My long, rambling, mildly self-indulgent but genuine reaction to Richard Yates

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A Rumpus Book Club subscriber reacts to the August book club selection, Richard Yates.

As I’ve been reading “Richard Yates” the last few days I’ve had many discussions with roommates and friends about my issues and the problem I have with the book is the same as the problem I have with the generation the book is about. My generation. The iPhone, gmail chat, text-message-to-say-I-love-you-for-the-first-time generation. The facebook-relationship-status-is-an-emotional-roller-coaster generation. The same reason I don’t have an iPhone or a functioning facebook account or an active internet (read, modern translation: social) life. But in both instances, and especially with this book, I couldn’t put a finger on it. It wasn’t the plot. Or the writing itself. The man can write a sentence that gets at it, gets at everything its supposed to get at. The reactions I’m having are not on the level of strict literary criticism but of a deeply personal nature. Because thats how I read and what I read to find. But in fact the sentences in the book often sound like the things people all around me say. Or text or chat. Perhaps this was why I felt, while reading, just what Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, two famous faces standing-in for faceless characters, felt—extreme loneliness.

Then I got to the part on page 177, where Haley Joel Osment is in Florida, and his editor says he went to a reading where Richard Yates read a short story using different voices for each character, and there it was, exactly the issue I’ve been searching to define about the internet and text messaging and language and e-readers and newspapers going into online formats. The universalization of voice. The characters’ language was the same, whether communicated by text or gmail chat or email or face to face. And further the characters in Tao Lin’s book all speak the same way. The way the entire generation speaks. It’s as if Tao Lin wrote the entire novel using random 140 character tweets and the most tragic “Texts From Last Night” and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t one person writing them all, because juxtaposed they communicated something about vulnerability and the ability to connect emotionally and the risks that poses. But to me, it’s the voice that matters the most.

When you can talk to everyone from around the world and read what they have to blog and tweet and facebook comment you shorten it all and the voices in my head and on the screen all sound the same. That’s why, when I sit at my desk and do five minutes of writing for ever fifty minutes of internet surfing my ears start to ring. And why, when I surf between fifteen blogs that are all the same level of snarky and blunt and culturally astute, I can’t remember anything from any of them. I’m overstimulated.

What I want in literature and art and life in general is to hear voices. I admit, many of my fatal flaws may stem from this desire to be seduced by voice. Why my own writing is often flailing in search of plot and why I attach to writers like Sherman Alexie and George Saunders who could carve their names in marble with their distinctive and memorable voices. But to me theres nothing wrong with having voices in your head until you can’t differentiate between the good and evil, between the characters in the novel you’re reading and the words in your friend’s most recent email, between the voices of others and your own internal narration.

Here I’m going to steal a little from Steve Almond, who talks in his self-published collection of essays about the dangers of the “merged narrator.” That’s exactly the problem I’m having with “Richard Yates” and with cyber-culture. Everyone is merging into one voiceless narrator with the same slang and the same profanity and the same popular cultural references. To be fair, Steve admits he stole that from another author, Rick Reikin, who likely stole that from someone entirely different, writers are always stealing and stealing, from each other or from yuppie-ghetto clothing chains. What you can’t steal is voice. Unless, of course, you’re Ursula in The Little Mermaid, but then only using black magic and still wasn’t that the most tragic of all Grimm’s fairy tales (or Disney’s, I suppose)? She stole Ariel’s voice and with it her agency, without which she can’t defend herself or confess her love to the charming prince or define herself as a character at all.

And so, when I finish the book I am just as lonely as I was when I started. Only now I’m also tired and overstimulated and, tonight when my friend from Massachusetts calls and wants to know why I haven’t written her an email response I want to say, yes I did, it was two hundred pages long, and if you didn’t get it or understand the emotional depth or you just couldn’t tell that it was me who was writing it, that’s because I couldn’t either.


Jessi Probus is a southerner living in Brooklyn. You can find more of her work in McSweneeney's Internet Tendency, Word Riot, NANO Fiction, various women's bathroom stalls, and on twitter @JessiProbus. More from this author →