A difficult question rests at the heart of Loner, Teddy Wayne’s third novel: under what conditions does a sociopath’s true self emerge? Wayne’s sociopath character, Yale-bound David Federman, has a milquetoast background: middle class, lawyer parents, youngest of three children, low on the social totem pole in high school. But the reader reels in disgust as he begins stalking a fellow classmate. As David’s obsessive quest erupts into violence, more difficult questions arise.
In many ways, Loner is a kindred spirit to Nabokov’s Lolita, with its first-person narrative serving as a confessional glimpse into the mind of a sick individual. In place of Lolita, we have freshman hipster cliché Veronica Wells. Upon meeting her, David describes her as possessing “a blanched hyphen of a scar; a nose the tiniest bit crooked and long; two central incisors that outmuscled their next-tooth neighbors.” While starting with Veronica’s flaws is a good way to showcase David’s shallowness, Wayne takes it one step further by portraying Veronica as David sees her: an object to obtain, not a person to understand. Wayne dials up David’s creepiness by declining to indicate why David chose to obsess over Veronica, outside of the fact that she was vaguely attractive and happened to also be at Yale’s freshman orientation.
David’s ivy-tower surroundings spur his troubling behavior. The competitive atmosphere at Harvard emboldens David to engage in more heinous behavior. Here, Wayne takes a matter-of-fact tone like Donna Tartt’s in The Secret History; each new development is the next logical action for the character. Wayne comments on the price of having money and boredom in equal measure, but it isn’t until the novel begins to speed toward its grim end that he reveals just how lucky white males are.
At the height of his obsession, David takes to perusing the papers she’s written for class, discovering a lengthy sociological report about the power struggle men around her partake in while trying to possess her sexually. These men are caricature. There’s the athlete coasting on his popularity, the young-ish TA using his wit and maturity to seduce young coeds and escape his marriage, and David, who, according to Veronica’s report, can’t take a hint and banks on his “nice guy” routine for sexual reward. Each one is respected or praised for being an exemplary male, and yet each is hindered by their own perception of romantic entitlement and dominance. Veronica may be a bland cliché of a cool girl, but her role is a compromise between the societal expectations that men place on her, and the aloof, sexually playful behavior that can empower her in a relationship.
It’s hard to imagine Wayne writing this novel without the issue of campus rape looming large in his mind. He uses such a deft touch when addressing the actions that lead to David’s removal from campus and subsequent misfortune. After tracking Veronica to her home address in New York and anxiously waiting, David finds that she’s gone to a local bar. Outside the bar, he tries desperately to ply Veronica and her friends with drinks. Much has been made of sexual coercion among the college set, but Wayne uses David’s behavior at the bar to defang him a bit and show how pathetic he is. It isn’t until later, when he learns that Veronica has written an unflattering report about him, that David takes the final step toward irreparable damage. Sneaking into Veronica’s room at night, David attempts to rape her. In this scene, Wayne distills thousands of horror stories into one moment between a stand-in for every female victim, and a stand-in for every troglodyte who took it too far, with David narrating:
You continued thrashing to no avail, my arms becoming someone else’s more muscular arms, my legs doubling in size, my body lengthening and massing as you shrank in direct proportion under me. But this is how you wanted me to act all along, isn’t it.
After 200 pages about David’s loathsome stalking and manipulation, it’s hard not to wonder if Wayne is challenging the reader to consider how close to reality the novel is, how much it hits home. David likes to spell and pronounce things backward. This penchant for twisting words around hints at David’s funhouse view of reality. His belief that this distinguishes him as being intelligent illustrates how dejected he is, and how much self-delusion he requires to stay afloat.
In Loner, Wayne uses a campus novel to comment on the ways young men use pretension as a means to hide insecurity and acquire sex and popularity. He shows how this always comes at a price. The male gaze is a cruel and wicked thing, emboldening white predators who use money and privilege to twist reality into favorable shapes. As David says: yeht teg ffo tocs-eerf.
Eric Farwell is a recent graduate of Monmouth University’s MA program for Poetry. He’s in the process of applying for MFA programs and has written for the Aquarian Weekly, Prefix, Currents, and the now-defunct Contagent Press.