In his fifth novel, The Great Man Theory (Bloomsbury, July), Teddy Wayne creates an unforgettable character: an aggrieved curmudgeon who, fed up with current politics and culture, implements a wildly dramatic plan to be heard and set things right. Paul is divorced, “aging out of the quinoa-and-chickpea-salad coffee shop demographic at forty-six,” teaching at a “third-rate private college in Manhattan,” and writing a book titled The Luddite Manifesto: How the Age of Screens Is a Fatal Distraction. Instead of being given a tenure-track position as expected, he’s downgraded to adjunct professor and is reduced to moving in with his mother and moonlighting as a rideshare driver. He wants his daughter, Mabel, to have a better world, but at 12, she, too, is starting to find him tedious.
Paul’s plan begins with the seduction of Lauren, the producer of a right-wing TV talk show, by masquerading as a conservative professor. In her apartment one evening, he pictures her “coming home close to midnight four days a week... her constant companions one domineering man on television and, at home, a pack of querulous women also onscreen. She had money, she had a high-status (if reprehensible) job, she had friends, she had looks—but it was a life void of authenticity and meaning, cold and desolate.”
With this observation, he contemplates leaving her and giving up his “mission,” realizing that “it was unlikely to succeed, and this arrangement with Lauren under false pretenses not only made him feel morally compromised, it was depressing.” But “once more, his carnal desire surprised and even disheartened him.”
Wayne calls Paul “a distorted version of me—a character you like but are also a little repelled by. My last three books had characters with qualities that repelled. I think Paul is the most likable; he alienates the reader but also makes claims on his sympathy. It’s a moral gray zone.” Wayne considers the thematic similarities in his books: alienation, masculinity, the media landscape. But, he adds, “I always try to have different settings so the character feels like a different star in the constellation.”
The character of Paul is the touchstone of the novel. As Bloomsbury senior editor Daniel Loedel says, “Paul is so distinctly Paul, but he has an everyman quality. It’s easy to put yourself in his shoes, easy to feel his anger. His mishaps are both funny and sad.” Loedel inherited The Great Man Theory from then–Bloomsbury editorial director Liese Mayer, who closed the deal for North American rights in March 2021. When she left that May, Loedel says, “I raised my hand. I loved the concept of the book and felt it was a perfect match.”
Loedel was an assistant at Simon & Schuster when Wayne’s novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine was published there in 2013, and he remembers it as the book “everyone was excited about.” He saw the manuscript for The Great Man Theory in summer 2021. “It was in great shape—so good we moved up the publication date. Teddy is a workhorse,” he adds. “He’s a writer who’s bold, grappling with big ideas, culture, identity, how we think of ourselves in the world. In this book, he doesn’t go for the culture of today, but the cultural toll on one person in the culture. Paul is dislikable, likable, relatable; he pulls at your heartstring. He’s Don Quixote–ish.”
Wayne started writing The Great Man Theory in August 2019. His fourth novel, The Apartment, had been published by Bloomsbury in 2020. “I had a one-year-old and another child arriving, so I wrote quickly and had a first draft in three months,” he says. “I revised it during the pandemic. As for the classic ‘write what you know,’ I think ‘write what obsesses you’ is more accurate. I was obsessed with the Trump administration, but I didn’t want to write a sanctimonious novel, a takedown. I wanted it to be nuanced. Ultimately, I just try to have fun.”
Wayne calls Loedel “a superb editor,” adding, “We had a few rounds back and forth, but I read each book 100 times, to make each sentence count, until I’m sick of it. But then I realize no one else is going to read it 104 times, so there’s a better chance they will like it!”
He notes that it’s difficult to have personal projects when the world is crumbling, and he’s been evaluating his priorities the last two years. “My having children informed the book,” he says, explaining that Paul’s anger is fueled by concern for his daughter.
Jim Rutman of Sterling Lord Literistic tells me that Wayne was looking for an agent around the time of Jonny Valentine. “I was introduced to this extraordinary layered voice that Teddy renders regardless of the actual character,” Rutman says. “Valentine, for instance, is a preteen pop star. Teddy has this amazing gift to create these textured, complex characters that can be pitiable, objectionable, but you still want things to turn out well for them. In The Great Man Theory, the character is confronting his irrelevance in the culture. Paul sees himself as the lone purveyor of an honest way of looking at the world. He’s out of step with the culture and proud of it, but we recognize the ways he’s socially ill-equipped.”
Wayne writes of Paul, “He’d always considered himself less superficial than other men, not swayed by physical beauty alone, certainly not by money or status. But, as they had missionary sex, he was powerfully aroused by Lauren’s taut body... by her erroneous exaltation of his position within the academy... and most shamefully, by what her job was.”
As Rutman says, “The Great Man Theory is male weakness laid bare.”
We like that.