11 min read

“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.”

“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.”
Photo by Anna Bielan on Unsplash

The title is a quote from Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, which contains among other things in his other works as well, a dialectical materialist approach to considering and evaluating the social import of art. For example, the product of art (in this case, a novel set contemporaneously) to have importance as a subject of philosophical criticality, it must be done through the dialectic.

The novels of Teddy Wayne break down into two component parts for me when considered from the perspective of a character study: the self-awareness problems of his protagonists, wildly ranging in socioeconomic class and material security and certainty of safety in society, and how their depiction, sometimes self-styled as self-aware in an environment that signals to the reader how much this is desperately, chronically, and sometimes in the narrative, violently not the case. Sure, he explores themes like exploitation, cultural and economic, from the perspective of a subject of the imperial core to those who are put upon by it, the influences of western liberal capitalism on those it enriches in order to exploit further (the protagonist of Kapitoil), those who feel they should have benefited more given the transactions they entered into self-assured of their cleverness and cynicism about the stated rules (those in Loner and The Great Man Theory), and those who succeed exactly according to formula but are always terrified it will be not remain enough (The Love Song of Johnny Valentine).  I think the often uncomfortable subjectivity of an all too reliable narrator, convinced of their perspective, but oblivious to the world in their own version of events, is the aspect of his craft that makes these novels the perfect reflection of our time; an era of "cringe" comedy, something deeply rooted in something nebulous about our social culture, that can and often does have shared cause consequences when the comedy is finished.

I'd like to start with Wayne's first novel, because it is the most straightforward, and perhaps most accessible version of this relationship between perception, the nature of exploitation, and the condition of these things under an Internet-connected world. Karim Issar is a computer programmer from Qatar, where his family still lives in underdeveloped poverty. He rises through the ranks quickly because of the deftness of his work. You see him become friendly, even nominally familial with an executive of the company, who even at one point rewards him for helping the company realize tremendous profit because of a program Karim wrote outside the scope of his duties at the company. He's family with this executive, until he's not, and the reason is that Karim wants to assert some stake in the work he did to realize those profits; how dare he, after all the company did for him. In the text, you see him buy the all-too-common myth that his hard work will result in just compensation, and you see him believe it while you, through his eyes, see (but he does not perceive) the shallowness of these relationships he believes are professional respect, but are mollifications to prime him for maximum extraction. The disloyalty or ungratefulness was never his, but you wouldn't think it from his employer demanding he let them profit and leave him behind. Wayne tells a very common labor theory story here with the added dimension of an American corporation explicitly extracting the labor of someone who comes to the US to ascend in the imperial core, only to find he fulfills the same function to the US now that he did back home; as a profit center to be exploited, and he should be grateful for the opportunity, the logic goes. At least he was considered. Karim makes a discovery through his work that will allow his company to profit, his profile to rise, but could have grave social consequences, and enters a position of being at the center of moral conflict about the duties of man to society, which for him, precludes the needs of capitalism and business in considering how to proceed, but it requires individual sacrifice of any inroads he might have made in the process, and is left to consider if that really means all that much to him anyway.

Stylistically, what he introduces, like I said, is this first person narrative where you see the thought process of the narrator, and their perception of events, but viewed objectively, in their own descriptions, you're able to come away seeing that someone is being manipulative or that the narrator has clearly misunderstood. This is key to the other books, and interestingly, from the perspective of Westerners, like Wayne himself, that removes the possible suggestion this interpretative narrative device was specifically racialized (while serving the purpose of making an aggressively powerful commentary about the exploitation of foreign workers in white collar professions).

In The Love Song of Johnny Valentine, Loner, and The Great Man Theory, we see this device used through the vantage point of an 11-year-old, a college freshman, and then an adult associate professor, a parent himself.

