Tao Lin, Richard Yates, & Me


I didn’t enjoy reading Richard Yates all that much, but I like that Lin’s writing has sparked conversations about storytelling, questions about generational gaps between modern readers (this book is sort of the antithesis of the Victorian novel in that young people are more likely to “get it” than older, less-connected, for lack of a better word, readers), and the cult of personality. Additionally, it raises questions about a writer’s responsibility to his readers and to his characters. About niche. About the observable world.

Richard Yates is about a taboo love affair between two characters named Haley Joel Osment (22) and Dakota Fanning (16). Okay.

Some people look at Lindsay Lohan and think, “That poor girl.” These people cringe at the sight of a new child star during theatrical trailers at the local megaplex. They pity the young actors and actresses who are dropped, usually unwittingly, into a world (Hollywood) far beyond their control. What Tao Lin seems to be suggesting is that we’re currently in an era where Lindsay Lohan or Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment are no more or less out of their element, in no more or less danger, than the rest of us. Or, at least that’s what I got from the peculiar – but not distracting – naming of his main characters.

Osment and Fanning begin their relationship, as many relationships begin today, on the internet. In particular they use Gmail chat to keep tabs on one another. There was some discussion in the Rumpus Book Club group (a Google group) about whether or not it’s appropriate to write using cyber-langauge, or to reference timely communication methods like Gmail chat in a novel. I think it’s absolutely appropriate to include things like Gmail chat, or iPhones, or anything else that may not have a strong cultural shelf life, in literature today. Especially when Gmail chat is honestly many people’s most preferred and most commonly-used method of communication today. It gives authenticity to the work, even if that means it runs the risk of seeming “dated” when read in the future.

It’s surprising how few reviews talked about the portions of Gary Shteyngart’s recent Super Sad True Love Story that were presented as messages from a ‘GlobalTeens Account,’ which were basically that book’s near future’s version of e-mails and text messages. Shteyngart handled these text messages fairly artfully. He captured the desperation of not receiving an immediate reply, the informality of the text, the valuing of brevity. Lin does something similar with his accounts of Gmail chats between Dakota and Haley. A Gmail or any other instant-message chat, to me, usually feels very mechanical. Lin writes of these digital interactions very mechanically. They’re not particularly emotive, and the anaphoric use of the solipsistic “I’m” and other repeated sentence-starters force your reading voice to take on a reflexive monotone drawl.

The book made me question reader empathy. Because Dakota and Haley spend so much of the novel communicating online, I wondered to myself what I’d think of them if I were their friends on Facebook, and I read their wall-to-wall or their status updates. (Descriptions of physical activity had a very Facebook status-like feel to them.* “I did this,” “I did that.” Look at me.) I determined I wouldn’t like them. And if I met them in person, their organic-eating, monotone-speaking, socially-detached selves, I’d probably dislike them too.

I like when critical articles pop up about despicable characters or narrators. The first one I can think of is Kenny Powers from the HBO show Eastbound and Down. A serious asshole, for sure, but entertaining in his hostility and inanity. The characters in Richard Yates aren’t assholes (though I know this point is debatable), they’re just incredibly annoying to me. I know these people, they go to my school. They don’t seem to enjoy themselves and, worse yet, don’t seem to want to enjoy themselves. They find pleasure in the stasis of disaffection. They’re not people I personally make an effort to be friends with.

But throughout Yates, I rooted for the two main characters to be and stay together. I did not like them, but I thought their relationship, however “taboo” or empty-seeming, was in fact nourishing. Empathy is losing its importance in fiction, I feel. It’s place on the totem pole of what’s important in the experience of art dipping. To what, I don’t know. I’m just finding that how much I care for or like the characters I read or watch affects my overall impression of a book or movie or television show less and less.

In Union Square they saw a large baby in a stroller. The baby was maybe 2. The baby was barking. Haley Joel Osment said “It’s barking” and they followed it a little.

The argument is sometimes made that maximalist writing is more true to a world where, as David Foster Wallace, a maximalist of the highest order, puts it, you are “[barraged] with input… [receive] five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important.” The novel most worth reading, some would say, is the one that says the most about the human experience, the one that seeks to move and enlighten its reader, and many feel that that can’t be accomplished when you economize to the degree that Lin economizes. For how could the “concept of the heart at war with the structure of society,” as Wofle describes Anna Karenina in his famous minimalism-dismissing essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” and other large-scale, important social issues be condensed to sentences and stories of single-breath simplicity.

