. His treatment of Sara, whom he dates only to keep himself within Veronica’s physical orbit, is particularly callous. Their sex life, initiated at David’s stubborn insistence, is intended primarily to communicate to Veronica that David is “a copulative agent.” “I love fucking you,” David says to Sara, his voice “a notch above a whisper, a golf commentator narrating the putt.” When he repeats the phrase at higher and higher volumes, we don’t need to be told that he intends it to be heard by Veronica through the wall. Needless to say, by the time David expresses a desire to open up a seam in Veronica’s skull — wishing that he could “rappel inside, and suture it back together so I could swim around your brain undisturbed” — his evolution from quixotic to psychotic seems assured.
Teddy Wayne’s work is always highly attuned to the mood and fixations of the contemporary moment, and Loner is a campus novel for our times, reflecting distinctly modern anxieties about the state of American higher education. Wayne’s characters reflect on their “white privilege” and meditate on their position of power vis-à-vis the structural inequalities endemic to the neoliberal order. “Maybe it’s a good thing for us to experience being unseen at a Latino event,” Sara says after an intimidating salsa lesson. “You know — when Latinos have to deal with being unseen more systematically every day in the U.S.” Later, David audits a seminar entitled “Gender and the Consumerist Impulse,” led by a tattooed professor interested in “nonnormative modes of intersectionality.” Suddenly conscious of his heterosexual signifiers, David begins to feel “unwelcome, a grotesque insect crawling over their lovely picnic spread.”
While certainly less alarmist than, say, Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Loner nonetheless amplifies some of the troubled vibrations emanating from the contemporary college campus. While David’s perversity and derangement are, in one sense, unique manifestations of his individual psychology, his condition also feels related to the pervasive listlessness and ennui among millennials discussed by William Deresiewicz in Excellent Sheep. Deresiewicz believes that beneath the “façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment” of our best university students there often lurks “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” Our elite students, Deresiewicz argues, are animated by ferocious drive and ambition but lack the values that endow those ambitions with meaning. “The endless hoop-jumping, starting as far back as grade school, that got them into an elite college in the first place — the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches, tutors, ‘leadership,’ ‘service’” — this flurry of professionalizing activity, Deresiewicz claims, “left them no time, and no tools, to figure out what they want out of life, or even out of college. Questions of purpose and passion were not on the syllabus.” David Alan Federman is in some ways the archetypal embodiment of Deresiewicz’s troubled Ivy Leaguer — a “polite, pleasant, mild, and presentable” student who turns out to be a wolf in the clothing of an overaccomplished sheep.
Loner explores a number of sexual “eccentricities” (shall we call them), most of which are played for laughs, such as the narrator’s strangely erotic response to Disney’s Dumbo. But the novel culminates with an episode of sexual violence that is genuinely disturbing, amplified by the lightness and humor of the novel up to that point. In the novel’s final movement, a sickly feeling of inevitability starts to settle over the proceedings — a realization that Wayne really is going to go all the way with this. The deceptively subtle artistry of the novel as a whole reveals itself in that coda. What had begun as a witty comedy of campus manners becomes a study in pathological narcissism and sexual aggression. The novel’s brilliance lies in the way Wayne toys with the reader’s sympathies while allowing his narrator to pursue his dreadful end. We are left to ponder not only the perversions of logic that allowed the narrator to arrive at this horrifying terminus, but also our own amusement and commiseration with the main character. David doesn’t “become” a monster — he was one all along.
Discussions of rape culture and consent are ubiquitous on college campuses today, just as the campus has itself been identified (second only to prisons in the public imagination) as an epicenter of sexual violence. According to the Campus Sexual Assault study of 2007, 20 percent of female undergraduates are assaulted during the course of their degree. Conversation about the source of this violence tends to gravitate toward fraternities, sports teams, binge drinking, pornography, and the widespread failure of university administrators to take the problem seriously. Considerations of sexual violence on campus do not, usually, point an accusatory finger toward the mild-mannered introvert lurking in the back of the class. Indeed, until the cascade of violations leading up to his major transgression, David appears to have stayed well within the boundaries of polite society. “I’d done everything I was supposed to my whole life, played by all the rules,” he tells us. In high school, David had “considered it a daredevil maneuver to eject a USB connection before the computer informed me it was safe.”