In Love Song, we are meeting Johnny on the world tour for his latest album, while coming to realize his life is far more complicated than the success story his mother has crafted for him. He rose to prominence through YouTube where his mother, after having been left by Johnny's father penniless and working in a grocery store, began monetizing his talents, under the guise (and this is reaffirmed to rather than by Johnny) of him simply loving music enough to forgo a normal childhood. He's kept off the Internet in the name of his safety (he has major anxiety about child traffickers), but comes to realize through transgressive acts of rebellion in accessing computers throughout the plot, that not only is it to prevent him finding out his father is trying to reach out to him (for reasons, we, the reader, suspect are not above board) and that his mother has become a gossip item, amongst other things from his world that perhaps were clear to the reader, but not narrator. As a depiction of prepubescent boyhood, it does a remarkable job of finding it confusing which men in your life are to be emulated, which are not, and the mixed messaging of seeing the latter succeed in the ways you would regard as rewarding, and the former face near constant strife in the professional world with deep and humiliating cost in their personal lives. He faces the decisions of continuing his career to keep his crew and dancers and mother employed, despite his bodyguard and tutor telling him he'll literally never need money again– he's being exploited, but in another way, he's seeing this for what it is, an exercise where he can support all these people as well. A noble instinct, but one that requires more self-sacrifice to the exploitative world of entertainment, which in the novel, is beginning to turn on the maturing Johnny, preferring the successfully matured version of one of his contemporaries.

Loner takes a much more complex turn, both, narratively for the use of this device, but also Wayne as an author, taking on the voice of what vaguely predates the "incel" identity type we see today; someone who has such a variable and amoral sense of value of others' humanity, that "no one" being interested in them just means those who they regard as whole and complete humans like themselves, rather than reflecting on the dehumanizing nature of their views of women. In the novel, David Federman is a Harvard freshman, who on his first day in Matthews House, meets, both, a girl who likes him (Sara), and one that doesn't know he exists (or so he thinks, Veronica). He finds out they are roommates, and while having something of a genuine connection with Sara, he worries his contact with her will make it more difficult for him to woo Veronica when the time comes (which, in his estimation, is that he can accrue experience with Sara). He contrives a way in which he can insinuate himself into Veronica's academic life (with some chilling consequences that, by late in the book, are from circumstances becoming increasingly clear are not what they seem). He takes the position of intellectual superiority in most interactions, virtually amoral and entirely prone to degeneracy throughout the text in small moments of unforced but entitled animalism, he takes the inverse position Johnny Valentine does when confronted with competing models of how to style himself; he connects Veronica's popularity and the success of people of her socioeconomic background with a type of toxic he, immaturely, believes is "what girls really want". David is, to be clear, solidly middle class, this is a classic story of this class divide making sociopaths of social climbers, and Wayne theorizes in this book that it brings out latent tendencies borne from this resentment; why shouldn't he expect better? Why should he settle for a working class girl from Cleveland (Sara) who is (also) lactose intolerant (one of her many flaws, as he sees it, which he also embodies)? Why should he, specifically, smart enough to get into Harvard, despite having plenty in common with everyone else, expect that he lives more than an extraordinary life? You see through David's eyes what he believes is a wrong against him personally, while seeing the reactions from those he interacts with regarding him as variously cold and suspicious to outright vile.

The thing to understand about the narrator of Loner is that you have to read him as totally convinced of his correctness, there's very little in the way of self-doubt, where you as the reader might understand that he's (correctly) being regarded very differently than he believes; he thinks he's social engineering, but he's really being identified as a creep, and potentially dangerous and sociopathic. The questions you're left asking are then how much of this is culturally reinforced, and how much of it is innate; everyone suffers under late capitalism (and specifically, late capitalism that has many decades past precedent for it to collapse, exceeding all ability to measure a curve of rising expectations) to varying degrees, and the tendency to act out this suggests is higher and more extreme under milder amounts of strain, and in David's case, he outs out in overt self-interest, not in service of any brand of justice other than what he believes is his personal right against what is, you might yourself read, a systemic cause to his stress, not at all individually put upon.

I bring this up, because The Great Man Theory again takes this point, and offers you the counter scenario; Paul is a professor who has recently received a demotion. He is a liberal, and he is working on a low technology manifesto. Because of his loss of benefits and cut to salary, he is forced to move into his mother's home, which puts a strain on his already distancing relationship with his pre-teen daughter. The economics of this scenario means he must make compromises; he now must have a smartphone because he has to drive Uber to pay bills, he gets involved in online discourse because now he's online more than he was before, he becomes a niche microcelebrity on a Huffington Post-style site's comments section, he starts using the phone less for driving and increasingly for posting to maintain his reputation, while his esteem with his peers has grown antagonistic, he loses all sense of proportionality with his daughter, his ex-wife, other parents, and even his mother. You see through his eyes what he believes are well intentioned instances being a helpful and inclusive instructor, but you, the narrator, recognize in him a kind of cultural paternalism, while also bristling at changes in curriculum (for example, it becomes overly centered on social media, and reductively approaches issues of social justice through it), and seems not to recognize when his assertiveness becomes, clearly, somewhat uncomfortable at best, and borderline coercive if viewed less charitably (but perhaps not inaccurately, given the turn his mindset takes). He decides, once his book deal for his manifesto is in jeopardy, to scam a Sean Hannity-style show's producer to work his way onto the show and then spring the manifesto on a conservative audience by spending weeks posing as a conservative, all while the pre-packaged right-wing media talking points become hallmarks of his natural reactionary stance when bristling professionally or socially with his peers who, likewise, are reactionaries in their own right (which he does correctly identify, and notes there is no empathy for the class struggled in inclusivity and accessibility statements) from the culture of prevailing neoliberal laundering of late capitalism.

