Richard Yates — Tao Lin

Tao Lin has made the choice to be a very visible, very public author, one whose antics might lead audiences to form opinions on the 27 year old’s work before even reading it. I mention his age because he’s young, and not only is he young, he seems to be gunning to speak for his generation–always a precarious position.

Lin’s new novel Richard Yates is about young people. Specifically, it’s about a 22-year-old slacker named Haley Joel Osment and his 16-year-old girlfriend Dakota Fanning (I’ll address those names in a moment). Haley Joel Osment lives in Manhattan where he apparently is trying to make it as a writer–something that the book rarely delves into. Haley Joel Osment (Lin always writes the entire name out, part of the book’s numbing, trance-inducing program) meets fellow weirdo Dakota Fanning, and soon begins paying furtive visits to her New Jersey home, hiding in closets and under covers to avoid Dakota Fanning’s mother–who nevertheless soon discovers their illicit romance.

This is the primary conflict in the book–the age-of-consent gap between the young lovers–but the real trauma of the book lies in the couple’s urge toward self-annihilation. In conversations with each other–in person or in email, but primarily in Gmail chat–Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning frequently promise to kill themselves, usually in a casual, detached tone. If “I will probably kill myself later this week” is one of their mantras, the other is “I’m fucked” or “We’re so fucked.” These are not happy people. Here’s Haley Joel Osment writing an email to Dakota Fanning, summarizing his philosophical position: “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.”

The bulk of the book consists of such conversations, mopey or mordant or mean. Haley Joel Osment accuses Dakota Fanning of being the type of person who wants to detach from others and reality, yet he’s just as guilty. Lin allows the audience into Haley Joel Osment’s interior, where we find a deeply troubled young man, alienated by his own inability to stop over-processing everything he sees. The problem is that Haley Joel Osment is the core referent of all of Haley Joel Osment’s observations; his solipsism prevents him from actually really knowing anyone else. Mulling over Dakota Fanning’s minutest movements, he repeatedly reads in them signs about her own regard for him. Even when he attempts to be the type of person who is “thinking of and doing what [he] can for the people” he likes, he’s not. He’s selfish and cannot see his own selfishness. The kernel of self-destruction at the heart of Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning’s relationship doesn’t emerge from their age difference but rather his slow, cruel manipulation of her self-image. As the book progresses, Haley Joel Osment’s “advice” cripples Dakota Fanning, leading her down a path of bulimia and self-mutilation.

Lin’s style is flat, dry, and utterly concrete. The only metaphors or similes he employs come (quite artlessly) from his characters. Furthermore, these figures of speech seem incidental; even the couple’s code word “cheese beast” feels like a metaphor with no referent (or perhaps too many referents). There are no symbols (or perhaps the book is all symbols). In many ways, Richard Yates recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s early work, although Lin’s observations and comments on twenty-first century materialism are even more oblique and ambiguous than the moralism of Less Than Zero. The most immediate rhetorical technique, of course, is the book’s title. Although the text refers to the writer Richard Yates several times, his name seems utterly arbitrary, perhaps an obscure joke meant to purposefully confuse. And those character names. For the first few pages, Lin’s choice to name his protagonists after famous child stars seems gimmicky or overdetermined, but in time these names displace their original referents, as well as any other associations. They become like placeholders; Lin might as well have named them X and Y. As if to flatten out his characters even more, Lin also transliterates all of their speech. Much of the novel takes place in conversations over Gmail chat, email, and text messages, but Lin turns these truncated forms into full, affectless sentences. He even removes most contractions. His characters often speak like androids, albeit androids prone to spouting non sequiturs.


Lin also makes the odd decision to include an index to the book, part of which you can see above. In a sense, reading the index is like reading a condensed version of the book. It’s a lump sum of nouns that the book treats with more or less equal weight. The long list under the entry “facial expression” perhaps reveals the most about the book’s program, about its refusal to yield insights or give away anything beyond surfaces–it reads almost like a cheat sheet for someone with Asperger syndrome. The index seems like a postmodern gesture but it’s something else–I’m not sure exactly what else–but there’s nothing sly or even self-referential about it: it’s literal, it’s surface, it’s referential. In turn, Lin resists commenting on or satirizing the sundry brand names and corporate locations that populate his index (and, of course, his novel)–a marked contrast to the postmodern tradition.

This is all perhaps a way of saying that Lin is clearly attempting something new with his fiction, a kind of writing that abandons most conceits of post-modern cleverness and self-commentary, yet also compartmentalizes the pathos that characterizes social realist novels. This latter comparison might seem odd unless one considers the concreteness of social realist works, their emphasis on the body, on food, on places. Richard Yates shares all of these emphases, yet it divorces them from ideology; or, more accurately perhaps, it documents an as-yet-unnamed ideology, a 21st century power at work on body and soul. If Lin’s goal then is to document these forces, he succeeds admirably–but I want more; more soul, more insight, more, yes, abstraction. Richard Yates gives us the who and the what, replicates the when and where with uncanny ease; it even tells us how. But many readers, like me, will want to know the why, even if it is just a guess. And I’d love to hear Lin’s guess.

