Teddy Wayne, an author already praised by the American press for Apartment, sets the scene of his novel in mid-nineties New York — ‘an edgeless era of global-superpower peace and American prosperity,’ and what his narrator describes as ‘relaxed-fit Gap jeans and light beer.’ Inserting the characters into such a timeline imbues readers with a sense of nostalgia when the main character thinks back on his youth. Wayne’s decision to discuss unarguably modern and nuanced topics of class difference, masculinity, and loneliness from a dangerously controversial angle is dealt with in a delicate and sympathetic manner.
The story begins with the two main characters (both white men) meeting each other while attending their first year of an MFA programme at Columbia University. The narrator, left unnamed and with a purpose we will understand only at the very end, lives alone in the apartment of his great-aunt until he invites his classmate Billy to move in with him — to keep him company and to help him save money. The narrator’s voice feels honest, since he tells us he knows he is lucky: his rent and tuition are covered by his father, his apartment is comfortably located in Manhattan, and it seems he would clearly qualify as a white privileged man. Unlike Billy, who comes from the ‘middle of American nowhere’ and has to work shifts at a local bar to be able to at least partially cover his day-to-day finances.
At first we feel we understand what’s going on. One person is lucky, the other one is hard-working; one thinks the world owes him, the other is desperate for any opportunity he might have. However, the author plays tricks with both our expectations of how the plot should develop and with our estimations of the characters. As tempting as it can be to label main protagonists based on what we know about their backgrounds, somewhere halfway through the book it becomes evident that we won’t be able to do it correctly. The world, as well as the depths of human conscience, is much more complicated than it seems on the surface.
‘There is no good deed that goes unpunished.’ The logic of this proverb seems less crippled as you progress through Apartment, which is only one example of impressive self-accusative force the novel possesses. Teddy Wayne is therefore able to make his work equally captivating and didactic: reading it felt like having a glass of cold water in a stuffy room full of people labelled according to their social or self-representative status.
This is a novel that teaches true empathy, simultaneously stripping our inability to sympathise with a person based on their real personality and not on their status. Deciphering a person’s privilege can quickly turn into an ugly parade of latent bragging and tour de forces with no place for justice. Apartment, in this sense, like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, becomes a contemporary moral compass which trials the reader’s inner beliefs and uncovers the existence of deeper problems, as well as giving us the opportunity to fix our own fallacies while there is still time.
Image: Downtown Brooklyn