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

On the shelf

The Great Man Theory

By Teddy Wayne
Bloomsbury, 320 pages, $27

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Where did everything go wrong with Generation X? A cohort of principled slackers spent their 20s raining righteous contempt on boomer sellouts and corporate facelessness. Now all they have to do is show their school debt and Ted Cruz. As it turns out, a well-developed sense of irony doesn’t offer much protection against older generations’ love of alternative facts and the extreme online narcissism of younger generations.

If that sounds like an oversimplification, then begin to understand the inner workings of Paul, the 42-year-old would-be hero of Teddy Wayne’s fifth novel, The Great Man Theory. At the beginning of the novel, he is a man of convictions, but the beams that support them are beginning to rot. He teaches writing at a New York college, but budget cuts have condemned him to adjunct status. The thoroughly researched, meticulously written magazine essays that made his (modest) name for himself now leave him reeling. He’s a divorced father who can’t even organize a successful party for his 11-year-old daughter — partly because he has to host it at his elderly mother’s house, which he’s moved into to save money.

Great Man is often a witty, witty novel, the point of which is Paul, the middle-aged mediocrity: he’s slipping into the worst, writing a book called The Luddite Manifesto, and prone to inner monologues fueled by a sense of superiority are shaped and pompous way of speaking. (He remembers his newborn daughter as “a wizened homunculus of a stranger about to turn his previously streamlined life upside down.”)

But Wayne doesn’t want us to mock him too much. For all his weaknesses, Paul is basically decent and committed to clear thinking. He’s understandably troubled by his mother’s newfound love for a right-wing cable news network (you know the one) and his favorite evening host, Colin Mackey (but you know who), a fire-breathing amplifier for the unnamed populist president (yes, him). Paul too is a victim of circumstances; His opportunities in science have quickly evaporated due to forces beyond his control. He’s not wrong when he says he’s been working hard, while more successful writers “deliver typo-ridden, punctuation-free sentences made up of ready-made language that produced ready-made thoughts.” Can you blame him for being upset?

To answer this question, Wayne throws Paul into a complex and rather absurd storyline. Forced to take a ride to make ends meet, he takes Lauren, a producer in Mackey’s network, with him. A courtship ensues, which Paul will hopefully work into some airtime on Mackey’s show. If he can pretend convincingly enough to be a deregulation-thirsty freelance marketer to get booked, “he would speak the lofty, compelling truth to power to Mackey, the network, and the President,” Paul said.

The book cover of Teddy Wayne's "The Great Man Theory"

Paul is no idiot: he realizes that such a tirade would draw attention for about five minutes even if his microphone wasn’t immediately turned off. One man’s sublime, compelling truth is another man’s liberal tears. But bitterness, combined with high doses of Adderall, has curdled its clear-eyed realism into identity-warping despair. In that sense, The Great Man Theory is sort of an update of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1962 novel Mother Night, in which a man pretending to be a Nazi propagandist becomes the real thing. As Paul grows more radical, the warning in Wayne’s novel echoes Vonnegut’s signature: “We are what we say we are, so we must be careful what we say we are.”

Wayne is also an heir to Vonnegut’s style – tongue-in-cheek funny, brash, broadly satirical. (Though Vonnegut has fallen out of favor in recent years, there are a cohort of Gen X writers who owe him a debt of gratitude, including Gary Shteyngart, Ron Currie Jr., Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and Jess Walter.) And how Vonnegut, Wayne deals with nefarious authority figures and neoclassical injustices. His oeuvre is filled with characters suffering from status anxiety, from aspiring writers (2020’s Apartment) to pop stars (2013’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine) to Harvard students (2016’s Loner). He has built his career on tracking down the social forces that undermine the thoughtful novelist; he will never run out of material.

Wayne’s challenge is to uncover that dynamic without sounding bitter — to reveal Paul’s character without seeming as insufferable as Paul himself. Mission accomplished, albeit at a price: he makes Paul act so absurdly over-the-top that the nuanced satire of the early pages becomes even more absurd towards the climax. And for a novel with a hero nobly waging a war against cliché, some old-fashioned tropes slip through. Paul’s classroom, full of cow-eyed illiterates, is redeemed by a promising student. His overzealous efforts to encourage them to fail as one would expect them to.

In the process, however, Wayne has an important idea about our radicalized environment. Paul’s tragic flaw isn’t just that he blames everyone but himself. It’s that he mistook his flimsy, soothing routines for bedrock principles. Sure he learned the one way to write well in college, he tells himself “he was a lonely dam against a tidal wave of pass-the-buck education.” Some of his favorite forms of communication he rejects all others. He is sure of his method of proper upbringing, and in the end he is bad even at 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 in the Basically the history of the Great Men who worked here.” Wayne wants to say that well-intentioned book people are just as susceptible to this kind of thinking as are populist braggarts; anyone who feels threatened likes to make themselves the hero of their own story. Men like Paul hardly seem to notice dangerous dangers for society. But Wayne wants to get well-intentioned book people — people who read novels — to look in the mirror. Sublime, compelling truth might work for them.

Athitakis is a writer based in Phoenix and the author of The New Midwest. Review: Teddy Wayne’s Gen X satire ‘The Great Man Theory’

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