Loner by Teddy Wayne

Loner BY Teddy Wayne. . . .
The cover of Loner

What do you do when you feel you deserve something and you don’t get it? If you’re the narrator of Teddy Wayne’s third novel, a young, white “male whose signifiers [point] to heterosexuality,” you might get carried away and take matters into your own hands.

Loner begins on day one of David Federman’s freshman year at college. He’s a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey who has spent his life until now being unnoticed. During his adolescence he was book smart, and feels that his acceptance to Harvard, where he arrives on the first page with his dowdy suburban-lawyer parents, is an upstaging of the high school classmates who ignored him. He hopes the fresh start of college will let him ditch his socially alienated past, but certain traits—a misplaced sense of superiority, an inability to trust his peers—make him subtly repellant.

Anti-charismatic and inwardly directed, he does better with pre-calculated communications that he maps out in advance and executes, to a purpose. He can’t stop himself from taking words he hears and reconfiguring them backwards, a habit he developed in order to have something to say. No one, it turns out, much cares for this kind of quip, which seems show-offy and too clever by half, a vestigial party trick that presents like a tic, reducing his chances of being invited to an actual party.

The story is told in the second person, with David addressing Veronica Morgan Wells, a Gossip Girl type from the Upper East Side with a financier dad and socialite mom. She has long chestnut hair, wears cashmere, etc. Assigned to the same dorm, she becomes the object of David’s obsession and observation—the “distant twin mountains of an upper lip under an elegantly concave philtrum, the cheekbones sloping like the handle of a jug. And, most salient to an eye across a room, the hair in a carelessly knotted bun, a few rogue tendrils grazing the sides of your face, chestnut flecked with mid-October hues, a newly minted penny unsullied by commerce.” And so on. He immediately orients his entire life on campus toward attracting and obtaining her.

This involves following Veronica, noting everything she does, and finding ways to be in her orbit. “You composed notes in longhand, scribbling in your Harvard-insignia blue spiral notebook, periodically snake flicking your tongue between your lips to moisturize them before flexing the angle of your mandible.” He follows her into a gender-studies class where he is ostracized for trying to flex his intelligence in front of the room. Redoubling his efforts to impress her, he offers to write an assignment for her and delivers a SparkNotes-style essay about the male gaze that he believes to be superior to anything she could come up with.

After running a cost-benefit analysis of the endeavor—proximity to Veronica versus association with a second-tier girlfriend—he starts dating Veronica’s roommate Sara Cohen, who is as dowdy, Jewish, and lactose-intolerant as he is. The earnest and kind Sara has all the right political discourse that you’d expect to find in a campus novel like this: “Maybe it’s a good thing for us to experience being unseen at a Latino event. ... You know—when Latinos have to deal with being unseen more systematically every day in the U.S.” He succeeds in losing his virginity to Sara, an achievement he frames as bringing him closer to his Veronica goals. “I was a copulative agent now, same as you, inducted into the society of those who practiced physical intimacy in its most classic form.” Using Sara’s room as a point of access, David steals into Veronica’s room to purloin the belt of her bathrobe and fashions a sort of little silk penis gourd out of it, which he uses to masturbate. He gets into a style of porn known as SPH, or small-penis humiliation, an embarrassment that he blames on Veronica (“These are the kinds of things to which you reduced me”).

Obsession blunts broader perception, and David ends up missing crucial information about the nature of his relationship to Veronica. As the novel progresses, Wayne slowly peels the reader away from David’s perspective, as we begin to see small things that he can’t. Because David’s devolvement is subtle enough, part of the pleasure of Loner is that the reader, seeing what David can’t, is still privy to his skewed innermost thoughts as his actions and motivations get violent and criminal. In high school, David is described as the “lone Harvard-bound senior,” and his yearbook predicts his future as: “??? FILL IN LATER.” This is an early clue: The trope of yearbook pictures presages mugshots of young men on TV screens and in newspapers, made retrospectively terrifying by the subject’s empty stare juxtaposed with the crime he committed—an unrelatable loner who found a way to be noticed.

