portrait of a monster as a young man

thoughts on the novel “loner” by teddy wayne

[Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual violence.]


Teddy Wayne’s Loner is not only one of the most disturbing and distressing novels I’ve ever read, it’s also one of the most important.


Wayne writes the story through the first-person point of view of David Federman, a first-year student at Harvard who is determined to reinvent himself as soon as possible and obtain a higher social status than he had in high school. During his first dorm meeting, David sees Veronica, another first-year student, and becomes obsessed with her. When he finds out that Veronica is from a prestigious New York prep school and decides that she has a high social standing, David becomes determined to pursue Veronica, to make her his. What follows is a series of heinous events—involving lies, manipulation, transgressions of boundaries—that lead to a horrific ending.


From the very first moment he sees her, David addresses Veronica using the second-person pronoun “you.” Through David’s first-person narration, we see how David ogles Veronica, presumes to know details about her life despite barely talking to her, and expresses his own entitlement by speaking to Veronica as if she owes him something. We also get a sense of how it might feel to be on the receiving end of this vile behavior because when David addresses Veronica as “you,” we as readers can allow ourselves to be included in this direct address and perceive David as speaking to Veronica and to us. The following passage, which takes place during David’s first dorm meeting, illustrates how the structure of the narration immerses us in David’s mind while still allowing us to get a sense of how Veronica might feel:


My seat on the couch allowed me to study you with impunity while keeping the dorm proctor, a redheaded grad student in German philosophy, nearly in my sight line as he introduced himself. The heel of one of your leather-sandaled feet was planted against the wall. Gazelle legs encased in dark jeans; I estimated your height at a half inch shorter than mine, depending on our footwear.


Thus, Loner works as a powerful critique of patriarchy, male entitlement, objectification of women, and sexual violence toward women by placing readers in the mind of the perpetrator of these wrongs and also, through David’s direct address to Veronica, in the shoes of the victim of these horrors.


In addition to the effective structure of its narration, the book is a vital read because of the ideas it conveys. The novel presents all of David’s actions in his obsessive pursuit of Veronica as belonging to the destructive mindset that women are inferior to men and that men are entitled to women. David’s actions early on—which include snooping around Veronica’s Facebook page and meeting with Veronica under the pretense of helping her on a class assignment—belong to the same series of events that result in a horrible crime. For example, when David finds Veronica’s profile in the first-year student register, he presumes to know much about her from just one photograph and a few listed facts, such as her home address and the name of her high school. As David stares at Veronica’s photo, he narrates:


Behind you, an indeterminate bifurcation of sea and sky, your serenely unimpressed smile implying the background was a perennial vacation spot rather than a one-off outing. You had wrapped up a day of lounging in a secluded cove on a private beach, reading a Russian novel from a clothbound volume, wondering how you could feel so lonely in such a beautiful place—you’d always worried there was something defective about you, were scared people wouldn’t like you when they got to know the real you, maybe you’d meet someone at Harvard who would accept you for who you were, and next summer you could take him back here.


In this moment, David objectifies Veronica by inventing a character who fulfills his romantic fantasies and asserting that this character is the same as the real, flesh-and-blood person who lives in his dorm. David denies Veronica’s true complexity and humanity by claiming to know so much about her when he really knows nothing. In this way, the book shows that creepy and inappropriate behaviors which may not seem to be too destructive are, in fact, destructive because they belong to the same mode of thinking that objectifies women and justifies sexual harassment and sexual violence.


Furthermore, the book puts the blame for David’s terrible actions entirely on him, but, at the same time, reminds us that people like David don’t arise from an abyss. David and individuals like him manifest the misogyny and sexism of the society and culture around them. The book condemns this culture through moments such as when one of David’s old friends from high school brags about how many women he has had sexual encounters with during his first semester at college, reducing women’s bodies to trophies meant to be collected. Other scenes that critique  society include gross moments in which male Harvard alums, who are visiting campus during a big sports event, try to seduce undergraduate women. We as readers never think David is innocent because we are placed in his point of view and learn all of his vile thoughts and abhorrent justifications. Furthermore, David has numerous chances to avoid or stop doing the immoral and destructive act, but still continues to do the heinous action. At the same time, however, the book allows us readers to see that David’s behavior matches those of the men around him.


One more aspect of the book that I admire is how Teddy Wayne, while portraying David as a monster, still provides us readers with details that allow us to see David’s humanity. For example, when David relates a horrible incident of bullying from his elementary school years, I felt bad for him. Through moments in which we glimpse David’s humanity, we remember that he is a human being, not a caricature of a monster. It’s important and even morally responsible for writers to present monstrous individuals as still being human. The humanity that we see in terrible people doesn’t excuse their actions, but instead allows us to realize that we, as humans, are also capable of doing terrible things. I am thankful that Loner allowed me to see in David parts of myself (back when I was still on Facebook, I sometimes snooped around on people’s Facebook pages) and aspects of people I’ve known, some of whom I used to consider friends. I think one of the most important truths of Loner for men in particular is that despite thinking we are incapable of doing terrible things, we still are. For everyone, the idea that we’re infallible is dangerous because such a belief undermines the self-reflection and consideration that help us act in morally correct ways.
The fact that Teddy Wayne is able to create a monstrous character both vile and with bits of humanity is a testament to Wayne’s immense skill as a fiction writer. Loner is a difficult book, and it’s also one of the best books I’ve read recently. I was constantly distressed by it, but I believe everyone who thinks they can handle the novel should read it. David Federman’s fully-realized and dangerous mind is a dark place that needs to be seen,as it is both a warning and a lesson.