“Yellow is the favorite color of insane people,” a friend told me in eighth grade. She offered it as a caution, the way another friend’s mother had warned against shaving above the knee, lest one wind up with thighs so hairy they’d shame Mr. Snuffleupagus. I was a gullible kid, so eager to believe in reindeer prancing across the roof that sleigh bells rang in my dreams on Christmas Eve. Warily, I filed away my friend’s yellow tidbit as suspicious, but plausible: middle school chums were often founts of obscure info, spurting errata about bands, movie stars, brands, even food — especially yellow dye #5’s powers of testicular diminution.
I remembered that weird yellow lore while reading Teddy Wayne’s jouncy and harrowing new novel "Loner" (Simon & Schuster). (Full disclosure: we attended the same graduate creative writing program, but were never in workshop together. Wayne is also a contributor to Salon.) Set at Harvard, "Loner" is the story of nondescript David Federman, who, over one fateful fall semester, finds himself embroiled in the coursework of stalking. His obsession with a classmate, Manhattanite Veronica Morgan Wells, determines his relationships, his substance abuse, even his class schedule as he follows her during the semester's week-long shopping period, where students try on different classes.
“Trying on” — the cheerily collegiate notion that one’s major, interests, identities are hoodie-easy to zip or unzip on a whim — is at the heart of this novel. "Trying on" is what leads David to decorate his dorm room; he plasters “above [his] bed with a collection of [Vincent Van Gogh’s] most famous yellow-hued paintings … sunflowers … a chair, café exteriors, straw hats, whorled wheat fields.” Aha!, I thought: David has yellow-wallpapered his domain.
Soon, however, I was remembering not only that trivia about the color’s significance, but what it had elicited in a younger me: fear. Back in eighth grade, I was afraid of liking yellow. Doing so could brand me damned — or “insane.”
A guilty party’s reaction, for sure. If I would’ve had the sensitivity to replace “insane” with “mentally ill,” (de rigueur outside the legal system, even in 1998), I would’ve been hard-pressed not to identify. I cut, starved and panicked my way to diagnoses I believed would define me as exceptional, special, memorable.
Yet from the therapist’s couch, my fear of insanity persisted. The truth is I was afraid of what I didn’t understand, of the ways a mind could sputter off course. I was afraid of how close a slightly deviant person could be to utter madness. Madness might yank reality out from one’s squeaky bearings, like a canvas stolen from its frame. One yellow T-shirt could push me over the brink.
Today, I’m open about my history with mental illness; I’m no longer so afraid of that hypothetical descent into inner mayhem. Yet I wonder where I would have arrived if I hadn’t experienced something close to insanity? If I hadn’t stayed in a psych ward, would I still see yellow as a harbinger of straitjackets and electroshocks?
Probably teenage-me was alone in fearing insanity. Yet, short of manufacturing chemically imbalanced VR experiences, there might be no better way to understand — or promote empathy for — people with alternative perceptions of life than through reading. "Loner" introduces readers to a recognizable — and reprehensible — figure, and that’s what makes this book so necessary, now. It’s easy to castigate loners like Federman for the toxic masculinity they’ve internalized when they become the subjects of headlines in the wake of heinous crimes. But while reading "Loner," it’s hard to be anything but hopeful that David will be able to change his life. Before we’re shaking our heads at yet another real-life outcast committing terrible violent crimes, I suggest reading "Loner" and attempting to confront what so many of us fear.
David Federman is unsound. Really. He’s smart and not especially likable, an emotional vacuum who — through Wayne’s honing first-person narration — reveals himself to be uncomfortable with most human protocol. David says "thank you" when he should say "you’re welcome"; he offers too much information or not enough heart. He’s a standoffish cipher, an obsessive, disturbed in the tradition of another (sorta) recent David: David Axelrod, the antihero in Scott Spencer’s rapturous and creepy "Endless Love."
In "Endless Love," David Axelrod sets fire to his beloved’s house in Chapter One; in "Loner," David Federman moves into a dorm room and questions the cool of his roommate. Could anything be more normal? Blending into a wall at a crowded gathering, worrying about what to say before it’s your turn to speak in a group: David’s anxieties are at first shown to be both intense and yet not all that unusual. Who hasn’t, at one time or another, wondered at the amount of time elapsed between a Facebook friend request and a friend acceptance?
