It’s an article of faith among would-be, unpublished, or unheralded novelists that MFA graduates are overrepresented in fiction publishing. The extreme form of this complaint holds that there’s something called an “MFA novel” — the self-defeating cliché “cookie-cutter” may be applied here — the young hero of which is often himself a student in an MFA program. Listing examples of this much-maligned genre is harder than you’d think; they exist, but they’re outnumbered plenty to one by everything else. One wonders if Teddy Wayne’s Apartment, set at Columbia University’s MFA program in the 1990s, is, among other things, meant to satisfy a robust, largely unmet demand.
Apartment’s narrator is an upper-middle-class student of modest talent. Savaged by his classmates, who hide behind the convention that they are critiquing his work and not his whole being, our nameless hero is defended by his handsome, working-class classmate Billy, on the run from some Rust Belt backwater where the beer is flat, the cheese is sharp, and everybody knows your mugshot is available online. Billy has savoir faire, or however you say that in ’merican, and in case you don’t notice that he’s a walking allusion to Melville’s innocent, beautiful, envy-stoking Billy Budd, our narrator will make sure to call him “sailor.”
If that allusion isn’t, as a character says at one point, “overdetermined” enough, the book owes its homoerotic subtext to A Separate Peace and its class anxiety (not to mention more homoerotic subtext) to Brideshead Revisited. The titular apartment is a rent-controlled one in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town housing complex, the book’s answer to Brideshead, which our hero has illegally sublet from an aging relative. Lonely, a slave to self-recrimination, and ragingly uncool, the narrator invites Billy to live there for free, trading a solid economic advantage for a precarious friendship.
The book’s best insight comes early on, when the narrator, called out for his privilege, observes:
The obvious socioeconomic advantages of my accurately pegged provenance notwithstanding, it was a severe artistic drawback. A sturdy, dull rung on the tax ladder, not wealthy enough to salaciously spy on the true upper crust, too cosseted to send back dispatches on the destitute, and not even in the broad middle swath of America, where every adolescent experience, every chili dog eaten, every keg party in the woods, could feasibly represent some neo-Rockwellian universal.
Yet the insight here isn’t that this is true, but that people are often hamstrung by believing that it is. Parents work to provide for their children, only to find that their children are despised (not least by themselves) for having been comfortable. Adversity is regarded as currency. A better, more confident writer than our narrator would recognize that this idea of authenticity is fetishistic, not to mention corny. One need only be observant, honest, and inventive to write circles around the competition, even if the competition spent its formative years turnin’ wrenches and eatin’ pickled gizzards.
Is Billy convincingly working-class? This is an important question, because the reader needs a sign that the narrator and the actual person Teddy Wayne, Harvard graduate, are not guilty of identical literary and sociological sins. Suffice to say that Billy exists somewhere on a continuum from, say, Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club to “Bob the Builder.” The protagonist of Billy’s novel-in-progress is a mechanic rebuilding “the engine of a 1967 Chevy Impala his recently deceased father had bequeathed him.” Billy wears Old Spice; Billy has never flown on a plane. At one point he produces a “tool kit” — the narrator marvels at the gleaming “implements” therein — and, while doing a little basic plumbing, reflects on the disappointing father who gave it to him: “He left us in a broken home.” He says it half-jokingly, but it’s not a joke he would make — it’s a joke the narrator would expect him to make.
Is this a Fight Club situation? Are Billy and the narrator the same person? Is Billy a figment of the narrator’s limited and patronizing imagination? No. Wayne gestures toward subverting our expectations: Billy, it turns out, cannot fix cars; Billy seems like a nice guy, but he uses the word “gay” pejoratively and voices skepticism of gender-reassignment surgery (neither of these attitudes was either uncommon or specifically “working-class” in the 1990s); Billy, like the narrator, is willing to cop to the occasional subpar sexual performance. It is one thing for these revelations to surprise the narrator, to problematize his view of Billy, another for Wayne to believe they have done the heavy lifting of making Billy feel like anything but an idea. A fact evidently lost on Wayne, which might have made for more-provocative twists, is that the kind of working-class escapee who ends up in an Ivy League graduate writing program was often more out of place in his native milieu than he is in his new one.
That Billy is both extraordinarily talented and uncommonly perceptive is, as writing profs say, told and not shown. To anyone who isn’t himself a caricature of masculine insecurity, Billy’s WIP No Man’s Land sounds like Gran Torino fan fiction. His critical acumen is mostly just the confidence to disagree with his classmates. Their work we never really learn about. After all, if the book’s tension is between scrappy Billy and the privileged narrator — whose own novel, The Copy Clerk, alludes to “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and draws on his former job as a magazine copy editor — too many additional examples of artistic output would only complicate the picture.
In a real workshop at a real, exorbitantly expensive university, most of the students would be on the narrator’s and not Billy’s end of the spectrum, with little justification in tormenting him: not pot, kettle so much as sugar bowl, creamer.
In other words, Apartment works best if we assume that most of what the narrator is reporting about Billy is an exaggerated product of his own insecurity. On this score, the book contradicts itself. In workshop scenes, the narrator plainly finds his professor, who seems to have been inspired by the novelist Robert Stone, pompous and self-involved, even though elsewhere — for instance, at a party where Parker Posey and Noah Baumbach are guests — the narrator seems awed by celebrity and cultural authority. He is capable of discernment. His masochistic adoration of Billy seems to be Wayne’s, even if only on a subconscious level, and this conclusion is never harder to avoid than in the novel’s two turning points.
Apartment is, for all the disappointments of its emotional and sociological approach, remarkably satisfying in its approach to plot. Anyone who has read the books to which it owes its major debts will know that a falling-out or betrayal is in the offing, but watching it unfold is still a pleasure. Unfortunately, this betrayal also underscores the fact that, contra most of the critical response to Apartment, the book absolutely is not “about male friendship.” It is about a parasitic symbiosis: one party using the other to meet emotional needs, one to meet material needs; one party idealizing the other, one privately loathing the other. To mistake this for friendship is to tell on oneself.
The homoerotic tension doesn’t fit here, either. That books — bildungsromans, war novels, and so on — set during or between the First and Second World Wars tend to depict this tension is, as Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory demonstrates, in large part a function of time, place, and circumstance: repressive societies, all-male schools, close quarters, and close combat. Young writers raised on those books have carried away the lesson that to depict a male relationship without overt sexual tension is a kind of naïveté.
Teddy Wayne is a novelist of broad ideas, ripped-from-the-headlines ones. He has written a book inspired by the career of Justin Bieber, and another about a proto-incel college student. He could be a bard of alienation and anomie, but he is too safe, more Tom Perrotta than Michel Houellebecq. Apartment makes plain that characters need character as well as ideas to animate them. There is such an air of unreality about the narrator and Billy that one half expects Wayne to say, like the laziest student in workshop, that it was all a dream.
This article appears as “Class Dues” in the April 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?
If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.