Teddy Wayne has an interest in loneliness. “I’ve always been most drawn to novels about protagonists who are deeply alienated; it’s where I’ve felt artistic empathy the most intensely, with both the character and, often, the author, in that the character’s attempts to break free of his or her solitude can be mirrored by the attempt of the writer to connect with the reader, or vice versa,” Wayne told The Millions. “It seems as worthy a subject of artistic exploration as any, and possibly the one to which literature is best suited.”
Wayne’s latest novel, Apartment, which brims with desperation, brilliantly captures the complex and complicated layers of loneliness. Set in the 1990s and largely inside and around Columbia’s MFA program, Apartment follows the lives of an unnamed narrator and his budding friendship with classmate Billy, a man with a background far removed—by politics, class, and geography—from the narrator’s own experiences. Once the narrator offers Billy the opportunity to live rent-free in his apartment, the pair’s friendship begins to change. And not for the better. What follows is a subtle, sly page-turner about disconnection and its impact.
Wayne and I spoke recently about loneliness, desperation, and, of course, Apartment.
The Millions: When I see that a new Teddy Wayne book is on the way, I feel like I know to expect a novel that’s going to be about loneliness in some measure. Kapitoil, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Loner, and, now, Apartment each explores what it means to be lonely in such profound ways. What is it about loneliness that attracts you as a writer?
Teddy Wayne: I’ve always been most drawn to novels about protagonists who are deeply alienated; it’s where I’ve felt artistic empathy the most intensely, with both the character and, often, the author, in that the character’s attempts to break free of his or her solitude can be mirrored by the attempt of the writer to connect with the reader, or vice versa. To get highbrow, loneliness is the emotional equivalent of Wittgenstein’s private language argument: a language incomprehensible to anyone other than the speaker is therefore not coherent even to the speaker. In reductive, more metaphorically social terms: without other people, we can’t know ourselves. It seems as worthy a subject of artistic exploration as any, and possibly the one to which literature is best suited.
The other main focus in each of these books is psychological life under capitalism. There are numerous spokes radiating from this, but the intersection with loneliness is the one I’ve been most interested in—how the scrabbling for resources in a finite world divides us up, whether into individuals or tribes, amplifying our distance from one another.
TM: Contemporary culture has a tendency to blame technology for why so many people feel lonely, but Apartment, which is a perfectly realistic story set in the mid-’90s without really any reliance on technology, serves as a good reminder that loneliness isn’t an exclusive characteristic of the technologically-focused 21st century. Did that have anything to do with why you chose to set your novel in the ’90s or did you make that choice for an altogether different reason?
TW: I wanted to set a novel about friendship in the last pre-Internet age, when we were forced to turn to the people nearest us for companionship rather than to a screen. The Internet, of course, has been as much a balm for loneliness as an accelerant, rendering physical barriers immaterial and aiding people who do better at a keyboard than a party. But the bigger themes on my mind for choosing the mid-’90s were the post–Cold War politics of the era—the start of the contemporary culture wars and the rightward movement of the country, Clinton’s re-election notwithstanding—and its shifting notions of masculinity and gender (to cite one popular culture example used in the book, it’s hard to imagine a unisex fragrance like CK One gaining mainstream appeal in the ’80s). The narrator and Billy are emblematic of these dynamics; it was the last time two guys from the “two Americas” could have realistically become friends, as these fault lines have become canyons during the Bush, Obama, and especially Trump years.
TM: Apartment is a complex character study, and the narrator and Billy are both dynamic and complicated characters. I want to ask about their friendship. (I think I can call their bond that.) Loneliness is what brings them together. What do you see as being the reason they stay together for as long as they do?
TW: It certainly starts off as mutual loneliness, in that the narrator has been physically isolated as an adult (since his sublet is illegal and he can’t take the chance of harboring a roommate) and never had a truly close relationship of any kind. And Billy is a newcomer to New York and hasn’t breached certain levels of intimacy, either; they end up genuinely connecting across their differences. But then money enters the equation more perniciously—the narrator lets Billy live in his spare room rent-free, in return (at Billy’s insistence) for some cleaning and cooking—and soon Billy is something of a kept man, tethered to the narrator’s patronage. Why the narrator keeps Billy around is up to the reader’s interpretation, since the narrator himself refuses to answer the question honestly.
TM: Did you find one character to be more difficult than the other to write?
