A Review of “Richard Yates” by Tao Lin
The first two-thirds of Tao Lin’s latest novel, “Richard Yates” was of the most uncomfortable fictional things I’ve ever experienced. I’m not easily made to feel uncomfortable: starting way back in junior high, a friend and I gobbled up the R-rated horror movies that critics would soon dub “torture-porn” without batting an eye. “A Clockwork Orange” was enjoyable, but not particularly moving. Even fictional accounts of real events – WWII historical fiction comes to mind – that describe in full color realism some of the biggest atrocities ever committed never really put me off in any serious way. Honestly, and this is going to sound weird, the last time I can remember feeling so upset by a work of fiction was when I watched the movie Matilda with my family. I was fine with the book. And it wasn’t even the way Matilda was treated by her family that got to me, it was that scene where Ms. Trunchbull makes that fat kid eat an entire chocolate cake. Which is strange, because thinking about it now, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest – in fact, I suspect I’d probably be quite capable of laughing all the way through that scene. Actually, it sort of makes me wonder about my pre-adolescent psyche. Since the written version didn’t have the same effect, I’ve come to think that it must have been the way the scene was lighted, or some other directorial flourish designed to make kids cover their faces with a blanket. Still, though, I’m not sure what my reaction to “Matilda” said about me then, and it bothers me even more to think about what my reaction to “Richard Yates” says about me now.
Because the thing is, “Richard Yates” is a book about one very self-involved person and one very naive person. Haley Joel Osmment, the self-involved one, is a freelance writer in his 20s living in New York City. Online, he meets the impressionable, ill-balanced Dakota Fanning, a high school student in New Jersey. Their relationship unfolds online, and eventually in person, to become the abusive, terrible thing it was always destined to be. But that (the abuse, the bulimia, the fighting, the families) isn’t the stuff that actually bothered me. In part, that’s probably my whispering solipsism, but mostly (I hope mostly), its because Tao Lin is at his best when his characters can say the least. Once he gets into actual problems, the tense emotional drive of the first parts of the book dissipates, and the story runs on whatever momentum it’s saved. Unfortunately, it seems Tao Lin wasn’t ultimately able to convert his vision (and more about how I see that vision in a bit) to paper; he succumbs to a traditional narrative and the book suffers for that.
There’s a single sentence of original description in place of a back cover blurb, and it’s this: “What constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?” This is not what the “Richard Yates” is about, not even close. Even if that’s what Tao Lin intended, it’s still not what “Richard Yates” is about.
Below that, there’s some praise written by Clancy Martin (“author of How to Sell“), that says: “Richard Yates is hilarious, menacing, and hugely intelligent. Tao Lin is a Kafka for the iPhone generation [...]” I’ve never read Kafka, but the author that immediately came to mind for me was Hemingway, especially “In Our Time” (granted, I’ve only ever read that and “Old Man and the Sea”). As in the stories of returned World War I veterans, Lin strips away all emotion, focusing instead on only what is said, what is done, and what is thought – not even what is thought (it’s an extremely limited third person narration), but what the characters are conscious of thinking – how they interpret their own thoughts.
Take this paragraph, perhaps the biggest piece of exposition on the male of Tao Lin’s modern dysfunctional relationship, Haley Joel Osment:
The next day Haley Joel Osment stood outside the membership library on 76th street where he worked twenty-five-hours a week and felt sunlight on his face and ate a salad. It was April 25. Haley Joel Osment was 22. After work he rode the 6 train to New York University’s Bobst Library and sat in front of a computer. He wasn’t a student anymore but someone had made a mistake and given him access until 2011. It was 2006. Haley Joel Osment talked to Dakota Fanning on Gmail chat. He went to his apartment. He lay on the air mattress. He read a short story about a severely depressed woman in rural Illinois.
Conversations take place in the same barren landscape, devoid of description beyond the halting pattern of Gmail chat (one might say Gmail chat is the third most important character in “Richard Yates”). Dialogues, as they do online, switch subjects without warning, going from the deeply personal to the entertainingly inane, depending on which, if either of the conversants is paying full attention to what’s being said.
“I already called out Monday. Is today Monday. I called out Saturday.”
“I’ll skip school Wednesday,” said Dakota Fanning. “I’ll be there at 9:55. Then leave at like 3:50. Is that okay.”
“Yes. Are you coming.”
“Yes. If Kailey lends me money”
“I’m happier,” said Haley Joel Osment. Let’s buy a squid from Chinatown. And put a dress on it.”
“Are they still alive,” Said Dakota Fanning.
“I don’t know. We can release it into the ocean.”
“I want to buy an erhu from Chinatown,” said Dakota Fanning.
“What’s erhu,” said Haley Joel Osment.
“Chinese Fiddle,” said Dakota Fanning.
It’s all like that: affectless, punctuationless typing translated to the accepted form of literary novel. The thing is, though, with Hemingway the point was that his characters had experienced such a trauma that they were working their way back up the hierarchy of needs, starting with the immediate concerns: food, water, shelter. They weren’t able to access their feelings because of the trauma they’d experienced in the war. But Lin’s characters have experienced no such trauma (well, Dakota Fanning has, maybe, if she is to be believed, but it’s hard to imagine it’s actually influencing her speech patterns in the early portions of the book. There is no indication that Haley Joel Osment has experienced any traditional trauma whatsoever), which seems to me as if he’s trying to do one of three things, either:
- Show that the internet age, and technology in general, has isolated its primary users such that the people who have never experienced anything different are altogether unable to hold meaningful, functional relationships.
- Show that although the internet forces us to speak as if we’re disaffected, human nature is such that in the right situations we can transcend this lonely existence, but it’s getting harder and harder to do.
- Or maybe he’s just describing one isolated incident in which a doomed relationship is exacerbated to abusive levels due to a combination of the participants personalities and mediums of communication. However, though maybe Tao Lin would argue for this point in order to take a contrarian stance on his own work (I know almost nothing about him, I’m just projecting based on how I felt about the novel), the use of the famous child actor names tips his hand. This is supposed to apply to a generation – not to any two people we can isolate and relate to.
I kept looking for a slip up while I was reading, somewhere that Lin accidentally betrayed some emotion or background beyond the intentionally mundane. As it turned out, the whole final third of the book was just such a slip up, and it painfully undercut the message Lin had been crafting the entire way. If this was purposeful, it was artfully done; Lin writing is actually much more interesting when he strips it of any semblance of intent beyond blank communication.
But beyond that, the only passage I came up with (and the weakness of this should give some indication how thoroughly the exposition through climax of “Richard Yates” is scrubbed followed an emotional but ultimately meaningless block of text emailed by Dakota Fanning that she ends with
“I don’t want to kill myself. I want to be in a happy and healthy relationship with you.”
After the giant email she sent three short emails.
Haley Joel Osment sent a short email.
Dakota Fanning sent many medium-sized emails.
They sent more emails.
That’s the extent of it. So then, why was I so bothered by a novel about an abusive relationship (which I’ve never been a part of) carried out in New York City (where I’ve never lived) over Gmail chat (which I’ve never used)? Is Tao Lin’s message to my generation so strong that it affected me in a deeply personal way, despite not actually experiencing the things in his book? As in “Matilda,” I’ll pray that it was the style, not the substance, that got to me.