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Teddy Wayne’s “Loner” may not be the first novel ever written about disaffected male college students pining for beautiful women, but it could well be the bleakest. David Federman, the titular loner, arrives at Harvard in a fit of social anxiety; eager to seize the high social standing that he feels he deserves, he begins to choose friends based on their physical attractiveness and general level of glamour. Suddenly, he stumbles upon the beautiful and wealthy Veronica Wells, a physical embodiment of the upward mobility he so craves. What starts as a harmless attraction quickly becomes a disturbing and invasive obsession. David follows her around campus, takes covert pictures of her, and feigns romantic interest in her roommate—and it only gets worse from there. To be sure, the novel contains some insightful and well-wrought criticisms of elite college life, but the unrelentingly repulsive narrator and uniformly dark tone ultimately stifle the story’s brighter points.
Wayne’s critique of college social life hinges on the problem of gender-based violence, a horrifically common presence at colleges around the country and a particularly important topic at Harvard right now, given the sexual assault survey that came out last year. The novel successfully portrays different forms of such harm, including rape but also reaching beyond it: stalking, subtle sexual coercion, and more all appear in David’s first-person narration at one time or another. Wayne’s awareness of different manifestations of harmful gender dynamics even extends beyond physical violence—a relatively unusual and impressive authorial move. At several points, the novel jokes about the “male gaze:” True to genre form, characters take gender studies classes and laugh about their apparent absurdity. However, after tipping his hat to this staple of campus life, Wayne comes down firmly in support of what the students think is silly. The entire novel enacts the concept of scopophilia, David’s perspective continually reducing the women in his life to (literal) objects of sexual pursuit without any interiority or agency at all.
The reason for all of this violence, Wayne intelligently suggests, has to do with multifaceted, interwoven concepts of male entitlement: Cultural narratives about college and sexual experience, fratty competition within male groups, and societal scripts about female desire. At one point, David finds himself confronted with a female classmate’s misgivings about an encounter with him; he dismisses her pain and snarls, “This was college. People had sex. They didn’t just hold hands and masturbate.” In his eyes, college—and therefore college women—owe him sex for no better reason than that he has heard legends of orgies. Even further, he subscribes to the deeply ingrained idea that he can exchange adoration and impressiveness for sex and that women have no real right to refuse the transaction. Within his group of friends, too, sexual experience equals dominance and status—women become nothing more than points on a scoreboard.
Wayne pushes this reasoning even further. As the book progresses, he sketches a reason why sexual assault might be so terribly common at Harvard and other top colleges. The kind of male who would get into Harvard, he suggests, might have had a socially underwhelming high school career: He might have had minimal sexual experience or experience with women in general and an overwhelming sense that he has not gotten the social rewards that his exceptional self deserves. David’s entitlement proves so intense—and ultimately so damaging—because he feels that he has been essentially cheated and that a Harvard acceptance letter constitutes a kind of apology and promise from the universe. Campus sexual assault, Wayne suggests, is then not Harvard’s fault. Sexual assault is a problem of a self-selecting population, not institutional shortcomings. “It’s convenient, in hindsight, to blame Harvard. But it wasn’t the guilty party,” David says. An extremely provocative argument, certainly, but a nuanced and carefully designed one.
All of this social criticism, however, just forms the scaffolding for the novel. The meat of “Loner” is the direct experience of David’s consciousness. Wayne writes in the tradition of the unreliable narrator, adhering particularly closely to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”: Nabokov’s novel features a narrator who describes morally ambiguous sexual activity with breathtakingly beautiful language, and David likewise describes his exploits in elaborate prose. The difference, though, lies in the successful creation of sympathy. The narration of Humbert Humbert in “Lolita” creates a complex push-pull between repulsion and complicity, horror and desire. The language often beguiles, and sometimes the sex (pedophilia, specifically) seems almost allowable. “Loner,” though, lacks this dynamism and the resulting aesthetic and intellectual brilliance. David’s prose style, though baroque, lacks real beauty, and his actions never seem close to justified. Even Wayne’s attempts at making David seem pitiable fail dramatically. Rather than the queasy sense of complicity that Humbert creates, David simply produces unproductive and uninteresting disgust—and the sheer pain of listening to him drowns out every flash of interest in the novel’s social critique.
Granted, the relationship between reader and narrator remains an inherently subjective experience. Others—people less sensitive to the issue of sexual assault, or people less likely to become emotionally invested in the books they read—might well be able to withstand David’s voice and find themselves able to engage with Wayne’s critiques. It would also be easy to argue that consistent horror is not exactly a literary problem; there is no law decreeing that unenjoyable literature is fundamentally bad literature. Still, two simple facts remain: Really liking this book seems inherently pathological, and I would not wish the experience of reading it upon anyone.
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