When I was an undergrad in the mid-2000s, my dorm had an annual ’90s Dance. There was a big projector screen cycling through clips of “Clueless” and “Jurassic Park.” People did synchronized dances to the Backstreet Boys. There was a lot of neon and a few Starter jackets. We’d all lived through the decade, and it was fun, if also a bit strange, to see our recent past run through the nostalgia machine.
It’s now 2020 and the decade of OJ and Monica isn’t just the stuff of dorm parties. Podcasts, think pieces, novels: all explain our own historical moment by looking to the decade when history supposedly ended. 1990s neoliberalism begat the financial crisis which begat the 2016 election.
Teddy Wayne sets his fourth novel, the darkly comic and emotionally intelligent “Apartment,” in 1996. “Cultural nostalgia … operates in approximately twenty-year cycles,” declares the book’s narrator, a well-off, would-be writer enrolled in Columbia’s MFA program. Part of the historical novel’s task is to look at the past not with nostalgia but with precision, and “Apartment” does this exactly. John Stockton gets namedropped. Students wear FREE MUMIA shirts. All the literary kids are reading “Jesus’ Son.” People drunkenly muse on how the situations Alanis Morrissette sings about in “Ironic” — rain on your wedding day; a black fly in your Chardonnay — are more matters of bad luck than instances of irony.
Beyond period details, though, the historical novel needs to give a sense for the talk and feel of the time — what could and couldn’t be spoken of, what could and couldn’t be imagined. And it’s in this deeper re-creation that Wayne elevates “Apartment” from a convincing historical facsimile to a work of art.
One thing that couldn’t be acknowledged in the 1990s, if it even can be now, is the intimacy and intensity of male bonds. “Apartment” circles around the narrator’s relationship — kindly and exploitative, loving and obsessive — with a fellow MFA student, the more talented, Midwest-bred, working-class Billy. Billy, the narrator writes, “activated something inside me no one else ever had, something that didn’t fit into a neatly defined slot, that I couldn’t quite bring myself to articulate.” Living during the “edgeless era of global-super-power peace and American prosperity,” the narrator experiences an intimacy that is inarticulable, and it’s the tension between this edgy experience and this edgeless era that gives the novel its torque.
“Apartment” is a story of place and privilege. The unnamed narrator is socially awkward: he sweats excessively; his jokes rarely land; he tries just a little too hard. After workshop, he goes to bars but feels lonely and leaves early. He rarely pursues romantic adventures and, when he does, they tend to fail. This aloofness partly results from class position. While enrolled at Columbia, he lives in a rent-stabilized apartment in Stuy Town, a residential neighborhood next door to the East Village. The place belongs to his great-aunt; his father pays the rent, as well as his tuition.
The narrator’s classmates politely eviscerate his writing, complaining that his protagonist “comes across like an upper-middle-class whiner.” He worries that, in a foreshadowing of our own era’s white identity politics, class comfort is actually a curse: “the obvious socioeconomic advantages of my accurately pegged provenance nonwithstanding, it was a severe artistic drawback. A sturdy, dull rung on the tax ladder, not wealthy enough to salaciously spy on the true upper crust, too cosseted to send back dispatches on the destitute, and not even in the broad middle swath of America.”
Enter Billy. Billy, a brilliant writer himself, praises the narrator’s submissions in workshop. He has the working-class authenticity that the narrator longs for: flat broke and a graduate of community college, he works at a dive bar and crashes in the basement. Confident, ruggedly attractive, smelling of Old Spice (no flop sweat for him), Billy is the star of the Columbia cohort.
Billy has what the narrator wants: real masculinity and real talent. And the narrator has what Billy needs: material comfort and a room of one’s own. You can probably see where this is going. The narrator invites Billy to move into his apartment, rent-free. They read together, write together, drink together. The narrator takes voyeuristic delight when he goes to a wedding with Billy in Pennsylvania: “I’d never stayed overnight in a town as bleak as this, an experiential deficit I’d always felt inadequate about for my writing purposes.” Wayne perfectly inhabits the narrator’s consciousness, looking where he looks, refusing to look where he won’t. The narrator thinks he’s a benevolent friend to Billy; he’s just as much a vampiric consumer, drinking in his writerly gifts and blue-collar bona fides.
A relationship built on desperation cannot stand. Billy begins to pull back and the narrator’s attraction to Billy, equal parts aesthetic and (clear to us if not to him) erotic, turns to resentment. “He won at everything: writing, women, friends. He may have come from a disadvantaged background, but everyone he encountered was eager to help him triumph over it.” This was the problem with 1990s optimism, too. Inspect it closer and you’d see darkness.
Wayne’s previous novel, “Loner,” was a disturbing meditation on sexual obsession dressed up, “Lolita”-like, in a fancy prose style. “Apartment” is quieter in style but equally unsettling. It looks at it all — masculinity, literary ambition, our decade of free trade and liberalism triumphant — and finds the rot underneath.
By Teddy Wayne
Bloomsbury, 208 pp. $26
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’