Loneliness, Desire, Obsession: Teddy Wayne’s Literary Mixtape

The twisted pop music that guided the author’s dark journey

Loner is about David Federman, a freshman boy at Harvard running away from his suburban New Jersey origins, who becomes infatuated with a charismatic, upper-crust Manhattanite in his dorm, Veronica. His abiding attraction to her is not only about love and sex, but ambition, status, and class, and his belief that, through her, he can elevate his (already elevated) station in life.

Obsession is a popular topic to write about in fiction, in part because it resoundingly answers that most clichéd of MFA-workshop questions, “What does the character want?” (Or the actor’s question of “What’s my motivation?”)

Obsessive desire has a way, too, of isolating the monomaniacal subject, blotting out the rest of the world and ultimately leaving him alone in the grips of his crazed passion. As David’s obsession deepens in Loner, so does his sense of alienation among his classmates.

A great deal of pop songs are also about romantic obsession and loneliness (often in the same breath), and many ostensible love songs, when you examine the lyrics, are really avowals of stalker-like pursuit or thoughts of the object of desire; the British seem to have a particular fondness for this kind of ballad. Here are ten that in some way informed my portrayal of David:

1. “Every Breath You Take” by the Police

This is probably the most famous “stalking” song, with its verse-ending refrain of “I’ll be watching you.” David consistently watches Veronica through the novel — across the cafeteria and campus, in the classroom and her dorm suite, on Facebook. In an academic paper he discusses Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay on the male gaze in cinema, but doesn’t interrogate his own use of it, in either his lived experience or the text of Loner (which he has written, in the first person but addressed to Veronica in the voyeuristic second person).

2. “Always on My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys

It’s been covered by hundreds of artists, but the Pet Shop Boys version is the first one I heard. David’s roommate listens to the song on repeat after he’s been dumped. The song is about regrets after the severance of a relationship, though, not about obsession, and David, who shows a very limited capacity to feel for others, can’t empathize in the slightest with his heartbroken roommate.

3. “Creep” by Radiohead

Aside from the chorus’s self-loathing assertion of being a creep and a weirdo, a few lines from this resonate for David. “When you were here before / couldn’t look you in the eye,” Thom Yorke sings, and David, too, is unable to sustain eye contact with Veronica despite his constant surveillance of her. Then there’s the lament “I wish I was special,” after detailing the loved one’s own specialness, which speaks to the narcissism behind obsession, that it’s ultimately concerned with the hole-filled identity of the obsessive himself, not the other person.

4. “No Name #1” by Elliott Smith

In an early draft, I had a minor character quote one of the lines from this song. I decided it was too on-the-nose and cut it, but still thought frequently about the lyrics, especially from the opening — “At a party / he was waiting / looking kind of spooky and withdrawn / like he could be underwater” — and then the ending, about the pain of feeling invisible and not fitting in (similar to “Creep”’s “I don’t belong here”): “Leave alone, ’cause you know you don’t belong / you don’t belong here / slip out quiet / nobody’s looking / leave alone / you don’t belong here.”

5. “Alone in My Home” by Jack White

Jack White’s song is about willfully and defensively closing oneself off from the world to ward off hurt. David, on the other hand, spends a lot of the novel in involuntary sequestration, sometimes in public while set apart from others, but often in his bedroom, where he feels the pain of his solitude most acutely.

6. “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals

Another British obsession song (“I can’t get any rest / People say I’m obsessed”) that’s sometimes mistaken for a love song thanks to the vernacular connotation of being driven “crazy” by a loved one (“She drives me crazy like no one else”), as well as to the exuberant electric guitar and synthesizer, up-tempo and thumping drumbeat, and falsetto singing. But the title evokes, more literally, being driven insane by one’s love and the desperation that accompanies it: “I won’t make it on my own / no one likes to be alone.”

7. “So Lonely” by the Police

A post-breakup song whose title is conspicuously about loneliness, it also feels of a piece with the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” while sharing the conviction of obsession ballads (see above, “She drives me crazy like no one else”) that this is the one person who can do it for the speaker: “But I just can’t convince myself / I couldn’t live with no one else.”

8. “Empty Shell” by Cat Power

This is one of Cat Power’s most beautiful songs (again, about heartbreak and missing a former lover), which uses a jaunty fiddle and a few self-affirming lines near the end (“I don’t want you anymore”) to set up the devastating and vulnerable turn of the final couplet: “Every night, every night alone with you / every night, alone now.”

9. “Pictures of You” by the Cure

David snaps a clandestine photo of Veronica and looks repeatedly at her Facebook profile picture (until he later gains access to her complete trove of photos). People can develop compulsive fixations when seeing the same photo over and over of someone, letting it substitute for their conception of the subject — or, as this song goes, “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you / that I almost believe that they’re real.”

10. “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” by Peter Sarstedt

Like David, the singer is enamored of a woman from an elite social circle (“And when the snow falls you’re found in St. Moritz / with the others of the jet set / and you sip your Napoleon brandy / but you never get your lips wet, no you don’t”). And, also like David, what he most craves is access to her inner world, the one her jet set doesn’t know about, in the quiet moments when she, too, is alone: “But where do you go to my lovely / when you’re alone in your bed / tell me the thoughts that surround you / I want to look inside your head, yes I do.”

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