Matthew Sharpe’s 2010 novel You Were Wrong
is a genre-defying work most notable for the author’s elliptical and ambiguous writing style. Ostensibly about a shy and passive math teacher forced to navigate a neo-noir mystery while obtusely incapable of understanding what is going on, the novel doesn’t follow a linear plot, create realistic characters, or offer naturalistic dialog. Instead, it relies on baroque language akin to that of Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace that admirers praise and critics disparage. Here is a representative sample from an early passage: “What was the deep homily of the hundred mercifully distracting police procedurals that could be enjoyed on his television set at any hour of the night or day if it wasn't that there was no thing living or otherwise that was not a potential agent or vessel of the law? The law was in each capillary of the world. He could spit out the window and his spit would be law. Were he launched into space in a transparent Plexiglas egg, each cell in his body and every molecule of his surrogate womb would be law, the stars but law's blind eyes gazing at him with cold impartiality.”
Despite his general dim-wittedness, the protagonist tackles the complex forces that have been shaping his life: “his parentage and inheritance, morality and law, the racial and economic geography of present-day New York City and the world.” At the same time, the story moves from trope to trope, bringing in elements of mystery, thriller, and romance, in a mélange that refuses to adhere to chains of causality.
The novel is set in 2008 in Seacrest, a Long Island suburb. Our main character is the twenty-six-year-old Karl Floor, a high school math teacher who is either simply stupid or else so deeply alienated that he can’t fully engage with the world around him. Much of what critics find unsatisfying about the novel is the fact that we are seeing what is clearly a mystery unfold through Karl’s inattentive eyes. Frustratingly, he tunes out of conversations that explain what is happening and doesn’t ask follow up questions when characters explicitly tell him that he is being manipulated or that he doesn’t get the situation.
Karl is an inert and socially inept man whose psychological and physical weakness is so profound and apparent that one day, a pair of his students beat him up after school without any fear of repercussions.
After the beating, Karl returns home. When he stumbles into the house, he finds a beautiful woman named Sylvia Vetch in the upstairs hallway. She claims to be a robber, but ends up helping Karl clean up the wounds from his beating and hanging out with him. Sylvia wants Karl’s protection but is leery of telling him why or from whom. Karl finds himself drawn to her.
Sylvia takes Karl to a party where he meets several of her obnoxious, alpha-male friends: Stony, a strange, malevolent surfer who is Sylvia’s boyfriend, and Arv, who is Stony’s right-hand man. The two taunt Karl, speaking in coded language that Karl doesn’t understand—meaning, the reader also doesn’t understand it. They have seemingly just gotten Karl involved in something nefarious without his knowing it or understanding them. Increasingly unhappy with their treatment of him, Karl finally gets up the determination to leave.
Back at his home once more, Karl runs into his stepfather, the loud-mouthed, bullying, cantankerous Larchmont Jones. Although Karl’s mother left her son the house when she died, the bequest had a contingency: Karl made his mother a deathbed promise to look after Larchmont until the old man’s death. Larchmont’s domineering personality comes out in a series of long, haranguing monologues.
Something about his encounter with Sylvia has given Karl a boost of self-confidence. Instead of simply absorbing Larchmont’s abuse, he confronts the old man and smashes his head with a pool cue, almost killing him. Larchmont recovers quickly and without anger. At this point, Sylvia returns, announcing that she isn’t actually a house burglar—she is Larchmont’s daughter and Karl’s stepsister. The novel then proceeds through plot twists involving blackmail, the legal ownership of Karl’s house, Karl’s ability to love anyone, and what little of Karl’s psyche Sharpe gives us to explore.
At the end of the novel, a crestfallen Karl considers what it would have taken for him to forgive Sylvia and forge ahead into some kind of romantic relationship with her, but Sharpe concludes his work before Karl can puzzle the conundrum out.