Loner: A Novel, by Teddy Wayne
I checked out reviews after I read this, wondering if I was alone in feeling odd after reading it. Phrases like “impressively creepy” and “wildly imaginative and disturbing” kept popping up, so I’m glad I’m not alone in not knowing exactly where I stand on this. I don’t think I’ve been as unsettled by a book since reading Dear Mr. Capote by Gordon Lish. It’s certainly more disorienting than the twists in Gone Girl.
The book features a dweeb of a high school student David Federman, the middle-class son of two New Jersey attorneys, and takes him from his first day at Harvard. It’s written as a first-person narrative of the people he meets, particularly Veronica Morgan Wells, whom he refers to initially as You. Federman is nerdish with a skill for saying things backwards. He’s the loner of the title but despite a lack of social skills he links with a group of similarly nerdish undergrads. The group includes Sarah, the woman he ends up pairing with, particularly valuable as she’s Veronica’s roommate.
The book stretches through Federman basically using Sarah to stay within the sights of Veronica until an opportunity arises for him to help Veronica: he breaks the honor code to write a paper for her.
Federman grows more and more obsessed (hard to digest considering how obsessed he is at first sight) through a progression of behaviors that get harder and harder to witness. It reaches a painful conflict near the end.
The book offers that kind of squirm-inducing self-destruction that’s as hard to witness in a book or movie as it is in real life. I suppose that’s why I’ve never enjoyed Jerry Lewis movies. It’s just hard to watch a person trip himself up either for laughs or drama. I’m not here to argue with the bulk of French film critics, or with the many critics who added this to their “Best of 2016” list. I just have enough guilt for my own screwups in life that books like this should come with a trigger warning.
The book is well written. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Compelling and horrifying all at once. I managed to read it without an ounce of compassion for the narrator or the object of his obsession. I did feel compassion for Sarah. As it turns out she’s the real victim of the book while Federman and Veronica both have their demons. As in life there are no happy ending in this book. One just doesn’t expect it for people so young.