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.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
Teddy Wayne is drawn to loners. His debut novel, Kapitoil, chronicled a brilliant young immigrant’s attempts to penetrate the lingual and interpersonal density of New York’s Financial District. Wayne’s next book, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, followed an 11-year-old pop star on tour as his manager/mom slipped him pills and arranged publicity-driven “dates” with other fun-sized celebs. Each narrator failed (for the most part) to burst through his respective bubble and connect with others. Each book pulled double duty as amusing character study and troubling social commentary.
Which brings us to Loner (Simon & Schuster), Wayne’s latest first person, voice-driven, cautionary tale of societal ill. Like Love Song, the specter of J. Alfred Prufrock looms over this story — but this time Prufrock heralds more doom than gloom.
Harvard freshman David Alan Federman seems harmless enough at first, flipping words around in his head (e.g., David becomes Divad) and flopping conversationally. He bemoans his “blandly all-purpose name” and his no-purpose body — “a rectangular vacuum of charisma.” He checks his jacket for pee because he was bullied as a kid, which affords him some sympathy. David’s voice is off-putting (“quite a fancy prose style,” says a teacher; “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse,” says T.S. Eliot), but in the early going his quirks seem like comic relief. His fashion sense comes to mind:
Earlier that week my mother had dragged me to the mall, where I’d decided to adhere, for now, to my usual sartorial neutrality of innocuous colors and materials. It would socially serve me these first few weeks to look as benign as possible, the type of person who could be friends with anyone.
(Or no one.)
David just seems like a lowly nerd with an inflated sense of academic and romantic prowess, which he may have inherited from his mother. Her advice on move-in day? Just be yourself. “You can’t go wrong being yourself,” she says, like a guidance counselor telling a student he can’t go wrong becoming a bathroom attendant, or a coach telling Andre Drummond he can’t go wrong getting to the free throw line.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create…
Mrs. Federman’s naivete will prove bottomless, plummeting alongside David’s depravity. A beautiful classmate reveals David’s true colors, and they are far from innocuous.
Veronica Morgan Wells is a wealthy pill-popping fox with a chip on her shoulder. David and other men fight and drool over her as if she’s prey: a thing to catch, possess, devour. His feelings for Veronica ferment overnight into a toxic obsession that drives the book, crushing any remaining hope that Loner will be a dramedy, or that David will redeem himself.
David Facestalks, he shadows Veronica around campus, he enrolls in her Prufrock class. He starts seeing Veronica’s roommate, Sara, only for her proximity to his prize. (Which stings even more given how real Sara feels as a character, and the many small ways she endears herself to the reader.) He piles lies on top of lies and commits academic fraud. He imagines Sara is Veronica while fooling around with the former. Later, “unbidden,” he pictures pushing Sara into oncoming traffic. At which point I wrote in my notes, “Is he going to MURDER HER?” (I meant Veronica, but Sara wouldn’t have surprised.)
David is in fact a psychopath, as made plain in his breakup with Sara, which lands a little too squarely on the nose:
“No,” she said stoically. “You don’t care about me. I don’t think you’re capable of caring about anyone besides yourself.”
“I’m not sure where you’re getting that,” I said.
“You’re missing whatever it is that makes you feel things for other people,” Sara said.
If that’s not confirmation enough: David also gets off on making girls cry. When Sara weeps, he rises. Not sure that’s how psychopathy works (I’m sure it’s how something works, for someone), but it is an effective way to peck away at those last few bits of sympathy for the narrator.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me…
Like Seung-Hui Cho, Dylan Klebold, and Eric Harris, David Alan Federman is a victim of bullying with a disdain for jocks. (He describes a pair of baseball players as “entitled athletes who chased openmouthed after fly balls like Labrador retrievers.”) And like that axis of evildoers, he deeply resents his anonymity.