Unlike David Faderman, there's a certain amount of nihilism Paul has about this, he recognizes the nature of the problem as systemic, but being drawn to reactionary pursuits, not always by his own volition, exposes to the narrative the latent entitlement he feels to a sense of superiority in some way or another (similar to David Faderman in this regard), and is ultimately what seems to inform his decision to act individually, as a "great man" of history, on behalf of a society (compared to David who saw himself as the primary victim of the society he was confronting). This is distinct from Karim, who saw himself as a good faith participant in what he assumed was a fair and good faith market, and from Johnny, who felt compelled to sacrifice individually for what he felt was a vulnerable whole relying on him but in actually was parasitic on his labor to a high degree. We see over these novels the different types of relationships between individuals and the societies these individuals inhabit, the various extremisms the isolation that late capitalism perpetuates will bring out in people, latently inherent or socially induced or, perhaps most likely, a synthesis of the two meant to further isolate people as a consequence of the risk posed by those who act out (or at least act in accordance with their exploitation in uncommonly isolating but typified circumstances) without much regard for why, for example, it wasn't detected as threatening or why someone was becoming reactionary to a dangerous degree or why the onus is on the exploited to end their exploitation and not someone witnessing the exploitation just because they might be exploited to some degree as well. Wayne offers few answers, but that's not really his job; he's doing the hard work of taking on these narrators' voices, and while some are more vile than others, they offer insights into the heinousness that embodies the quotidian experience of not just the narrator but a type of person. This is more the case in the latter two novels, but is present and a factor in the first two.

In Loner, David learns he, himself, is the subject of sociological interest, and I'd like to think this is useful framing for what Wayne is doing as a novelist; creating a character, and putting them into real situations, and using evidence from the real world, what outcomes could be speculated to result, what is possible, etc. The novels all share a moment in their last acts where the narrator takes a risk to achieve their end, whatever and however motivated it might be, and Wayne takes great care to have the narrator justify their process, you understand as the reader how good or bad of an idea it is, how risky or not the narrator considers it, and you are left genuinely wondering what compels someone to do this, let alone execute on it. This is the biggest question of them all; sure you might relate to a feeling, but to act out on it is another matter entirely. For Paul, it is that he feels he's the qualified "great man" of history, David does feel he is entitled to more, Johnny does believe he is owed answers if he is going to decide to sacrifice himself perhaps permanently, and Karim does believe there is a principle at stake and that personal obligation to society does not have to be self-sacrifice, but contributory to preempting further exploitation and suffering.

It is Karim's and Johnny's stories that most embody the component of capitalism as such; Karim from the vantage of someone materially disadvantaged under imperialist hegemony coming into material security while acknowledging its uncertainty, Johnny from the perspective of a child playing host to the ambitions and desires of adults who need him safe but for their own ends and not his which is only possible through continued self-sacrifice.  It is David and Paul's stories that take the inverse position that individual action, a man alone, can right some wrong, rather than an individual participating in collectivized incentive.

The morality of these positions these characters take, even in Wayne's telling of these stories, is not really ambiguous; this is perhaps the point, you, the reader, are left to work out the ideological contradictions in each story, you're not given a good or bad guy, just guys that do things that can have a good or bad moral character, and you are left to weigh the variables, in parsing the narrative to the end of understanding that, perhaps, individuals do not heal society (or what they perceive as a social wrong against them as an individual, as David believes he will) on the terms of individual motivation (even if the motivation is ostensibly to heal society, as Paul believes he will). Wayne gives us, I'd argue, perfect documents for exactly the kind of dialectical exercise Adorno proposes in the kind of exercise I am suggesting the text, itself, provides by being written the way it was, about the things it chooses to take on, sometimes unpalatably, and sometimes with so much contradiction that it, perhaps, can be discarded if you do so choose.