Because as it happens, it’s also a campus rape story. In ten or so deft paragraphs, Wayne portrays David at his most detached and self-possessed, as he recounts his easy acquittal from the crime, something that happens in part because of who he is—a feckless-seeming fringe-dwelling “beta” male.

“The burden of proof was on you.… I had planned to employ the belt, my parents’ colleague would argue, for sadomasochistic purposes.” The belt was presumably for him. In a strange scene forty pages earlier, Veronica had administered a hand job to David not by touching him but by using a framed picture of his roommate’s parents, bringing him to ejaculate by calling him an asshole. “I made an affirmative guttural sound as the Zengers merrily grooved over my stiff penis. I closed my eyes and you slid the picture faster and faster … the bodily sensation less titillating than the psychological one.”

Protesting his guilty verdict, the father of Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, wrote in June this year that six months in prison is “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” He probably meant action in a less euphemistic sense, twenty minutes of activity, but it’s impossible to miss his tone-deafness. “I wish I never was good at swimming or had the opportunity to attend Stanford, so maybe the newspapers wouldn’t want to write stories about me,” Turner himself wrote. David is a finer observer than Turner, and his sense of the unfairness of the world is more enjoyably ridiculous: “How unjust the world is that some people can buy, on consumerist impulse, silk bathrobe belts with their initials on them and some people can buy them only without initials and some people can’t buy them at all.”

We learn in the final section that what we’ve been reading is an O.J. Simpson If I Did It-style ex-post facto admission of his guilt, but David is mostly still interested in the fact that he’s been jilted, and that he and his brilliance are still unnoticed. “It’s risky to do anything with this, even if there aren’t judicial consequences. You wouldn’t read it anyhow; you were never interested in knowing me. But I didn’t write it for you … I wrote it about you, a big prepositional difference.” Even before this anti-climactic conclusion—David ends up back in New Jersey, at a community college instead of Harvard—he has a mini-fantasy, uninflected by fear, about becoming “Famous David,” “the Harvard Rapist,” and “the white male with whom everyone would become obsessed.”

Wayne’s 2013 novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, is told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old Justin Bieber-ish pop star, a very different kind of outsider whose upbeat sweetness and earnestness do not match up with the weird music-business exploitations in his life. With Jonny Valentine, the pathos was in the farce of his situation, and the sincerity with which he approached it. David isn’t naive like Jonny, and his voice couldn’t be more different. David speaks like an undergraduate Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice—florid, self-important, baroque. Sara tells him at one point that she would be doing him a favor to “disable your thesaurus function.” But Jonny and David share a blindsiding self-belief that cuts them off from other people—Jonny’s implanted by the outside world, David’s brewed within himself.

“Had I not been afforded copious societal advantages from birth, there’s a good chance I never would have had the opportunity and encouragement to write a novel at all,” Wayne wrote on in 2012. Yet somehow “being a midlist male author who writes about males is a distinct financial disadvantage.” He has clearly spent time thinking about the conundrum of being a white man, a newly confusing category beginning to feel awkward about its own position of power, and alive to accusations of entitled pomp. (See also: the recent Internet pastime of ripping the aesthetics of Jonathan Safran Foer to shreds.)

All the better, then, that Wayne is a humorist, and writes with sly grace about the seemingly unsympathetic plight of being a white American man, albeit by using ironic extremes rather than domestic realism. His bemusement is real, and often funny. Wayne is less interested in moralizing than in psychologizing. As the book ends we leave David—silly, unremarkable, dangerous David, still with some pathos, and perhaps also a hint of real derangement. “My mother asked if I wanted anything special for my birthday. To get my van Gogh prints framed, I said.”

Anna Heyward is a writer. She lives in Chinatown.