Perhaps even more than he wants to capture Veronica and inhabit her world, David wants to be known. (At one point he whimpers, “A fictional character had left more of a mark on this place than I ever would.” He means Harvard, but could just as easily mean Earth.) It’s hard to separate David’s twin desires because a large part of Veronica’s allure for him is that, if they dated, she would pull him into her apex orbit:
My parents made good salaries practicing law, but didn’t come close to the assets of your families, where a crack about tuition and parking would never even come to mind, let alone be verbalized…You had traveled widely, dined at Michelin-starred restaurants without parental supervision, matriculated at schools with single-name national reputations, ingested designer drugs and maybe had a cushy stint in rehab.
But it wasn’t just your financial capital that set you apart; it was your worldliness, your taste, your social capital. What my respectable, professional parents had deprived me of by their conventional ambitions and absence of imagination.
David wants Veronica for all the wrong reasons, and we know he will never have her. The only question is how exactly — and how terribly — he will exact his revenge. The title, Loner, suggests a killer’s profile: “Kept to himself,” “He was always really quiet,” etc. David doesn’t own a gun or don a trench coat, but as the story morphs into a page-turner, the reader senses a deadly trajectory.
But [spoiler alert] red herrings abound. For all the talk of murdering poor Sara (it’s a running joke) — and all Wayne’s sprinkled hints that David has written this 200-page letter pre-suicide, post-massacre, and/or behind bars (“A lifetime on the inside of a jail cell flashed before my eyes. (Ha.)”) — there won’t be blood. David is not Seung-Hui Cho, or Dylan Klebold, or Eric Harris (or at least, he’s not only them). A more apt parallel is Brock Turner.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
Loner is not about bullying’s bloody aftermath, or how Mental Health Services can do more to thwart shootings on school campuses. It’s about men — in particular, white men of privilege — feeling entitled to women’s bodies, and how that is heinous and psychopathic, and how these particular men are immune to remorse and repercussion.
David Federman does not kill anyone, but (on separate occasions) he rapes Sara and tries to rape Veronica. From his warped perspective, these women have teased and manipulated him, and he will reap what he is “owed.”
Sara is too drunk to fight back, and Veronica’s struggles only power David’s conviction, “my legs doubling in size, my body lengthening and massing as you shrank in direct proportion under me. But this is how you wanted me to act all along, isn’t it.” The implication is clear: You’re saying no, but you mean yes. You want me to take this. You’ve wanted this all along.
(A year after Kobe Bryant’s accuser dropped the rape charges against him, Bryant penned an apology: “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way…I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Please read and consider “The Legacy of the Kobe Bryant Rape Case.”)
As the police cuff him and stuff him into the back of a squad car, David basks in his newfound infamy while the “cinematic montage of [his] future” unspools before him:
…A British tabloid would give me the libelous sobriquet “the Harvard Rapist”; the Parisian press would speculate about a ménage a trois gone wrong. The frozen, lopsided smile from my Freshman Register photo would fuel their fascination. The white male with whom everyone would become obsessed.
I would listen, deadpan, as the foreman read the jury’s decision in my televised trial for attempted rape. A verdict of guilty for the Harvard Rapist, David Alan Federman. Famous David.
But — as with the real-life cases of Brock Turner (the Stanford Rapist) and 18-year-old David Becker—justice is not forthcoming. David’s parents are attorneys, after all, and he’s a man of privilege. His lawyer says Veronica consented, and there is little physical evidence to dispute him. If the case goes to trial, Veronica’s name will leak and the media will pounce, shredding her character (as they did Bryant’s victim’s, among others’). David pleads to a lesser offense, agrees to stay away from Veronica for five years, and gets off scot-free.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas…
By establishing David as a psychopath and giving him the markings of a killer, Teddy Wayne elevates (or lowers) the crime of rape to murder’s level. By the end, David’s actions seem no less dreadful for their lack of fatality.
In the case of Brock Turner, both the judge and Turner’s father painted the accused as a normal college kid who simply got carried away after one too many beers — the Boys Will Be Boys defense. Dan Turner despicably called his son’s six-month sentence “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” Judge Aaron Perksy, who attended Stanford, claimed a prison sentence “would have a severe impact” on the guilty party (which is kind of the point?) and said, “I think he will not be a danger to others.”
