Teddy Wayne’s fifth novel jumps headlong into our current culture wars, while adding a new chapter to a growing list of adjunct lit. We meet Paul, a recently demoted full instructor who must now accept an adjunct position (“More work for less money…Sign me up!”) He’s in the process of writing his magnum opus, The Luddite Manifesto, which aims to collect and catalogue his critiques of modern technological life. Readers get a section of this text on the first page:
My ailing laptop, a prerequisite for this manifesto and my profession, is by now capable of word processing, email, and little else. Eleven years ago I acquired a cell phone whose functions are limited to calling and texting, and have not upgraded since. My home is without a television or a tablet. I do not post, comment, or “like,” as I have no social media accounts and thus no online “brand” (nor, it would appear, that conspicuous an offline one). I have never—and this may come as a shock—taken a selfie.
And yet, as much of a curmudgeonly crank as this abstemious lifestyle might make me sound, I’m also an idealist at heart.
I love curmudgeons and idealists, having spent a long time in academia, and I immediately dug the irony dripping from the start of Wayne’s novel. I knew many like Paul in higher education across New York City. Yes, he is a romantic idealist, but he’s also somewhat of a saboteur of his own life. He can be smart, caring, and likable—but he can also be a smug, pretentious pain-in-the-ass, who clings to certain ways of being and seeing, won’t adapt, won’t entertain differences of opinion readily (not without biting, ironic commentary), and can’t help but get in his own way personally and professionally. He’s divorced and loves his daughter Mabel, but his life is on a downturn. To save money, he moves out of South Slope and in with his mom in the Bronx’s Riverdale section. Mom has started a relationship with Marvin, a self-made, fiscally successful conservative working on his memoir, No Complaints (guessing self-published). Paul sarcastically calls his work, Complaints. Through Marvin, Mom has fallen under the spell of the right-wing host, Colin Mackey, mostly a spin on Sean Hannity. Naturally, they don’t see things eye-to-eye. To make ends meet, Paul starts working as a ride-share driver, where he eventually meets Lauren, a producer of Mackey’s show. During a tv segment, Mackey delivers his “Final Comment” segment to the audience:
“Words matter…Words become ideas, ideas become actions. Words can change the world. And the liberals know this, my friends. So it starts with canceling a provocative speaker. Soon they’re canceling newspapers, magazines, books, websites, TV shows—maybe even this one. Until eventually they achieve their ultimate goal: canceling your voice…but we have an ally in our war against these tyrants—the president. His willingness to step into the ring and stand up for American values when no one else will is proof of what Thomas Carlyle wrote about in 1840. He called it ‘the great man theory’: ‘The history of what man has accomplished in this world is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here.’ Certain strong, virtuous, and courageous individuals are the ones who shape history. Let’s thank God we have this president—this great man—shaping the history of our country as he takes on the vicious radical left, going with his killer instincts for the jugular.”
This on-air rant sets the wheels of the book in motion for me. It feels like the ringing of a boxing bell. We all recognize the “you know who” president he’s referring to in this passage, even without once naming him in the novel like a shadowy, formless Voldemort. A lot of the book feels like grappling with current events. And yet, so much of this novel is a character study in liberal, educated angst against the current culture wars and particularly the right-wing media. Paul embodies leftist exasperation and frustration taken to extremes. “Great man” gives us a title to the book, provides an insight into the main character’s motivations, and spirals us into a deep, dark, social satire. Ironically, Paul wants to be a “great man”—he wants his daughter to be proud of him and to be a noted teacher and writer, but he struggles throughout the journey to find his way. Higher education has become a landing place for so many disillusioned writers and intellectuals. They come to think big ideas and write big books and wind up teaching remedial composition to disengaged students. The academic system takes them in, uses them, and casts them aside. It’s a cruel, somewhat dehumanizing system for most. Paul’s case is no exception. His life slowly unravels, from his demotion, to overuse of Adderall, to accusations of sexual harassment, to the loss of a book deal, to the splintering of his family. Academia seems to expel him coldly, unceremoniously. You cringe, pity, and understand his downfall. Things come apart, and education and cultural criticism provide no respite or salvation from the angst of isolation and irrelevance. Saul Bellow’s novels come to mind, and at one point, I felt like I was reading an updated, campus version of Seize the Day. Tommy Wilhelm undergoes an existential crisis in the chapel at the end of that book. Paul goes through a version of an existential crisis in a tv studio. Now, perhaps he takes that crisis too far over the edge at the end for some. Maybe he just can’t get his hands off his own throat or wants a different, darker kind of recognition? I won’t give away the details and will leave readers to grapple with the conclusion, but Lauren, Mackey, and “you know who” all figure prominently.
Wayne’s novel provides a sharp, bitter critique of our culture wars, technological dependency, and general intellectual malaise. A lot of this is a quest for meaning, identity, and place in the world. Ultimately, though, Paul becomes a dark, plotting, laughable Luddite, stuck in a spiraling world of his own choosing. Wayne’s satire may be too current for some to chuckle at, but with a little distance, and a taste for dark humor, Paul’s crusades and failures lead you to see him a bit tragically and pathetically, particularly when he comes up short as a parent for his daughter, Mabel. He loves her (his “little dumpling”), but he wants something to materialize from his high-ground idealism. He wants to matter in the public sphere and be noticed, like the screen clicks he claims to detest. Oddly, like the right-wingers he despises, he wants to be seen and heard. He has a grievance, and he wants a moment of exposure. But, like so many on either side of the cultural divide, Paul struggles on, unable to focus, unable to make things work financially, unable to be the writer or teacher he dreamed he’d be, unable to be the kind of parent he’d like to be, and hoping that chance or fate will land him to a moment of revelation, redemption, and relevance. In this reader’s eyes, Teddy Wayne puts him on the path and then pulls the rug out bitterly from under his main character at the end. And that’s where he needs to go. We end in a darkened studio, ironically, with an uncertain, ambiguous future ahead for Paul, and for all of us. Maybe that’s where we have to be for the moment: in the dark, in front of cameras, daydreaming of a better day ahead.
The Great Man Theory
by Teddy Wayne
Bloomsbury; 320 p.