I’m a Loner, Baby, and I’m Gonna Threaten You

With Loner, Teddy Wayne writes his masterpiece

Narcissism creates privilege, and privilege feeds narcissism. The two create a cycle, rhythmically obsessing about, you guessed it, themselves. Earlier this year, in an article at The New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks declared narcissism as an “epidemic.” Brooks reported the alarming increase at which narcissism is infiltrating college campuses. The article spoke to our craving for social media attention, but it also did something else: it raised the point that narcissism and the privilege that it invokes can be dangerous. According to Brooks, narcissists “create havoc and misery around them. There is overwhelming evidence linking narcissism with lower honesty and raised aggression.” Loving ourselves is a dangerous game.

Teddy Wayne’s latest novel, the brilliantly terrifying Loner, shows how dangerous narcissism can be, but first, Wayne dabbles in sympathy. When we meet David Federman, he’s arriving at Harvard University. Both he and his teachers describe David as “somewhat of a loner.” The initial reasons for his isolation seem clear; he’s a misunderstood genius. He intentionally transposes words — it’s his special “social power” — in conversations: “tucitcennoc (Connecticut), citelhta (athletic), draynal (lanyard).” When he isn’t saying words backwards, he’s using such an advanced vocabulary that a person without a graduate degree would have a hard time following him. In the initial sections with David, it doesn’t appear that he means to be so overtly intelligent. He says, “I didn’t have the untrammeled intellectual curiosity of the true polymath. I was more like a mechanically efficient Eastern European decathlete grimly breaking the fish-line tape or heaving a javelin.” He’s someone on the outside — someone lost, searching for his way.

“Teddy Wayne’s latest novel, the brilliantly terrifying Loner, shows how dangerous narcissism can be.”

David’s status as a loner certainly isn’t an uncommon one — not by the world’s standards and not by literature’s own, either. In fact, some of 2016’s most celebrated novels revolve around misfits. Take for instance Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why. The misunderstood Lucia is a both a sputtering and flaming ball of misdirected angst. In The Doubter’s Almanac, Milo’s brilliance sets him apart from anyone and everyone. Evie, the quiet heart of Emma Cline’s The Girls, craves acceptance. David’s situation in Loner, however, is different than those of his literary counterparts. His separation, we slowly realize, is deliberate. He wants — no, desires — to be a loner because the only thing he cares about is personal satisfaction.

At Harvard, David meets Sara, another young, social misfit. Initially, the two seem like the ideal couple. They give one another support, and they spend the evenings together. David tells her, “To be honest, you’re the only one here I’ve really talked to in any depth.” He knows what he’s doing all along, though, and it doesn’t take long for us to realize it, too. He’s trying to get something. He lies and manipulates Sara on repeated occasions. He takes her virginity. He fools her into thinking that he values her. Those acts are bad on their own, but the reasoning behind them makes them worse: he wants Veronica Wells, Sara’s beautiful roommate, and the only way to get her is to go through Sara.

“He wants — no, desires — to be a loner because the only thing he cares about is personal satisfaction.”

David basks in David. Every action he makes is methodically planned and calculated. His entire relationship with Sara is based on his narcissistic desire to attain something (or someone) that he deems as being better. In his personal life, he behaves similarly selfishly. He has a Facebook account, but he doesn’t use the social media site to socialize; instead, he uses it to get information to help him plan. He admits, “I don’t use the site myself except for voyeurism.” While he watches other people live their lives, he is careful to not allow his own life to be available: “I had hidden my list of friends and prohibited anyone from posting on my wall.” David is a man obsessed with control.

What makes David the most reprehensible is that he doesn’t care how cruel he is. The reason he behaves so narcissistically is because of his privilege. His parents are lawyers. His intellect seems to know no bounds. And, at the end of the day, he’s a straight, white young male attending Harvard. Why should a quiet girl’s feelings matter to him? Why shouldn’t he be able to manipulate a beautiful woman into a relationship with him? He believes the world is in his hands, so he behaves that way. Nothing other than his own satisfaction matters.

As cringe-inducing and upsetting as much of David’s actions are, it’s impossible to deny him our sympathy. After all, he is a lost person, alone in the world and void of any meaningful connections. Yes, he’s narcissistic. Yes, he’s cruel. And, yes, he does it all to himself, but, still, he’s alone. We can’t be so privileged as to deny him our pity. If so, what makes us any different from him?

“What makes David the most reprehensible is that he doesn’t care how cruel he is.”

Characters such as David, those being selfish, disturbed, alone, and ultimately privileged, aren’t uncommon. One of American literature’s most iconic characters, Ignatius J. Reilly, fits into the same mold.

Ignatius of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is perhaps the classic narcissistic loner. Living as a young man in New Orleans in the 1960s with his mother, he struggles to fit in with in not only with his peers, but also with the society at large. Physically, he’s overweight, and he wears a green hunting cap. Those two things automatically provide Ignatius with some level of separation. However, it’s his unrivaled intellect and self-obsessed personality that completely take him out of normalcy. He doubts he’ll find a job because, as he says, “I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century I loathe.” The culture doesn’t suit him, so he revolts against it. He’s constantly pessimistic. He’s sarcastic. He’s angry. He’s cruel. Mostly, though, he’s narcissistic. He refers to himself as having a “god-like mind.” Everyone who isn’t him drowns in faults. People who aren’t as educated as him are too vapid to understand life. He is so accustomed to such a privileged existence of being a white male intellectual that he doesn’t even recognize (or care) that he’s racist, homophobic, and sexist.

Holden Caulfield (J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), Jay Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), and Patrick Bateman (Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho) are others who possess a mixture of loneliness and privilege. These young men have so much — wealth, education, and opportunity, but, still, they carry on selfishly. The reason: because they can.

With Loner, Teddy Wayne has written a masterclass on the privilege found in white male narcissism. David’s story is difficult to read, but it’s necessary. How else are we to be reminded of how badly the world needs empathy?

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