In his apology to the victim and the Court, Turner himself blamed peer pressure and binge-drinking, stating, “I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school.” He’s been shattered? That is not remorse. That is not empathy. That is the apology of a psychopath — someone who very much will be a danger to others. (A wisp of a silver lining: Judge Persky no longer hears criminal cases, and a petition to impeach him has amassed 1.3 million signatures.)
Loner highlights the outsize influence of class on justice, but it’s also a chilling commentary on gender politics. Veronica (who is from an even higher class than David) can afford a top attorney, and she has an eyewitness (female) who saw David try to rape her. Yet she can’t hold him — or her possessive ex, or the sleazy TA with whom she’s having an affair — accountable because he is a man and she is a girl. She must have misunderstood a consensual encounter, or forgotten to take her pills that day, or taken too many. She must crave money (she has plenty) or attention (of the worst possible kind).
Teddy Wayne holds up the Ivy White Male card as the ultimate trump. He means to slap awake a country that glorifies wealth; deifies men; objectifies women; and treats victims of sexual assault like sluts, kooks, and gold-diggers. The story barely qualifies as fiction, and it arrives on our shelves just in time.
Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you’re like us, when you look back, you’ll mark out the year in books — weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder.
And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Alice McDermott, author of Someone.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen.
Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity
Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing.
Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure.
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.
Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
David Gilbert, author of And Sons.
Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger.
Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light.
Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge.
Scott Turow, author of Identical.
Chang-rae Lee, author of The Surrendered.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
Tom Drury, author of Pacific.
Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Paul Harding, author of Enon.
Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods.
Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors.
Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City.
Tess Malone, intern for The Millions.
Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World.
Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask.
Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin.
Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil.
Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections.
Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.
Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed.
Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird.
Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape.
Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer.
Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.
I first came across the work of Teddy Wayne in his debut novel, Kapitoil, the story of a Qatari computer programmer living in Manhattan. Daring in subject matter yet impeccably relatable in its concerns — how does one live well? — Kapitoil marked the arrival of a new voice in fiction with something important to say about our relationship to not only the complex machinations of the stock exchange but to pop culture as well. Now, Wayne returns with his sophomore effort, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, a coming-of-age novel about a tween singer in the vein of Justin Bieber. Once again, Teddy Wayne examines the role pop culture plays in our lives. Who creates it? Who benefits from it? What is its effect on us? In January, I had the opportunity to read with Wayne in Manhattan, and almost immediately after, we set up this interview to discuss some of these questions.
The Millions: The lame cliché writing instructors often tell their students is to avoid dropping pop culture references in their work so that it’ll be more timeless. Yet both of your novels are steeped in their time and place. Kapitoil touches on fantasy baseball and samurai flicks, and the plot hinges on the paranoid run-up to Y2K. Your new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, discusses Jonny’s music, his concerts, his Twitter feed, even his staged relationship with another teeny bopper. What is it about popular culture that interests you? Why do you think it keeps popping up in your work? And do you think the old advice about avoiding pop culture in fiction is old-fashioned or esoteric?
Teddy Wayne: David Foster Wallace got into arguments about this in graduate school, when he wanted to depict the heavily mediated space around him — subject matter his professors thought was inconsequential or un-literary. As he pointed out, he’d see hundreds of ads and commercials each day, and they constituted an integral part of his mental activity. Writing about this material gets pejoratively labeled “postmodern” or “experimental,” but what’s more “realist” than describing the physical world, even if billboards and 30-second spots replace trees and rivers?
Likewise, it misses the point to discard fiction simply because it’s about social media or the celebrity-gossip machine and not Iraq or divorce. By focusing on areas that seem marginal through a narrow aperture, you can sometimes render a much more expansive portrait of a country. I’m an advocate of critic Manny Farmer’s agile, industrious “termite art” (as opposed to bloated, self-important “white elephant art”):
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.
Moreover, James Joyce and Jane Austen — and nearly all writers, ever — also wrote about the popular culture of their times; it just wasn’t called “pop culture” then. Disposable songs of the day frequently recur in Ulysses, for instance, including “What-Ho! She Bumps!,” which sounds like a Black Eyed Peas’ single.