In short, there is no particular detail about David or his past that screams: “sex criminal!” If he is distant from his mildly sanctimonious, NPR-listening, lawyer parents, that relationship is certainly not marred by any apparent trauma. If there is a psychological explanation for David’s savagery, it might hinge upon the way in which Veronica represents yet another “achievement” for David, a “conquest” akin to those of “Romeo and Dante and Paris.” “There’s just one Everest,” he says, “and only the most heroic can reach the summit.” Once David has accepted this logic — that Veronica is a mountain to climb, a test to be aced, an object to be won — he defaults to “over-achiever mode,” confident that the ends will justify any means. Whether our elite undergraduates are as obsessively success-oriented (or as deprived of moral and spiritual foundations) as William Deresiewicz claims is certainly open to debate, but the challenges, risks, and transgressions involved with David Federman’s single-minded pursuit of Veronica only heighten the glories of his emotional payoff. The crazy drive and ambition that fuel David’s pursuit of Veronica is the very quality that earned his admission to Harvard in the first place.
At the same time, we are never permitted to forget that David is a literary creation all the way down. Wayne’s portrayal of David’s pathological narcissism is informed by the rich body of literary allusions and intertexts that constitute his narrator’s own inner life. The psychological determinants of David’s transgression are therefore less illuminating than the fictional voices that inform David’s existential condition: Humbert, Quentin Compson, and above all, J. Alfred Prufrock. Wayne borrowed two-thirds of Eliot’s title for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, but here the debt is to Prufrock’s interior monologue and the anxieties surrounding the fragility and precariousness of the self. Where Eliot’s Prufrock strikes the reader as a man so tenuous he could disappear at any moment (“They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’”), David’s image in the Harvard Face Book threatens to evaporate before our very eyes:
There he was: David Alan Federman, wearing a white dress shirt, tie, and yearbook-photographer mandated smile — a rectangular vacuum of charisma. My hair the drabbest of browns, destined to desaturate without distinction, parted like a small-market weatherman’s. My complexion was barely contrastable from the shirt and white space bordering the frame.
David’s violence is a revolt against his Prufrockian dissolution. “No more measuring out my life with coffee spoons,” David says, steeling himself for decisive action in pursuit of Veronica. At the novel’s climax, Wayne revises perhaps modernism’s most famous lines to describe one of the prime objects of our own cultural anxiety: the body of the drunk, naked, female undergraduate. “Your winter-pale body stretched out before me like a patient etherized upon a table,” David observes. “A delicate band of crenellations snaked around your hips. A trim delta of hair over your mons pubis.”
Apropos of another American psycho, Norman Mailer once contended, “To create a character intimately, particularly in the first person, is to convince the reader that the author is the character.” Bret Easton Ellis was too much the dilettante to satisfy Mailer in this regard; we always knew that Ellis was just playing with violence.
Teddy Wayne should be relieved to be the target of similar criticism. The novel’s winking, self-conscious literariness; the neatness of its conceits; the brilliance of its allusions — these qualities serve to maintain a safe, ironic distance between the author and David Federman. Unfortunately, the book’s literary playfulness might leave the impression that Loner is just playing with rape, and some readers will doubtless think that Wayne should find a new toy. At the same time however, the novel’s formal virtuosity — the qualities responsible for the gap between author and narrator — are also the essence of Wayne’s prowess. Like its narrator, Loner is one prickly piece of work, but the genius is hard to miss. Teddy Wayne may yet find his voice, though here’s hoping he never does.
Ira Wells is a Toronto-based culture writer and the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism.