As his ex-wife once told him, Paul is not “good at life”.
Paul – ‘The Great Man Theory’, a wickedly insightful novel about modern America, doesn’t give him a last name – certainly has little to show for his 46th birthday. He’s divorced and forced to move in with his mother, his 11-year-old daughter pays him little attention, and his teaching job at a local college has been knocked down a notch, so he’s forced to take a job as night like an engine of the gig economy that he disdains.
This job (and the smartphone he has to buy to get the runners he needs) violates the anti-tech views in the screed he’s been working on for a long time, titled “The Luddite Manifesto.” The only thing he hates more than how technology has taken over the world is the current president. Just as Paul is an ordinary man, the man in the White House is not specified by name but easily identified in the cutting words of novelist Teddy Wayne.
People also read…
It is “a symptom of many issues that have been brewing for years and have been compounded by recent paradigm shifts; if the fool had any genius going for him, it was in his harnessing of these changes, allowing him to succeed wildly in the two areas that had perhaps been most crass to our culture and collective decency, social media and reality TV.
“The Great Man Theory” takes its title from the book by Thomas Carlyle: “The story of what man has accomplished in this world is basically the story of the great men who have worked here.” But Wayne clearly means the title ironically, as much of the novel’s plot shows.
As Paul’s life darkens professionally, personally, and academically, much of the story centers around his romantic relationship with Lauren — a match readers may find unlikely. They meet when she is one of the fares in her job as a driver. She’s a top executive with a TV network that looks a lot like Fox News, which features a celebrity personality, Colin Mackey, who looks a lot like a Fox favorite. It’s Mackey who brings the big man theory into the mix.
Lauren explains the network formula as follows:
“Tell people what they already want, in words they understand, and they’ll start wanting the other things you tell them they don’t yet understand.”
Paul, who has posted his anti-tech views on a website called RealNews as TheLuddite — and is getting increasing traffic, much to his surprised delight — hatches a plan involving Lauren and Mackey that is heading to a climax that many readers will likely find it confusing and somewhat frustrating.
Wayne, a University of Washington graduate who also taught there, lifts the heavier theme with a bit of humor. A remarkable scene occurs when he takes charge of the slumber party planned for his daughter’s birthday party, as a gluten-averse guest succumbs to discomfort from the food Paul orders and the internet s ‘off, thwarting the girls’ entertainment plans. Paul’s failure to meet the basic demands of life is never so evident.
And when his mother’s boyfriend, a longtime cardiologist, says he’s planning to write a book called “No Complaints,” to get across his theory of life, Paul realizes that the title of his book could just be a slight variation – just ” Complaints.
He eventually understands how his own daughter sees him: “a forty-six-year-old underemployed writer who lived with his mother and didn’t shave every day, dress formally, and work like other dads . A crazy-haired wearer of holey T-shirts who hid in his bedroom to write a book about terrible modern life. A strange person.”
Wayne writes well and his point comes through loud and clear – very clear but maybe a little too loud. The novel is anything but subtle. While this kind of technique can serve a point of view purpose that Paul finds authoritative, and even echo it, sometimes it gets a little too shrill to be effective.
Still, “The Great Man Theory” leaves some room for hope. As Paul told one of the women he would like to date:
“This chapter of history is ugly, but the next one is still unwritten. If we lose hope, we will lose. If we think we can win, we will. Both cynicism and idealism are self-fulfilling prophecies.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in western St. Louis County.