Many Americans no longer have physical communities. We don’t know our neighbors or live in the same place for our whole lives; our kids don’t play together in the street; we don’t socialize in organized groups, whether in a house of worship or a bowling alley. What we do have is mass culture that binds us, so that two coworkers who have little in common can still discuss last night’s episode of American Idol around the water cooler. (And that ritual, too, is getting fragmented now that people watch television shows on their own time and the culture is further splintering into yet more tribes.) This has become our ersatz religion, and it’s important to document and analyze its effects on us.
TM: Even though The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is drenched in our tween-sensation, YouTube landscape, there are very few references to real life pop culture phenomena within the book. Jonny’s favorite video game sounds appropriately complex and plausible, yet it doesn’t exist. Jonny speaks about the artists that have influenced him, but they’re rarely, if ever, real-life singers. Even his hero, Michael Jackson, is only referred to as MJ throughout. What prompted you to go this route with the novel? Why create an entire alternate universe of pop culture for Jonny to exist in? And did you ever consider using real life singers and video games in the novel?
TW: I generally find it hacky when public figures show up fictionalized in books (or TV shows or movies) in cameos, because it lends itself to caricatures, unless the writer does something radically revisionist with the received persona (as Wallace, for example, does with Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak in the story “Little Expressionless Animals”). It feels like gratuitous name-dropping, in the same way that it annoys me when writers use a historical event, completely independent from the story, to ground us in time and place (the way Mad Men does far too much, for my taste).
So while Jonny and the novel refer to real musicians and songs throughout — from the aforementioned MJ and “Billie Jean” to The Clash and “Complete Control” — the two other musical performers who dominate the book are fictional: pop megastar Tyler Beats, whose career Jonny is trying to emulate, and Zack Ford, the front man for the Latchkeys, Jonny’s opening rock band. The late-night talk-show host who interviews him might strike some readers as similar to a real figure, but by naming him, it reduces the character to that sole possibility. I’d like the book to operate, as you suggest, as an alternate universe, both to preserve this potential and to invite in readers who have limited knowledge of contemporary music. Ideally, you should be able to enjoy this even if you stopped listening to new music after 1970.
A friend proposed I name the video-game system Jonny plays, but I declined to, for the same reason; if it’s a PlayStation, then it can be only that system, and the game Jonny plays incessantly has to accord to its real-life standards. Incidentally, the game, called The Secret Land of Zenon, is based off a real role-playing game series (does this make me sound incredibly cool or what?), Ultima, that I played for a few years when I was much younger. It’s always a catalyst for bonding — since I’m not in a bowling league — when I find out someone else has a nostalgic attachment to the same semi-obscure object from their youth. I got a lot of emails for a throwaway allusion to the “purple stuff” Sunny Delight commercial in Kapitoil.
TM: I also steep my work in the details of the era. My novel Last Call in the City of Bridges is set during the first Obama campaign, and the characters routinely voice their triumphs and failures on Facebook and Twitter. Even in four short years, the way people interact over social media is totally different. People don’t write things like “Teddy Wayne is answering questions for an interview” anymore, but they did back in 2008. So I’m wondering if you share my fear, that perhaps we’re dating our work by relying so much on the internet and pop culture. In Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he worries that his book will one day be “as outdated as a 1983 book about Fantasy Island.” I teach Klosterman’s essay about Saved by the Bell, and it’s always astounding to see how and if undergraduates can interact with it if they have no knowledge of the show. Do you ever worry about prematurely dating your book, or do you think it’s almost impossible not to date your work?
TW: I really like that Klosterman essay, having parlayed my years of committing every episode to memory into a single humor piece years later. Efficient use of my youth. And I’ll resist the urge to make a bad joke about dating my book by taking it out to dinner and a movie and we’ll see where the night takes us. I’ll strongly resist it.