TW: Billy had gone through several iterations before the final version. He’d always been more of a man’s man than the narrator, but his autodidactic skills were more polished in previous drafts, and his politics were far more liberal. He was a little too perfect, in all ways, and striking the right balance of plausible strengths and flaws was challenging. The narrator changed, too, especially in one central way (that’s never explicitly spelled out in the text) that helped define him for me. In a very early draft, that element didn’t exist at all, then after a revision it was front and center; neither extreme worked well.
TM: Do you mind talking about your decision in keeping the narrator nameless?
TW: There have been a lot of semi-autobiographical novels lately in which the narrator is unnamed as an intimation that he or she is the alter ego of the author (with the real name on the cover of the book), or out of some conviction that character is inherently unstable and thus we shouldn’t ever attempt to create fictional personages, so why bother naming them. For Apartment, I thought of anonymity as the narrator’s permanent affliction: he’s a background figure, an observer rather than a participant who, it’s suggested, won’t leave behind any kind of legacy, and even in his own story he doesn’t get the honor of a name.
TM: Apartment is a dark novel, but it’s also darkly funny in sections. When the narrator’s story “Camp Redwood” finally gets published and he realizes his classmates won’t see his success without some added action on his part, he says: “Columbia’s library didn’t carry the journal, but I planned to put one of the contributor copies that I would receive in its magazine rack so everyone could see what had become of the story they’d spurned.”
With a novel that’s so focused on loneliness and desperation, did you intentionally set out to add in a few moments to lighten the story a bit?
TW: As an example of how subjective humor is, I didn’t intend for that passage to register as comic, but as, in fact, lonely and desperate—though now, seeing it out of context, I can see how you might have read it that way. (At the same time, his desire to show off the literary journal in the library isn’t that different from the modern urge to tweet “My latest, in the ____”.) But that is, at least, the kind of comedy I like best: humor that is twinned with sadness, one the temporary absence of the other but marshaling power through its missing cousin. Apartment has the most understated humor (read: is the least funny) of my books, and I’ve noticed that I, unfortunately, have become less funny as I’ve gotten older, too, whether through an attrition of wit or, I hope, greater contentment and less of an antic need to entertain. As I personally dislike books that have no comedy to them whatsoever, and because I was going for an overall elegiac, poignant tone, I did consciously sprinkle in lighter moments, mostly via secondary characters (especially Robert Stockton, a hard-drinking, self-mythologizing writing professor).
TM: So much of the book revolves around writers and their work, so I want to ask about artists. The narrator and Billy have an interesting conversation—in the middle of a political argument by the way—about what kind of people become artists. The narrator says, “I suppose it’s people who have something to say, with the talent and discipline to express it, and the empathy to see other viewpoints.” Billy replies, “And also the people who have enough of a financial cushion to fall back on in case they don’t make it. Which means not many people like me.” From a 2020 lens, do you think both perspectives are still pretty accurate?
TW: Yes, likely more so now, given the increasingly marginal financial rewards of these fields and the skimpier safety nets below. We justifiably talk a lot about race and gender concerning the arts, but surprisingly little about class. Some of this is because it’s less visually conspicuous an identity and it’s harder to pin down one’s precise status on the continuum of money, but mostly, I think it’s because there’s a lot of shame attached to the privilege that enables most artistic lives. No one wants to admit that they’re a successful writer, filmmaker, painter, or musician (or successful anything, really) in large part because they had a financially stable background. Talent and hard work certainly have something to do with where you end up, but zip code is still destiny; it’s a lot easier to spend eight years writing a first novel or take an unpaid internship when you know that you have an upper-middle-class parachute you can open in an emergency. The irony in Apartment is that the narrator is not only ashamed of his upper-middle-class provenance, but thinks it’s an artistic detriment, since he has nothing worth writing about, whereas he fetishizes Billy’s Midwestern working-class authenticity.
TM: Near the very end of Apartment, the narrator admits, “But solitude, I’ve discovered, isn’t so bad once you come to expect it.” At first, I was feeling all optimistic about his future, but, then, I stepped back and reprocessed his statement and—well, I felt like I’d been punched it the gut. It’s a sad, beautiful ending to an equally sad, beautiful novel.
TW: Thank you. I always aim for an emotionally ambivalent climax, what Robert McKee calls ironic endings. The epilogue that follows the sentence you quoted complicates that sentiment a little, in ways I won’t spoil. Like many people, I read the last page of a book slowly (I vaguely recall an Onion article making fun of this practice), wanting the emotional dam the author has been building to break in the closing sentences, and the novels I’ve loved most reward that: the tone of the final words seems to spill over into the empty space below them, the textual sign that you’ve returned back to your own life, its own pages still unwritten—hopefully changed, maybe a little less alone.