Teddy Wayne likes to have fun with us — or with our culture anyway.
His much lauded debut novel, “Kapitoil,’’ follows a twentysomething financial whiz from the Middle East as he wends his way though the ethical thickets of American capitalism. His second book, 2013’s excellent “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine,” serves up a fictionalized account of the presumably horrible life of Justin Bieber and sends up popular culture.
His new book, “Loner,’’ is set at Harvard. Like its predecessors, “Loner” is a tragicomic account of a young man with oodles of promise, trapped somewhere between self-awareness and total stupidity.
If “Loner” were appended to a freshman-year syllabus, English majors would quickly ascertain its themes, all equally applicable to the university at which it takes place (and, truth be told, many of your more elite American colleges): Ambition. Class-consciousness. The price of success. And if “Loner” makes the required reading lists next year — really, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t — even the least politically aware English major will see at least a little of himself in protagonist David Federman.
Wayne has created a uniquely terrifying and compelling protagonist for such a funny book. Although socially forgettable, David is the literary genius of his suburban New Jersey high school, praised by a teacher as “one of the most gifted students I have encountered in my twenty-four years teaching English at Garret Hobart High, already in possession of quite a fancy prose style (that sometimes go over my head, I must admit!).” David, of course, delights in his linguistic prowess and superior understanding of books.
His arrogance is not the frightening part, however; this endears him to his audience who, as readers of literary fiction, probably delight in their own special understanding of books, too. No, what’s scary about David is the way he views the social milieu into which he’s gained entrée. Like countless strivers who’ve come before and will no doubt come after him, David sees Harvard and the wider world over which it presides as mere human collateral to manipulate for his own benefit — and believes everyone else feels the same way. “I was into success,” he reflects, “just like everyone else who’d gotten in here, but admitting it was taboo.”
Every climber needs a peak waiting to be conquered, and David’s comes in the form of Veronica Morgan Wells, an appealingly louche and soignée WASP from Manhattan whom he meets at orientation, becomes obsessed with, and to whom, we soon learn, the narrative is addressed. (For the record, Wayne deploys this potentially treacherous device extremely well, making “Loner” the best second-person novel I’ve read since Sam Lipsyte’s “Home Land.”)
“You had traveled widely, dined at Michelin-starred restaurants without parental supervision, matriculated at schools with single-name national reputations,” reads a particularly apposite passage. “It wasn’t just your financial capital that set you apart; it was your worldliness, your taste, your social capital. What my respectable, professional parents had deprived me of by their conventional ambitions and absence of imagination.”
While David’s precocity is enough to suck the romance out of a moonlit walk on the beach, his ardor is admirable. His doomed pursuit of Veronica, both his muse and goad, propels the disturbing plot to its disturbing conclusion, pinging all those juicy themes along the way while adding yet more topics for classroom discussion: Is love the same as the desire to possess? Does David’s condescending attitude toward Veronica’s academic skills reflect contemporary gender mores? Does a white, male, ascendant member of the professional-managerial class — at Harvard, no less! — have the same amount of privilege as an old-money person who went to prep school, or do his Jewish, Jersey roots put him at a quantifiable disadvantage? Does the fact that these questions matter to only a tiny fraction of the world’s population make them any less important?
David’s machinations to win his beloved will make readers laugh and shudder in equal measure. As the short novel reaches its close and the bells of catastrophe clang ever closer, the shudders will prevail. Don’t worry, gentle reader — Federman’s no Rodion Raskolnikov, though not for lack of trying. He’s more in line with a character out of a Todd Solondz film: All the awkward, knowing laughter at his expense makes his crimes feel even worse. “Loner” is a great, lethal little book that, if justice prevails, will find its way outside of Harvard Square.
By Teddy Wayne
Simon & Schuster, 203 pp., $26
Eugenia Williamson, a Chicago writer and editor, can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.