The Short Version: David is a wicked smart but socially awkward Harvard freshman, ready to break out of his shell and become himself at college. When he meets Veronica, a beautiful rich girl, he falls immediately in love – and begins an increasingly harrowing and convoluted path towards wooing her. But as he believes himself to be growing closer to her, the reality is far more twisted…
The Review: When I was a freshman in college, I was the lead in a Neil LaBute play called The Shape of Things. You might’ve seen the film adaptation at some point, with Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz and a jarringly-out-of-place Elvis Costello soundtrack. It’s far and away the best work in LaBute’s spotty career of examining the twisted ways we interact with each other in the name of love – in fact, I’d argue that it’s one of the best by any author or creator. And Teddy Wayne’s Loner just sat down next to it, on the dingy couch of Best Fucked-Up Collegiate ‘Love Stories’.
I put love stories in quotes because neither LaBute’s play nor this novel are actual love stories. The word love gets tossed around – I myself used it to synopsize the book – but it’s inaccurate. This is a story about possession, about desire and lust, about privilege and perception. Love barely has anything to do with it… and yet, characters believe that love is what they’re experiencing. That’s college for you, though – especially for the later-bloomers, those who arrive anticipating their overdue metamorphosis. Love is confused with all of those other things or at least conflated with them. And one of the startling things about Loner is the way that Teddy Wayne captures exactly that unwitting misunderstanding, in very much the same way that Adelle Waldman recently captured similar misunderstandings from the post-collegiate set in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I found that Waldman’s novel sometimes struck uncomfortably close to my own behavior – and, especially at the beginning of Wayne’s novel, I found myself making similar comparisons.
But where Waldman’s Nate falls into the category of the self-absorbed not-quite-sociopath in the Jesse-Eisenberg-character mold that so many young men aspire to be these days, Wayne’s David is a far darker and more disturbing creation: he’s what so many young men are and don’t realize themselves to be. Take for example a scene from about midway through the book, where David has successfully managed to sit next to his crush in a class they share together. Her elbow rests against his arm and he spends pretty much the whole class thinking about whether or not it was purposeful, what it might mean, and so on. I don’t think it will shock anyone to say that I’ve been in exactly the same circumstances and wondered exactly the same things; I’ll bet you have, too. What differentiates me (and, I’m guessing, you) from David is that he orchestrated this interaction by, among other things, trailing this girl before they’d ever even met and signing up for classes based entirely on which ones she was also signing up for. He starts dating her roommate solely in order to get closer to her. He sneaks around, follows her, takes trophies from her place, and more.
He believes that there is no problem with his behavior and that his relationship – if it can be called that – with Veronica is basically his right. That it is only a matter of time before she sees the light and dumps her senior boyfriend and they live happily ever after. This delusion can’t even be funny, not when we’ve lived through Elliot Rodger killing seven girls because he was still a virgin at 22 or when Brock Turner was given a laughably light sentence after being convicted of rape. So many men believe that they have a right to women and to women’s bodies – and Teddy Wayne puts us right into the head of one of these men. That’s perhaps the most harrowing thing about the novel: the fact that all of the events are delivered in the sort of put-upon, holier-than-thou tones of a man who does not believe he has really done anything wrong. By writing in the first person, Wayne makes the reader complicit in David’s actions, whether they want to be or not. It’s a daring move and the discomfort you feel by the end of the novel is a testament to just how well Wayne pulls it off.
The ending, in particular, is a high-wire act unto itself. The analogy I made earlier to The Shape of Things comes from the events of the last twenty pages – I won’t say more, in order not to spoil two excellent twists, other than that David believes his resultant actions are entirely justifiable. And that is infuriating. Wayne does not flinch from this ending, from committing full-force to the story he’s telling with all its myriad discomforts and dangers, and while it’s not something easily stomached, it is all the more potent for it. The entire book reads like a simultaneous portrait of a widespread disease in our culture and an exploration, on the periphery, of the ways in which we talk about everything but that disease.
Because Wayne chose to set this novel at Harvard (which, incidentally, is vividly rendered here – Wayne himself is an alumnus), he’s pointing right at the top, at the cream of the crop. David is blisteringly intelligent – but that intelligence doesn’t transfer to reality. He misses the point of the essays he’s writing, the feminism class he sits in on (again in an attempt to pursue Veronica), and even the realities of the interactions around him. No matter how smart you are, you can still be a fucking idiot. But that’s because no one is actually confronting this problem in a head-on kind of way. There is a disconnect between the classroom and reality and David is not the only example (see: the notes Veronica got on her thesis paper topic). In the few interactions we see with adults, David is, if not vindicated in his behavior, at least shown that he’s not doing anything wrong because of the various examples they set for him. He doesn’t want to be upper-middle-class like his parents, he wants to be a part of a world like Veronica’s – and so that Ellisian nihilism seems endorsed.
Rating: 5 out of 5. We need to teach our young men better behavior, that much we increasingly know. But it’s one thing to express shock and horror at the behavior of the latest campus rapist and another to be made to feel complicit. It’s in the latter, in our culturally prevalent “boys will be boys” or “it’s just college” or “it was a drunken party, who cares” attitudes, that we find easiest to shirk – but Teddy Wayne has set himself the dark and probably thankless task of making it a little harder to do so. What begins as compelling reading quickly becomes harrowing, but it’s all the more unputdownable for it. You’ll never look at a campus novel quite the same way.