THE GREAT MAN THEORY, by Teddy Wayne
Paul, the protagonist of Teddy Wayne’s new novel, “The Great Man Theory,” is an aggrieved Everyman who finds contemporary life unsatisfying. He eschews screens and seeks to preserve his capacity for deep, sustained thought about the things that matter to him — the environment, politics, history and the fight against the tyranny of the ready-made that orders so much of life today. Put another way, he’s the kind of annoying man you sometimes encounter out in the world: overserious, tiresomely enraged and boring at parties.
I loved him immediately. Cranky characters often make for interesting novels, after all. Consider Saul Bellow’s splenetic heroes: Moses Herzog, Augie March and Artur Sammler. Paul most closely resembles the first of those men, and “The Great Man Theory” itself resembles “Herzog” (1964), a novel of complaint directed at various people and institutions in the protagonist’s life. Like Moses Herzog, Paul is hyperliterate and his mind races with irritation and juvenile glee. There is a sneering charm to his narration. Also like Herzog, Paul experiences a series of semi-comic but escalating mishaps that get much less funny as the novel goes on.
“The Great Man Theory” opens with Paul being demoted from senior lecturer to adjunct instructor after eight years at a Manhattan college. “More work for less money?” Paul says when his department chair breaks the news. “Sign me up!” Because untenured academia, with all of its late-capitalist humiliations, is one of the few avenues of “consistent” work for writers, it’s no wonder that we are now amid a resurgence of what’s been called “adjunct lit.In this subset of bildungsroman (one of the first, best examples of which is Bernard Malamud’s “A New Life”), the cold realities of academic labor production thwart the naïve academic’s ideals. But here, Wayne tweaks the genre: Paul, a veteran of academia, is humiliated because his low expectations were still too high.
Broke and without subsidized health insurance, Paul gives up his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and goes to live with his mother in the Bronx. He drives ride-shares to earn extra income, which means he needs a smartphone. He also has to figure out how to continue being a present and dutiful father to his daughter, Mabel, whom he shares with his ex-wife (now remarried to a very wealthy tech investor). All of this while working on a nonfiction book he’s calling “The Luddite Manifesto,” an examination of the ways that technology has corrupted and ruined not only democracy, but the world.
Wayne handles the dissolution of Paul’s life with a wry irony. When Paul goes to a friend’s dinner party and says something scathing about progressives protesting on the weekends (“It’s sort of like bringing toothpicks to a tank fight. And then putting pictures of your toothpicks on Instagram”), the comedy is in the fact that Paul is probably right, but he’s too myopic, too bitter, to see that a gathering of Park Slope academics is not the place.
When he goes on a first date, Paul has a hard time not talking about “the president,” who is unnamed but is most certainly modeled on Trump. After his date asks if they can avoid mentioning the president’s name, Wayne lets us know how “wrongheaded” Paul thinks this is: “Sidestepping discussion of the cancer was exactly what the tumorous president and his cronies wanted.”
Yet Paul is capable of self-reflection. He is all too aware of the hazards of his writing and how it chipped away at his marriage:
“It was that his experience of writing had grown more rancorous, the essays becoming polemical crudels rather than fine-point tools of inquiry. … His open curiosity in his 20s and early 30s had curdled — she’d claimed — into a wallow, fanged righteousness that admitted no private smiles. … Some women might be attracted to a curmudgeonly crank at first, willing themselves to see a brooding charisma in any chronic malcontent. But no one liked being married to one.”
At the core of “The Great Man Theory” are twin conversion narratives. Paul’s mother is gently red-pilled by the right-wing media, a transformation he discerns only after he moves back in with her. Suddenly, his mother is dating a conservative widower and watching a show called “Mackey Live.” This conflict boils over after a politician is murdered seemingly at the behest of the president and the show’s host.
“They didn’t shoot her,” his mother argues, repeating the president’s talking points. “A crazy person did.”
When Paul calls her stupid, his mother snaps:
“You’ve always looked down on me. With your degree your father and I paid for. You think I wouldn’t have liked to go to college? I had to work from the time I finished high school. So did your father. After he almost got killed in Korea. What’ve you had to deal with? Never had to serve, no Great Depression, no World War II, no nothing. And all you do is mope around.”
Running parallel to his mother’s conversion is Paul’s own. The smartphone that this professed Luddite acquires to drive ride-shares is a cursed object that tethers him to the internet. But before long, he’s leaving lengthy comments on articles and browsing the web late at night: The news no longer merely infuriates him; Now, he “licked his verbal chops at the opportunity to weigh in with a clever put-down or persuasive analysis.”
The macabre transformation hits overdrive when he receives that most tantalizing of dark blessings — engagement. One “essayistic comment” in particular takes off: “His phone overheated with notifications, and he had to disable them. By that evening it had pride of place as the site’s most endorsed comment of the day, that designation itself leading to more approvals, with a satisfying 6.4K next to it, its numerical popularity so vast it required a letter of abbreviation.”
It’s in such moments that Wayne turns the smug woundedness of the contemporary liberal into an amusing social comedy that is, at its finest, a worthy successor to those seriocomic novels of Bellow.
The most convincing and interesting part of “The Great Man Theory” is the way it captures a troubling transformation happening in schools, homes, offices, comment sections and Twitter threads around the world. I don’t mean the insidious ascendancy of the alt-right or the manosphere. I mean the conversion of seemingly enlightened liberals and leftish centrists into hectoring paranoiacs plagued by a shadowy legion of bad actors.
Such people have what social progressives might consider the “right politics.” They believe in the welfare state and redistribution of wealth and sometimes even police abolition. And yet, to watch or listen to them is to witness people deep in the grips of a conspiracy theory. It’s all Russia! And collusion! QAnon is scary, but Wayne manages to reveal that the left has its own room full of red string. He captures both the pitiful and the amusing and the painfully poignant nature of this transformation, how it can hollow out a person.
I wish I could end things here. But I have to say a word or two about the ending of “The Great Man Theory.” Teddy Wayne’s previous book, “Apartment,” revealed itself at the last minute to be a work of melodrama, which added a necessary level of extremity to the seemingly mundane stakes of trying to become a writer. The mundane and melodrama often make for excellent companions.
In the case of “The Great Man Theory,” the final turn to melodrama merely feels contrived and false. It renders the novel less smart, less engaging, less human. Wayne had the option to write a real novel about frustrated contemporary masculinity and the ways that white liberal men are also being corrupted by the internet and their lingering sense of entitlement. Instead, what readers will find at the conclusion of “The Great Man Theory” is that its author has been laughing at them and his characters the entire time. An enraging end to an almost great but ultimately crude novel.
Brandon Taylor is the author of “Real Life” and “Filthy Animals.”
THE GREAT MAN THEORY, by Teddy Wayne | 303 pp. | Bloomsbury Publishing | $27