My aim for this book, and my first one, was to capture something about the era it portrays (and in the case of Kapitoil, set in 1999, also the era it was published in) while doing my best to write a story that transcends the time period. It’s true that, 50 years from now, we won’t be using Twitter as we currently do, but we don’t ride in stagecoaches or believe in the Olympian gods, either, and plenty of those narratives remain relevant. Investigating your contextual surroundings confines you to that spatial-temporal sphere only if that’s your one concern. I recall reading an interview with Bret Easton Ellis about Glamorama, in which he responded to concerns that its extensive cast of millennial celebrities might soon be outdated, as this list from the first chapter makes clear:
Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Sheryl Crow, David Charvet, Courteney Cox, Harry Connick, Jr., Francisco [sic] Clemente, Nick Constantine, Zoe Cassavetes, Nicolas Cage, Thomas Calabro, Cristi Conway [sic], Bob Collacello, Whitfield Crane, John Cusack, Dean Cain, Jim Courier, Roger Clemens, Russell Crowe, Tia Carrere and Helena Bonham Carter — but I’m not sure if she should be under B or C.
Ellis’s answer was that of course it would be outdated — that was exactly his point. (This seems like an easy point to make, but that’s another matter. When a novel’s major project is to expose the shallowness of the culture, it risks being equally shallow. Also, check out how outdated that New York Times page looks by now.) If your entire mission is to traffic in the there-and-gone minutiae of our culture, then, yes, I think you flirt with early obsolescence. If you marshal it as the trappings for a complete story, though, you have a chance to pinpoint exactly what it is about the epoch that is also universal.
It’s ironic, though, that we sometimes criticize contemporary work steeped in modern detail for its triviality, yet lavish praise on period fiction or entertainment with hyper-accurate attention to historical detail (again, Mad Men). To me, that sometimes also feels like the name-dropping of celebrities, or an occasion for the writer — or set and costume designers — to prove to the reader that he’s done his homework.
TM: This is a bit of a softball question, but it’s one I kept coming back to while reading Jonny Valentine. You seem like a very well-adjusted, adult man. What prompted you to write a book from the perspective of a prepubescent tween heartthrob? What is it that interests you about this world? What do you think it says about us as a society when Justin Bieber can go from a completely normal kid singing on YouTube to an overnight sensation recording tracks with Kanye West and the Rza? Does it say anything?
TW: You’d have to canvas my friends to gauge how well-adjusted and adult I really am. Though I’m not an 11-year-old, I certainly share many of Jonny’s anxieties, especially his professional ones. He gets nauseous before sold-out performances at corporate arenas; I get a few butterflies before reading in front of four people at a bookstore. He’s promoting his second album; this is my second book. He chronically masturbates in hopes of achieving his first ejaculation; I…never mind.
I’ve always been interested in child stars and prodigies. It’s a strange phenomenon, to have an adult mind or adult responsibilities but the restricted emotional comprehension of a child. We’ve had huge child stars in this country for a long time, ever since Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple in the 1920s and ’30s, and many more the last few decades, especially this most recent one. We’re fascinated by the contrast of outsized talent in somebody so small, and we impute qualities to them — usually angelic innocence — that may not necessarily reflect their private personae. And their histories are often profoundly tragic; I don’t need to list the examples.
I don’t know what the overnight-sensation trend says about us other than that we’ve always been a country fixated on get-rich-quick schemes and the dream that someone with power will discover us at the drugstore soda fountain and turn us into a star. The difference, now, is that nearly everyone has the potential to make him or herself famous for fifteen seconds (perhaps not minutes) — especially if you don’t mind public humiliation.
TM: How deeply did you research this world? In the acknowledgments section, you bring up some influential nonfiction books, but I want to focus on the music here. Did you go out and buy a bunch of tween albums? Did you listen to them incessantly? Do you have favorites? Did you listen to any while writing?
TW: I listened to more tween pop than I cared to, to get a feel for the public images but also the lyrics, so that Jonny’s own songs sounded plausible and not like satirical send-ups. But I also read some child-star autobiographies, from the somewhat more serious (Tatum O’Neal’s A Paper Life) to the semi-trashy (Drew Barrymore’s Little Girl Lost) to the propagandistic-advertorial (Miley Cyrus’s Miles To Go). And I read a number of tween-celebrity websites and magazines, sometimes in public, which can be hard to explain to onlookers.
I’m partial to One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I think that would be the way to be an adolescent pop star: in a quintet, so that you’re among friends, even if everyone knows that just one of you will make it out alive (Mark Wahlberg, Justin Timberlake).
