David Federman, the eponymous loner in Teddy Wayne's new novel, would be the perfect match for Lee Fiora, a few years after the events in Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. Ironically, though, although both characters are awkward outsiders — arrivistes who have little in the way of self-awareness or social awareness — they would probably loathe each other. Each would consider the other to be an unworthy match and to lack social-climbing potential.
Loner opens as David arrives at Harvard with his parents on his first day. David is smart and ambitious but spent most of his teenage years in his bedroom in his nondescript New Jersey hometown. He has a habit of mumbling and a nervous tic for reversing words. Harvard is his chance to reinvent himself as a brilliant scholar and a popular student. At last, he thinks, he will fit in.
But on the first day, he meets Veronica — witty, wealthy, sophisticated and effortlessly beautiful — and falls for her instantly, drawing comparisons with Juliet, Dante’s Beatrice and Helen of Troy. He soon formulates a plan to get to know her and, he hopes, win her over. Conveniently, Sara, one of his new friends — a group of fellow misfits — happens to be Veronica's roommate and suddenly David sees the potential of growing closer to Sara. But how far will he go in his efforts to seduce Veronica and avenge his younger, lonelier self? Is he destined to be a loner or might Harvard be the perfect place for David to find a niche for himself?
Wayne's novel is hard to read at times — as novels with difficult, unlikable central characters often are — but despite David's actions, which range from cringe-worthy and thoughtless, to unpleasant and downright deplorable, you can't help but admire his drive, determination and self-belief. It soon emerges that David's narrative — written in the second person singular, the 'you' in question being Veronica — may not be entirely reliable. The reasons for this become clearer as the novel progresses but certainly, although he is clearly intelligent, he is unlikely to be the extraordinary scholar he would have us (or, rather, Veronica) believe. And it's easy for us to read between the lines in his social interactions and spot the vast gulf between David's perceptions and the reality. We also notice when he steals dialogue from other characters — a witty one-liner or a brilliant academic insight — to try to impress others; he always seems to miss the mark, however.
In some ways, David is reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's The Social Network. David shares the social awkwardness and apparent lack of empathy with Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, but he lacks the unique vision and talent that allowed Zuckerberg to go on to create the world’s largest social network. “We were studious,” David says in a rare moment of self-awareness, “but not collectively brilliant enough to be nerds, nor sufficiently specialized to be geeks.” Yet there are similar exchanges, some of which relate to Harvard — the clarification that Harvard’s elite social clubs are ‘final clubs’ not ‘finals clubs’ and the scouring of the freshmen student directory (the facebook) — and others which are more individual, such as the scene that mirrors the end of Fincher’s film in which the central character hovers over the ‘add friend’ button on Facebook and then agonises over the outcome of the request.
The three lies of the John Harvard statue come up again here too, and that’s fine because as well as being a highly engaging character study, Wayne’s novel is an insightful campus novel. Just as I love to read novels or watch films set in my own alma mater, Cambridge, I enjoy finding out about the Harvard experience, the lore and the in-jokes that constitute the Harvard mystique, along with the learning and the privilege.
Still, it takes a certain talent to make readers want to know more about — and even to root for — someone as hard to like as David, and Loner is acutely observed: sometimes sad but more often wry and funny. The denouement is unexpected and yet, with hindsight, just right.
Disclaimer: Loner will be published by Simon & Schuster on 13 September 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.