He Said, She Said

In each of two new novels, Loner and Diary of an Oxygen Thief, it is the narrator's attitude that sticks with the reader more than the events recounted, writes Scott McLemee.

September 21, 2016

Teddy Wayne's Loner: A Novel (Simon & Schuster) is the second book I've read in as many weeks narrated by a manipulative and highly verbal straight white man possessing a degree of upward social mobility as well as the impulse to see how much emotional damage he can inflict on others. Journalistic custom requires three instances to spot a trend, but reader, I do not have it in me to endure any more such company. (Anyway, both narratives resonate with Aaron James's political and philosophical musings, discussed here earlier in the month.)

The other volume was Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymous and purportedly autobiographical work that "went from self-published obscurity to best-sellerdom," as reported in Publishers Weekly this summer. Loner is set at Harvard University, more or less in the present day, while Diary roams between Ireland and the United States as the narrator works as an advertising art director around the turn of the millennium. Despite considerable differences, the books follow broadly comparable narrative arcs. Romantic entanglements between characters (not just the hooking-up part but the emotional upheaval sometimes accompanying it) generally turn out to be misunderstandings at best. Often enough the disasters are intentional.

Neither author seems to be aware of, or responding to, the other's work, but they seem to be mapping similar terrain. And the fairly positive reception for Loner and Diary of an Oxygen Thief suggests that readers find something recognizable about the emotional landscape they depict. To discuss the similarities without giving away significant plot turns means being carefully vague at times. Ultimately it is the narrator's attitude or verbal demeanor that sticks with the reader more than the events recounted.

David Federman, the narrator of Loner, arrives at Harvard as a freshman with an acute sense of his middling as well as seemingly perfect confidence in his prospects as a member of an elite. Entitlement and embarrassment do not make for a stable combination, however, and it becomes increasingly volatile once he becomes aware of Veronica Morgan Wells, the figure he addresses in the second person from that point on: "[It] was obvious, from your clothes, your body language, the impervious confidence you projected, as if any affront would bounce off you like a battleship deflecting a BB pellet: you came from money …. 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."

Not a unprecedented situation, of course, as the narrator himself realizes. But any similarity between Veronica Morgan Wells and Daisy Fay Buchanan is slight compared to the fact that Jay Gatsby, whatever else you might call him, wasn't a stalker. David Federman's unreliability as a narrator is shown chiefly in the fact that thinks Veronica accepts his carefully planned coincidental meetings at face value and that his effort to ingratiate himself is working. The campaign has its comic aspects. All of it unfolds against a background of campus sex codes, feminist cultural-studies seminars and expressions of concern about social inequality.

But David's increasingly fetishistic obsession with her, and his willingness to use another female character sexually as a means to gaining access to Veronica, grows very uncomfortable to witness from the inside. He goes from callow virgin to budding young psychopath very rapidly and without missing a step. He even manages to incorporate some of the campus sex code into his strategy.

The unnamed narrator of Diary of an Oxygen Thief is much less preoccupied with social status, or at least less overtly so, and his introspection never leaves the reader with understanding of what drives his malevolence toward women. His sadism is purely emotional but well practiced. In ending things, he follows a scorched-earth policy:

“‘This is what I look like when I’m pretending to listen to your boring conversation.’ I froze my sweetest expression, my innocent blues eyes widening in pseudo-interest, the same expression I’d used on teachers. … ‘This is what I look like when I’m pretending to be in love with you …. I’m going to dismantle us tonight. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll have to sit there and listen while I wrench the U from the S. You’ll question your own judgment. Maybe you’ll never really trust yourself again. I hope so. Because if I don’t want you, and believe me I don’t, then I don’t want you being happy with someone else when there’s any doubt that I might get another girl.’”

What makes it considerably nastier is that the narrator treats this not as a way to get out of a relationship but as the whole point of it -- a moment when the self-loathing that he otherwise numbs with alcohol can be off-loaded on the woman he's maneuvered into position to endure it.

At a crucial moment in each book, the axis pivots to reveal just how limited and self-deluded the narrator is about his sense of control over others and over himself. The manipulation rebounds on him, but not as revenge only. The reader is left in a position to see that his seemingly pathological mind games can also be understood as having a certain logic: "Though Hollywood would have us believe that all we seek in romantic relationships is love," one character says, "it is just one of several exchangeable commodities, along with sex, money, status, validation, services and so on." An exchange, furthermore, in which one side can only win at the other's expense. Failure to understand that is a guarantee of losing.

I'm not going to argue with anyone else's sense of these things: people who reach such bleak conclusions probably have grounds for doing so. Still, it would be good to think that readers aren't responding to these two page-turners simply as confirmation of their own experience, but in the spirit of facing a worst-case scenario in order to find the nerve to try again.


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