Review: Teddy Wayne’s Gen X satire “The Great Man Theory”

On the bookshelf

The Great Man Theory

By Teddy Wayne
Bloomsbury, 320 pages, $27

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Where did it all go wrong for Generation X? A cohort of principled slackers have spent their 20s raining righteous contempt on baby boomer sales and corporate anonymity. Now all they have to show is their graduate debt and Ted Cruz. It turns out that a well-honed sense of irony doesn’t offer much of a firewall against older generations’ love of alternative facts and the extremely online narcissism of younger generations.

If that seems to oversimplify things, then you begin to understand the inner life of Paul, the 42-year-old would-be hero of Teddy Wayne’s fifth novel, “The Great Man Theory.” At the start of the novel, he is a man of convictions, but the beams that support them have begun to rot. He teaches writing at a New York University, but budget cuts have condemned him to adjunct status. The carefully researched and carefully written lit-mag essays on which he made his (humble) name now make him seem out of touch. He’s a divorced dad who can’t even throw a successful party for his 11-year-old daughter, partly because he has to throw it at her elderly mom’s house, where he’s moved in to save money.

“Great Man” is often a sharp and funny novel, its punchline being Paul, the middle-aged mediocrity: he slips into the crank, writes a book called “The Luddite Manifesto”, and is subject to interior monologues marked by a feeling of superiority. and pompous elocution. (He remembers his newborn daughter as “a shrunken homunculus of a stranger who was about to turn his hitherto simplified life upside down.”)

But Wayne doesn’t want to be made fun of too much. Paul, despite all his weaknesses, is basically decent and committed to clear thinking. He’s understandably troubled by his mother’s new found love for a right-wing cable news network (you know that one) and its most popular party host, Colin Mackey (but you know who), a spitting propellant of fire of the anonymous populist president (yes, him). Paul is also a victim of circumstances; his options in academia quickly vaporized due to forces beyond his control. He’s not wrong to say he’s worked hard as the most successful writers deliver “sentences stained with typos and without punctuation, composed from off-the-shelf language that spawned ready-made thoughts”. Can you blame him for being upset?

To answer this question, Wayne plunges Paul into a complex and quite absurd plot. Forced to drive a carpool to make ends meet, he takes Lauren, a producer from the Mackey network, by car. A courtship ensues, which Paul hopes to turn into airtime on Mackey’s show. If he can pretend to be a deregulation-hungry free-trader convincing enough to be reserved, Paul thinks, “he’ll speak a high and convincing truth to power against Mackey, the Network and the President.”

Paul is no fool: he admits that such a diatribe would attract attention for about five minutes, even if his microphone were not instantly muted. One man’s lofty and compelling truth is another man’s liberal tears. But the bitterness, combined with high doses of Adderall, turned her clear-eyed realism into identity-distorting despair. In that regard, “The Great Man Theory” is something of an update to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1962 novel “Mother Night,” in which a man claiming to be a Nazi propagandist ends up becoming the real thing. As Paul becomes radicalized, Wayne’s novel’s warning echoes Vonnegut’s signature line: “We are what we say we are, so we must be careful who we say we are.”

Wayne is also an heir to Vonnegut’s style – a funny, lively, broadly satirical nod. (Although Vonnegut has fallen out of favor in recent years, there is a cohort of Gen X writers indebted to him, including Gary Shteyngart, Ron Currie Jr., Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Jess Walter.) And like Vonnegut , Wayne is preoccupied with infamous authority figures and classist injustices. His oeuvre is filled with characters sick with status anxiety, from aspiring authors (“Apartment” from 2020) to pop stars (“Jonny Valentine’s Love Song” from 2013) to Harvard students. (“Loner” from 2016). He built his career identifying the social forces that undermine the reflective novelist; he will never, ever run out of material.

Wayne’s challenge is to expose this dynamic without sounding embittered – to reveal Paul’s character without appearing as insufferable as Paul himself. Mission accomplished, albeit at a cost: He makes Paul behave so absurdly that the nuanced satire of the opening pages becomes more wacky towards the climax. And for a novel featuring a hero nobly waging a war against cliché, a few worn tropes creep in. Paul’s classes, full of cow-eyed near-illiterates, are taken over by a promising student. His too serious efforts to encourage him backfire as you expected.

In the process, however, Wayne gets an important insight into our radicalized environment. Paul’s tragic error is not only that he blames everyone but himself. It’s that he confused his threadbare, comforting routines with fundamental principles. Certain of the only path to good writing he learned in college, he persuades himself that “he was a lone barrage against a tidal wave of pass-the-buck education.” Some of his preferred modes of communication, he rejects everything else. Sure of his proper parenting, he ends up being bad even for it.

“The Great Man Theory” takes its title from the 19th century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, whom Mackey quotes in defense of President You-Know-Who: “The story of what man has accomplished in this world is basically the story of the great men who worked here. Well-meaning bookish types are as susceptible to this line of thinking as populist braggarts, Wayne means; anyone who feels threatened likes to be the hero of his own story. the dangers to society disappear, men like Paul seem to barely check in. But Wayne wants to get well-meaning bookish types – people who read novels – to look in the mirror. For them, a high and compelling truth might work well.

Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

Sharon D. Cole