These details endear David to readers, even as his behavior and his attitude grow increasingly unpardonable. Readers of "Loner" will be surprised by how easy it is to identify with David. I was. Even if you don’t have his vocabulary ("peroration," "calumny," "staffage" and "insufflation" are a handful of the SAT crown jewels in this narrator’s vocabulary), odds are you’ll have lived some of the social discomfort he has. You, like David, may have felt “as if everyone else knew the secret that ensured they were never alone at a party.” Or maybe the campus mise-en-scène will be recognizable: the “rain forest fug” of a dorm room or the “bony futon.” David’s observations are not the property of pariahs. You too may be a person whose name is never remembered.
But here’s one of the novel's (many) twists: David isn’t alone in his world. In fact, far from it. He recalls a nerdy coterie with whom he lunched in high school, and his first weeks at Harvard find him in the dining hall with the so-called Matthews Marauders, an ad hoc clan borne of dormitory convenience. And then there’s Sara.
Yes, this loner has a girlfriend. They attend parties. They salsa dance. They study in her room, where they watch Disney movies and tumble down the rabbit hole of sexual experience.
In real life, we assume we know the people with whom we’re most intimate. David Federman is a tragic reminder that too often we don’t.
I won’t spoil "Loner’s" plot. Let’s just say David’s not satisfied with disappearing into a high-achieving void of awkwardness. He’s unsound, remember, and at times hard to pity as a white son of lawyers attending Harvard who objectifies women and casts judgment from across the Yard. He manipulates people and shirks genuine connection. He’s entitled, sometimes misogynistic, scary, brusque, rude.
But he’s also — in a way many readers will identify with — lonely. Invisible. Unheard. “’I feel like there’s a lot you bottle up inside,’” Sara tells him, when he doesn’t cry during a viewing of "Dumbo." Being socially uncomfortable or nerdy isn’t what makes David mentally ill, of course. But a character like David should serve as an invitation to be kinder. To see others with greater compassion. To avoid perpetuating the bullying and overlooking that ensures people — like David, like many real-life characters who commit awful and horrific deeds — fester in a stew of misgivings and hate. So what if, in some ways, David sucks? To write off the privileged, the sucky, the quiet, the unnamed because they lack some winning combination of charm or prototypical looks is to act irresponsibly. And yet my sympathies are divided. After all, David, like the real-life loners to whom he is akin, becomes violent toward women.
In the wake of Elliot Rodger’s 2014 murderous spree at University of California Santa Barbara, Salon columnist Brittney Cooper wrote about “white guy killer syndrome.” “We cannot understand Elliot Rodger’s clear mental health issues,” Cooper wrote, “and view of himself … outside a context of racism, white supremacy and patriarchy. I’m also saying that white male privilege might be considered a mental health issue, because it allows these dudes to move through the world believing that their happiness, pleasure and well-being matters more than the death and suffering of others.”
Privilege’s role in a mental health issue doesn’t diminish the severity of the problem. Much goes awry in David’s life. I’m not here to defend him or his actions, which are dangerous, reprehensible, cringe-worthy, pathetic, criminal and worse. But Wayne asks us in his complex, necessary new novel not to give the David Federmans of the world a pardon, but to learn their names and their stories before the police reports document them for us. He asks us to see how easy it is to root for them, before they commit their crimes.
“'People want to hear what you have to say,’” David’s mother tells him, before she leaves him at Harvard. He is a mumbler, the reader learns, as well as a gifted writer and a dexterous linguist who finds himself automatically reading or hearing words backwards, a gift he wrote about in his college entrance exam.
One ugly truth that "Loner" illuminates is just how wrong moms can be. In reality, anyone who has ever experienced one second of social anxiety knows — or at least suspects really hard — that many people don’t or won’t want to hear what you have to say. Worse, people might not even see that you exist, even if you’re dressed head to toe in yellow. It’s this aspect of David’s character that is most tragic: the signs are there, and the Saras and the Moms and the roommates and the RAs of the world might be doing due diligence, but the course of the loner is set, hiding in plain sight. Until we see this strain of toxic masculinity as an illness that deserves to be professionally treated, we might continue to not know those men and boys closest to us.