But can’t life feel both tiny and large; claustrophobic and vast; purposeless and meaningful? Can’t something be said of a specific culture (the culture to which Dakota and Haley belong) that applies to the culture-at-large? Can’t the social anxiety at the center of Richard Yates have broader application? I don’t think people’s perception of the world, in general, is as stagnant or simplistic as maximalist-only or minimalist-only writers or readers feel it is. I don’t think there’s that significant of a gap between the large social issues Wolfe wrote that the novel should take on, and the tiny, domestic ones that he wrote contemporary fiction (in 1989) seemed to chiefly concern itself with.

I found the economy of Lin’s sentences, of his dialogue, his Gmail chat messages, and his descriptions of surface-level realities, to be true to how I experience life somedays. Days when the surface-level realities are the only ones I care to notice, when my curiosity fails me, is defeated by the mental weight of sheer boredom. Boredom that is, ironically enough, a product of the “five hundred thousand discrete bits of information” I have presented to me on a daily basis.

“Once I get a real job we’ll never see each other again,” said the e-mail. “I’ll be working 40 hours a week. I don’t want to work. […] I feel terrible. College. Fuck.”

A friend recently shared with me his biggest gripe with the hipster movement: that it seems based in a Peter Pan-like mentality that, if you don’t wish to, you don’t have to grow up. He pointed to Where the Wild Things Are, a film from last year directed by Spike Jonze, a man whose made a living out of drawing out – not repressing – his inner child (see: Jackass, his Gap commercial, several of his music videos). Urban Outfitters stocked shirts and memorabilia for the film, and it sold well to that crowd. Screenwriters Dave Eggers and Jonze referred to it as “a film about childhood, not a children’s film.” It represented, my friend said, the hipster idea that childhood innocence doesn’t have to be lost if you don’t let it. That playfulness has a place in the adult world, but that it means sacrificing responsibility. (See also: this New York Times article.)

I’m not in 100% agreement with him, but I understand what he means. Hipsters don’t value the future so much as the present and the past (see: the resurgence in vinyl sales, the ironic Grandma sweaters). The future is scary because it’s something we for the most part can’t know. The characters in Richard Yates fear it so much they constantly, plainly, if perhaps sometimes sarcastically talk of killing themselves.

They speak directly about their emotions (“I’m sad,” “I’m happy,” “I’m afraid”), and have an oblique, arch sense of humor. They make jokes about being raped, and about people who don’t speak in a monotone voice (dubbed “party girls”). In both instances, it’s characters expressing things that people are afraid to say: the weird thoughts that come into our minds, and the candid truth** of our emotions that we often (unhealthily) keep to ourselves. By never hiding their emotions, the characters come off as incredibly self-aware. And isn’t that an admirable thing to be?

“At each moment you can either kill yourself, try harder to detach yourself from people and reality, or be thinking of and doing what you can for the people you like. Those are your only 3 choices at any moment. I don’t know. It seems like you do the second one but say you want to do the third one.”

There’s a part around the 100 page mark that’s made up of several long e-mails between Dakota and Haley – containing emotion many would agree not conducive to a form as impersonal as e-mail – that I found myself (to my surprise) being deeply affected by. They were about wanting egalitarianism in a romantic relationship, and about how true interpersonal equality (equal give, equal take) is probably impossible because, it’s simply put, people are too stupid.

They were also subtly about how we communicate our personal desires. In this case, Haley Joel Osment resorted to carefully orchestrated emails, as opposed to Gmail chat, which at one point is dismissed as “too fast,” meaning too instantaneous, too much like face-to-face interaction, to share his feelings with Dakota. There’s a line on page 125 that comments on how communicative methods shape the message: [on Gmail chat] “She said if they were talking in real life he wouldn’t feel that way.” At one point in the book a text-message is replied to via e-mail. A cyclical relationship is established, wherein digital communication is sometimes substituted by an alternative method of digital communication, leading to, many readers may feel, a greater loss of reality, and of the spontaneity of analog connectivity.

In the second half of Yates, Dakota’s role in the relationship becomes increasingly, scarily submissive. Dakota Fanning says, “I need your approval for pretty much everything. I’m a robot. I wait for you to say things because I’m too afraid to ask or say thinks that I’m not sure you will approve of. That is bad.” That is bad. It’s also maybe a condition of the age division between her and Haley, and the conflict between Dakota’s and Haley’s ideas of love. As the book progresses, you see that Haley does little to really help the situation. The puppy love of walking through New Jersey, hand-in-hand, is over, and Dakota and Haley prove themselves profoundly difficult, damaged, and arguably lost causes.

