Teddy Wayne's eerily relevant ‘Loner’
In 2015, Brock Turner, a freshman at Stanford University, was found atop an unconscious female hidden behind a dumpster by two passing cyclists. The girl, whose name was never revealed, later testified to being unconscious, as did the cyclists who found her. She didn’t remember Turner, and she didn’t remember initiating any sexual activity with him. She woke up with dried blood on her body and pine needles in her hair.
Turner, behind a barrier of well-paid attorneys, told a different story: one of a typical college romance that springs from alcohol-fueled college parties. He said they left holding hands, she had slipped and then they kissed. A fairytale romance, it must have been, especially for the girl who woke up with blood on her body and pine needles in her hair.
In recent years, these stories have become more and more familiar in the media sphere. Fraternity parties that lead to outrageously high blood alcohol content and girls with the word “no” floating on their lips — these are a formula, especially at universities, that we know too well. And all too often they end in six months leave — three, if the perpetrator displays “good behavior.”
But take away the alcohol and add obsession. Remove the darkness and stickiness of a fraternity basement, and add the ivy walls of Harvard University. Take away lowered inhibitions and add agency, and we get Teddy Wayne’s “Loner,” a story told from the point of view of David Federman, an incoming freshman at Harvard. A boy who never stood out and was always pushed aside in high school, David yearns to be someone special, and he believes that Harvard will grant him this.
The first day of school, David sees Veronica, a girl so utterly perfect in his mind’s eye that he idealizes and romanticizes every aspect of her. He seeks out her classes and stages casual run-ins just to glimpse at her. He enrolls in the same classes and eagerly writes entire essays for her. She comes from an entirely different world than he does, one taken from the heart of Upper East Side Manhattan and all the freedom and riches which that upbringing affords.
And so David fixates, and he follows. The entire novel, readers are buried deep in David’s thoughts, seeing and thinking everything he is. And what is so attracting about his character is that we find ourselves rooting for him. His unsettling knack for manipulating Sarah, his girlfriend and Veronica’s roommate, is disturbing and occasionally upsetting, but often swept aside as excusable due to her presentation as an obnoxious and whiny creature. His fixation on Veronica, which escalates to an unnatural and violent degree, comes across as a simple crush for most of the novel. She encourages; he reacts. She speaks; he follows. It is the obsession that stems from the romanticization of those we adore. It is a crush that anyone who has ever waded through a stranger’s Facebook page can understand.
Remember, this is all told from David’s perspective. He is an intelligent boy who worked hard enough in high school to get into Harvard on merit alone. His presumed air of intelligence is what defines him, and ultimately reveals to the reader the unsettling nature of how this boy sees himself in comparison to those around him. He is intellectual elitism at its worst. When his essay is praised by a professor in class, he entertains grand fantasies of becoming this teacher’s TA before the semester ends. He assumes an air of superiority towards his roommate and his girlfriend despite having come from the high school lunch table of rejects and loners. His elitism and entitlement runs rampant on a campus where half the students are bred from and raised in families of those exact character flaws. Even they, though, can’t seem to ascend to the same height of his self-made pedestal.
Left alone, these faults form the vision of a narcissistic boy who has never been told he is wrong. When placed beside Veronica, he appears as the underdog, the nerd, trying to get his hands on the cool, chic girl who always rejected him in high school. And David is simultaneously both of these people, but with a twisted and self-righteous agency that eventually leads him to a similar position as Brock Turner — a man hiding behind a barrier of well-paid attorneys.
Remember, this is all told from David’s perspective. The unnatural nature of his crush, though unsettling at times and increasingly so, never reveals to us the nature of the boy in whose head we rest and rely. It is an extreme case of the unreliable nature that leaves the flesh crawling and stomach turned, because it is a narrator in whom we lend our ears, eyes and mind to, only to be betrayed.
Harvard has faced a great deal of criticism in recent years. Alumni fear the association and rivals look at it not with disdain, but pity because of the aforementioned criticism. As scandal after scandal has emerged the school has been able to do little to redeem itself, and Wayne, a Harvard grad himself, only draws this scandal into a more critical light. By placing readers inside the protagonist’s mind, readers have a first-account insight into the mind of a loner — a loner impaled on the stake of white privilege and entitlement that has brought unwanted criticism to the country’s oldest and most esteemed institution. An institution, just like Stanford, awash in scandal that will come to taint the university’s past and present legacy.
Simon & Schuster