4.5 Stars, rounded up.
This page-turning character study, ode to loneliness, and quasi-exploration of toxic masculinity’s detrimental effect on guy-guy platonic relationships makes for a fascinating read. Author Teddy Wayne has an aptitude for displaying painful truths and sharp observations with candid, witty prose. Of all his novels, this is my favorite to-date.
I’ve often wondered at the inscrutable bonds shared between men, especially straight men. In American society, there seems to be a code of conduct that I, as a woman, have never been taught. It mystified me when my late-teens guy friends would sit one seat apart (with a “buffer seat” in between) at the movies. When I asked them why they did that, they looked at me like I was nuts.
“Because,” one of them told me, “we’re guys.”
“Yeah,” the other chimed in. “We need our space.”
“Is this, like, a stretching-out-your-legs thing?” I asked.
They both shook their heads.
“It’s just a guy thing,” the first one reiterated. “You wouldn’t understand.”
He’s right—I didn’t. (And still don’t.) But in Apartment, Teddy Wayne’s approach to the often-unspoken intricacies found in certain male-male friendships gave me a bit more insight. It’s the fear of being vulnerable and/or emasculated that keeps the main characters—awkward, introspective Unnamed Narrator, and laconic, unworldly Billy—from building upon their intimacy in way that doesn’t feel like a power exchange.
Unnamed Narrator is that quintessential outskirts-guy who hasn’t opened himself up to close friendships or romantic relationships due to serious daddy issues and a weak sense of self. He’s also somewhat spoon-fed, since the same father who abandoned him in young adulthood is now responsible for footing the bill on his rent-controlled New York apartment. He’s aware of his privilege—even experiences guilt because of it—but also resents thinking of himself as privileged. All the while, he’s trying to make his mark in the collegiate writing world (which he assumes to be little more than a pipe dream, considering the lackluster reception his stories receive).
In a crucial moment of enduring scathing literary criticism from his professor and classmates, the narrator feels particularly insecure and humiliated; then a fellow student, the effortlessly charismatic, blue-collar Billy, comes to his defense. Billy’s casually offered snippet of praise supplies the narrator with much-desired hope for his authorial future. An affinity between the two aspiring writers—lubricated by large quantities of alcohol, shared paternal abandonment issues, and similar social detachment strategies—rapidly develops. Unnamed Narrator impulsively offers Billy to become his rent-free roommate with the condition that Billy cleans once a week and pays for some groceries.
At first, the arrangement seems solid: the roommates have fun hanging out while maintaining productivity in their writing. Billy is the more talented of the two, but he doesn’t flaunt his superior craftsmanship, which increases Unnamed Narrator’s respect and admiration for him. Their dynamic is a classic case of hero worship mixed with the giddiness of a new friendship’s “honeymoon period.”
Time passes and their relationship deepens; however, the narrator increasingly offers Billy financial assistance, and the imbalance that was present from the inception of their acquaintance grows outwardly problematic. Their fundamental differences in personality, world view, and upbringing become clearer, until the slow-building conflict between them gives way to a quietly devastating conclusion.
Apartment is one of those sleeper hits you might think to underestimate before realizing it hooked its claws into your heart from the start. It’s honest and observant in a way that can wound the reader, because it’s easy to imagine this scenario unfolding in real life (and variations of it already have). People will sometimes resort to desperate measures to feel less lonely; and the consequences of these actions can ultimately influence future relationships—not only with others, but with oneself.