TM: On the surface, Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine couldn’t be more different; however, they share some similarities. Both are told in very convincing first-person voices from characters with extremely different backgrounds from your own, and, reduced to their most basic levels, both involve young men finding their place in the world. Do you find it easier to write in first person than third? Did you ever attempt to write either of these books in third person? Is third person something you want to work toward in future novels, or do you not obsess about the divide between third and first as much as I do?
TW: I do find it easier to write in first person, when I’m able to stretch out the fullest possibilities of a character’s voice, which is the most pleasurable part of writing for me. I’m always drawn to ventriloquism, especially of characters with idiosyncratic speaking styles. This is not to say I won’t ever write in the third person, but reading first person typically inspires deeper empathy for me. It also feels like it best exploits the native advantages of fiction — interiority and subjective language — whereas film can sometimes surpass what third-person narration does. (Film can use voice-over, of course, but it’s usually clunky.)
Kapitoil didn’t sell in its first round of submissions, and several editors complained about Karim Issar’s voice, an English-as-a-second-language hybrid of technofinancial jargon and mathematically precise grammar. My agent thought I should see what it would look like in the third person, so I “translated” a page. It was lifeless, lacking everything that a reader might gravitate to in the book, so I stopped. (I did revise the last third of the book, among other things, which was a more necessary fix.)
TM: Kapitoil was released in April 2010, and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine will be published this February. That’s less than three years. How do you manage to produce so many pages? Do you write every day? Or are you someone who writes in quick bursts? Do you think your process informs the work you do? And finally, what’s next? Are you going to take some time off between books, or are you already imagining what your third novel will be?
TW: Before and after Kapitoil was published, I was slogging through another novel for about a year. I wasn’t having fun with it and the words were coming slowly; I think I produced about 100 pages. Then, one morning in October 2010, a friend emailed me asking if I had any ideas for a humorous book we could collaborate on. Without much premeditation, I suggested a parody of the pop-star autobiographies I would later go on to read for research. He liked the idea; an hour later, I realized it could make a good novel if I treated it with more gravity. I wrote 3,000 words that afternoon, a torrent for me. (I usually aim for 500 a day and am ecstatic if I get 1,000.)
Soon after, I signed up at Paragraph in New York, a writers’ room, and used an old computer with no Internet so that my only entertainment was writing the novel itself. I finished a first draft in six months, also speedy for me, and spent about a year revising until my agent tried to sell it (and then several more months of work with my diligent, brilliant editor, Millicent Bennett, after Free Press bought it). It was a lesson that if a project is proceeding torturously, maybe you should abandon it, and if something is coming (relatively) easily, it might be a good sign. I mix in a decent amount of freelance writing, too, so I try to write something most weekdays and sometimes on the weekends, though I don’t hold myself to a strict schedule. With fiction, I can concentrate for about four hours at a time; for nonfiction or humor writing, I can last much longer.
In the near future, I’ll be working on a screenplay with the writer Amber Dermont, author of The Starboard Sea and the forthcoming story collection Damage Control, and on a TV pilot with her and director/screenwriter Yaniv Raz. I have a vague idea for a new novel, but if the past is any indication, it will also be a bust (I finished a failed novel before Kapitoil, too). I look forward to referring back to this interview several years from now to tell an anecdote about the misguided novel I’d been struggling with before I righted my ship.
In his debut novel Kapitoil, Teddy Wayne follows the astonishing and short-lived career of Karim Issar, a self-taught computer programmer from Qatar who arrives in Turn-of-the-Millennium Manhattan to work on a Y2K debugging project for an equity firm. The main plot conceit is that Karim has to study things like idiomatic language and social protocol in New York because he’s a foreigner—and that this unusual perceptiveness allows him to “predict events that other people consider random accidents.” Using this talent, Karim designs a program called Kapitoil that analyzes the media coverage of terrorist attacks in order to predict crude oil futures with frightening accuracy. He realizes that Kapitoil leverages political violence for financial gain but moves ahead with the program anyway, and as a result becomes a rising star at his firm.