“We’re not talking because I’m not talking,” he thought in the taxi looking out his window. “But I feel like I’ll say something soon. And then we’ll be okay again.”

Lin’s language only rarely moved me, but does he care? Does he want the ideal Tao Lin reader to be moved? Does he think literature today even can move someone? His characters steal and read books by Ann Beattie and Ernest Hemingway and, yes, Richard Yates, but their relationship to those works seems disposable as their Kodak camera. There are no passages about the redemptive features of great literature. (Or about the redemptive features of anything really.) Haley Joel Osment says something about the “consolation of art,” but that’s the only instance I can remember where the characters mentioned something that had great power in their lives (unless you count each other’s attention, and letters, and hand-crafted gifts, but those hardly seem “redemptive”).

Contrary to my preconceptions, Lin’s characters were not permanently detached; to each other, they are loving (in their strange and, to me, unfamiliar way), but there’s no tonal shift or discernible distinction between moments of tenderness and moments of discontent. The characters care deeply for each other, but the language isn’t rich, the prose not pretty, so we tend to think to ourselves that their love isn’t true. Where’s the passion? Where are the metaphors? A love story, which this wholeheartedly is, rendered in-eloquently is, I think, a very foreign and unique love story. It’s one that challenges our preconceived notions about what a love story is, what makes a love story, and in turn, what love is, what makes love.

Some questions I’m left with after finishing the novel: Is Richard Yates secretly an indictment of youth culture? An ironic frown of disapproval for a generation with a broken sense of material (see: shoplifting) or spiritual (see: general hopelessness, “Nothing matters,” Dakota Fanning says near the novel’s last page) worth? A generation that buys organic food for its purity, but isn’t the least bit happier because of it. Does Lin think his characters, behind their eccentricities, and their oddities, are good people? Does he care for their lives as little as it sometimes seems they themselves do?

Richard Yates, for me, defies comparison. I’ve read books written in a minimalist style, but never one concerned exclusively with surface details. Never one with characters whose names have been plucked from reality, from Hollywood.

Turning Richard Yates over after finishing the final page, I read Melville House’s one-sentence summary: “What constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?” And I wonder what Vladimir Nabokov, the man responsible for the last century’s greatest book about “illicit love” would think of Richard Yates. And I think about how Lolita is different from Richard Yates. And I think about how Richard Yates is different from the works I’ve read by Richard Yates. I think to myself that the only real differences are aesthetic, superficial. That Lin and Nabokov and Yates wear hugely different clothes, but probably share similar thoughts and ideas and feelings.

And I wonder why the New York Times Book Review has never tackled Lin’s earlier books, why the niche he’s carved out for himself hasn’t taken off, critically or commercially, like Carver’s took off in the 80s. And I think it mostly has to do with how readers don’t want characters to directly and openly share so much of themselves, to externalize the majority of their emotions, or to practice an almost religious self-awareness. Because that’s so different from the way most people experience life.

I believe an argument could be made that Richard Yates is just as much a “way-we-live-now” novel as Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming Freedom. For some us anyway. A lot even, maybe. I think it gives an accurate account of how many young people approach romantic relationships today, especially once it hits that 100 page mark. The stuff about wanting to receive as much as you put into a relationship and the stuff about fearing longevity, becoming a “place-holder.” The fear that comes with the acknowledgment that you might be part of a couple that’s staying together only because it’s sometimes easier than being alone. Richard Yates, the author, has a story called “Joseph, I’m So Tired,” and so are Lin’s characters, and after this book so is the reader. I don’t know if I’d call Richard Yates a wake-up call to readers uninitiated with the work of Tao Lin. To me, it’s not loud enough; its voice, like the voice of its characters, too mumbled. So I’m left, asking it and answering myself, “What did you say?”

*In the book’s final half or so there’s a constant demand being placed on Dakota Fanning by Haley Joel Osment to reveal how she’s spent every waking hour and minute of her day. It read a little like a commentary on the nature of Facebook statuses, how they’re often used as statements of activity or inactivity. What it was saying about this modern compulsion to always know what another person is physically doing, where they physically are, how they physically and mentally feel, I don’t know.

**Although, in a play on this conceit, there is a nauseating series of pages toward the end of the novel where a character reveals, in an e-mail, all the many, many times that she’s lied to another character.

John Francisconi is currently studying film production at Emerson College in Boston. He lives in New London, Connecticut. He blogs here. More from this author →