Applying to college is the stuff of myth—touring campus, imagining yourself lounging around in the common room in a Notre Dame sweater and rugby socks, assuming your rightful place at your Dream School/in the upper echelon of society—but when you get there, one of the weird things is that your attention immediately shifts from, say, “Can I get into Harvard?” to “Oh God, I got into Harvard… How do I make it here?”
Whether you got into Harvard, Princeton, Howard, UT, or Colorado Mountain University (all top options), after you actually go off to college toting your LOTR duvet, panini maker, and the entirety of your parents’ hopes and dreams, your focus shifts from your high school peers to the new student body, each of whom is as smart and rich as you, as deserving as you, and—at least at the beginning—as alone as you.
That’s the jumping-off point for Teddy Wayne’s killer new novel, Loner. David Federman is a socially awkward dude from New Jersey who got into Harvard, and is determined to reinvent himself as a successful ladies-man, academic standout, and general winner. From the start, things don’t go as planned: David’s friendship prospects appear limited to a crew of nerds who call themselves the “Matthews Marauders”; his only romantic prospect is the ever-allergic, lactose-intolerant Sara; and he finds himself excluded from the elite clubs within Harvard’s grounds. Not to be deterred, David fixates on the sophisticated Manhattanite WASP, Veronica, to whom the entire novel is unnervingly addressed. His strategies to get close to Veronica include a) offering to help her study (“I deleted your tenth-grade paragraph and began writing in Harvard-level prose”) and b) dating her roommate, Sara (“As I dozed off to the white noise machine, I stroked Sara’s arm, mentally elongating it until it reached your lithe proportions.”).
Uh, are you creeped out yet?
David’s enterprising nature starts out a little Gatsby-ish, but takes a turn for the Howard Roark-y when his social calculus gets a little too intensive. He makes a study of Veronica, piecing together available clues (Facebook searches, snooping in her room, probing her class schedule) to form a picture of the girl she is, and the guy she needs (David, naturally). Everyone can relate to feeling like an Awkward Albert at college, and David’s penchant for spelling words backwards (hence “LONER: A LEVON”) is cringeworthy, but it’s his certainty from his place outside the social sphere that he is better than the social betas who populate his dorm and that he deserves the company of Veronica—that he is even being used and abused by Veronica (“you”)—that tips this novel into a five-bell MRA alarm. Here he is picturing his manifest destiny:
“You’d stand by my side at stultifying faculty parties and jet around the world with me as I was crowned with laurels at academic conferences, joking with the awestruck attendees and proteges about how impenetrably dense my books where while shooting me a private look that said you did, of course, understand them (I had taught you so much), these are the self-effacing comments we must make so as not to appear full of ourselves, when can we get out of here and fuck in our hotel room?”
It is a wild time to be on campus, with pained debates about the viability of trigger warnings and safe spaces, faculty arguing that college must push students to consider uncomfortable, challenging ideas, students demanding that colleges right the wrongs of the world beyond the Ivy, administrators struggling to address campus rape crises, mass shootings taking over the news, and tomorrow’s Lena Dunhams making their way through the fountains of Oberlin in their underwear. College is challenging simply because it offers you the greatest opportunity of your life at the same time as it demonstrates to you exactly how the modes of entitlement and privilege reproduce themselves. (Did you go to Harvard? Me either.)
David sounds at first like the awkward guy you might befriend, forgiving him his tics to partake in his supply of Lactaid, but evolves into the guy you develop an irrational fear of, worrying that any degree of friendliness might be misinterpreted as flirtation. As his project to win over Veronica verges on terrifying, he becomes a study in the dangers of isolation, preconceptions, ambition, and male entitlement. The ending is a shocker, but there aren’t easy lessons from it.
Far from the dry guides to affirmative consent and 101 PowerPoints on intersectionality, Loner gives you a crash course in the forces at work on your campus—I guarantee it will stick with you days after finishing, and become a thing everyone discusses over their racially insensitive sushi in the dining hall.