Karim convinces himself that his actions are free of moral consequence—“this violence will happen with or without my program,” he says—and it’s out of this assumption that the driving conflict of the novel derives. The story is imbued with a pre-9/11 ignorance that Karim is caught up in. So while he’s able to believe that his profiting from the deaths of others cannot make that faraway suffering worse, we readers are skeptical. He works in a World Trade Center office, after all, and we know what’s going to happen in the coming years. Nonetheless, it’s that Karim attempts to find a balance between morality and profitability, to straddle both sides of his ethical predicament, that gives Kapitoil relevancy.
Much of the first half of the book is used to engage him in the self-indulgent pleasure-seeking that his Muslim upbringing rallied against. We see Karim getting drunk in nightclubs and hooking up with fast woman. More or less, he begins to resemble the two coworkers who lead him on these misadventures. Jefferson and Dan are the kinds of Ugly Americans who are easy to parody, and much of the novel’s fun is at their expense. It’s only later that Karim really reconsiders the new path his life has taken, when he falls in love with his one sensible coworker, Rebecca, and begins to better understand his role in the world.
Most of Wayne’s previous work is under the banner of satire and farce, with numerous credits in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, McSweeney’s, and on Comedy Central, so the lampoons are expected and expertly performed. But he also shows a sure hand in depicting the sincere musings of Karim, an earnest character who identifies throughout the book with Tom Joad, because like Karim, Joad “attempts to provide for his family and has strong values, and he has an intriguing way of speaking to boot.” Channeled through his first-person narration, the writing is heartfelt and genuine in its humor. As Rebecca tells him: “Most people here, their conversations are intellectualized middle-school sarcasm. They’re just trying to prove how intelligent or cool they are. You’re not like that.”
Combined with his status as an outsider, Karim’s guilelessness allows him to observe American culture with limited bias. No remark is forced coming from him because, as a programmer, he’s hardwired to observe deeply and note conclusions—an organic premise for the narration that plays well in the book. And most importantly, when Karim struggles over the moral ambiguity of the program he’s created, his authenticity allows for a more open exploration of the issue at hand. When he convinces himself to proceed with Kapitoil, it isn’t as a cover for underlying greed but an extension of a healthy ambition to better the lives of his sister and father.
Of course, there’s an imbalance in the system that doesn’t allow honest pursuits like this to actually happen. This is a world of limited resources, of bloodshed and tough decisions. The novel seems to be telling us that no one can just run a computer program and blindly profit from its calculations. There are real consequences to everything, especially when it comes to making money.
Karim struggles to admit this to himself throughout the book and it isn’t until his little sister is a bystander in a terrorist attack back home in Qatar that Karim is finally forced into seeing the predatory nature of his own actions—when he personally profits from violence that injures the beloved he’s charged with caring for. In the end, Kapitoil boils down to Karim’s interior conflict of family, nationality, and religion playing against romance, profit, and hedonism. And because of the type of character Karim is, there really isn’t much doubt which side will win out.
The principal disappointment of Kapitoil is that its flat secondary characters aren’t able to challenge Karim—besides Rebecca, his coworkers are incurable cads who stumble into an endless string of faux pas, even failing to wash their hands after using the bathroom—and they leave Karim two-dimensional in important ways. In fact, not even his billionaire boss proves to be much of an obstacle, and most of the Americans he meets are self-deluded and provincial despite living in cosmopolitan New York. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the predatory nature of American capitalism is the target of satire here, and while Kapitoil doesn’t disappoint in this aspect, there’s often the sense that it’s a fixed fight. The targets are too easy. The betrayal, the conflict, the revelation—it’s all in Karim and his thought processes, rather than being wrung from the plot. His chief fault as a character is that he’s too successful, that he can dictate his own trajectory, and this is something that can cause the plot to wear thin at times.
This is largely a novel of voice, however, and it’s the steady cadence of Karim’s algorithmic narration that makes Kapitoil worthwhile. Teddy Wayne is an author of many gifts—notably his smooth, effortless prose—and he’s written a timely, self-assured book that offers its reader many rewards.