Richard Yates is new this week from Melville House.

11 thoughts on “Richard Yates — Tao Lin”

  1. there are symbols and arguably symbolic or evocative moments in the book. see: the multiple references to a broken violin dakota is thinking about smashing but “not yet”; the references to zombies; the scene where haley goes on the abandoned bus; the puddle haley jumps over; there are allusions to events in hemingway’s life from a biography; there is a very interesting reference to werner herzog’s “the wheel of time.” i submit to you that tao is uncommonly, impressively subtle. whether there is “soul” or “insight” in the book depends on one’s definition for those words, or expectations for the manifestation of same, but the book undoubtedly has what i will call emotional resonances, pockets of emotion as elusive and mysterious as in real life.


    1. stephen, to clarify, i wasn’t faulting the book with my “no symbols” comment. i also offered the idea that it was “all symbols,” or, to put it another way, concretely referential. but if the violin and the zombies and the puddle and so on are symbols, what is their operational meaning? how do they comment on/function in the narrative proper? what do the allusions to hemingway and herzog add up to? i don’t mean these questions rhetorically (or aggressively, for that matter)–i just read the entire book as a displacement of metaphorical meaning.
      as far as the soul/insight thing–yeah, sure. sorry i didn’t define those oh-so-subjective terms (that is a bit of aggressive sarcasm, although trust me that it’s not really too aggressive). i suspect that’s the root of your (considered, thoughtful) comment–my quibble with the book. i don’t know–i don’t have an answer here, certainly not a good one. i find soul where i read it and to me “richard yates” was all surfaces–which might be a definition of soul. i’m not sure. maybe lin’s subtlety is just too uncommon or impressive (or just subtle) for a brute like me.


      1. i shouldn’t have used the adverb “undoubtedly.” there’s doubt. i doubt you are a brute. not sure what “pockets of emotions” are. thanks for clarifying. the herzog “wheel of time” reference reminds me of tao’s comment re “shoplifting from american apparel,” that its themelessness, and its not giving added weight to any event in the narrative, was an attempt to enact buddhism. in “wheel of time,” as is mentioned in the book, buddhist monks use colored sand to create a design representing the world of phenomena and then they brush the sand into containers and throw them into the sea. seems bad to try and reduce that reference to a simple interpretation.


  2. I think the index is the equivalent of a category cloud on a blog, but without a mouse we can’t click on the pages. These are repeated words with significance in our postmodern world.


  3. The antics of Tao Lin are what got me interested in reading his books. Specifically this article in The Stranger: Really good stuff. But Richard Yates, on the other hand, does what bad novels do…bore. I’ve never been so bored, and most reviews such as the one here at Bibliokept conclude with similar sentiments, but seemed really trying to stretch and find merit a very boring book.

    Supposedly Tao spent 2,500 hours on the novel. Really? Why? Anyway…have I mentioned the novel is really really really boring?


    1. Hi, Caleb,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response.
      I think if Lin’s RY bores a reader, that is not the fault of the reader necessarily (in contrast with, say, a reader being bored with Moby-Dick, where I think the boredom *is* a failure on the reader’s part).
      As far as my review, I will defend it against what I see to be an implicit idea in your comment (which, if I am wrong, please correct me)–
      You seem to suggest that literary blogs/critics are finding in Lin a signal figure in “new writing,” an interesting personality whose books are doing “something new” (e.g. you cite the end of my review and others). However, you seem to suggest that this new emperor has no clothes–that he’s really quite boring–something that my review (and others) fail to adequately address.
      I think that’s a fair subjective aesthetic criticism of the book (that it’s boring)–I just disagree. Not that it was a thrill ride, but I found it subtle and horrifying. Also, I have to admit that I had a keen critical interest in *what* Lin was trying to do and *how* he was trying to do it–an interest that may have superseded and interest in character, plot development, and symbolism in my critique.


      1. Hi Biblioklept,

        Points well taken. There were serious elements and meanings to be taken in the book, and my review at this Canadian site explains my take:

        The book is unique, and it was sort of a hot-cold feeling, on my part, having liked so much Tao Lin’s Internet presence, and then being compelled to read the book, finding myself bored, and then trying to analyze why. (I got the galley in June, it took me two+ months to read, and I probably read ten books in between.)

        The book seemed to be written to fans that lap up Tao-Tweets and not so much to the reader who didn’t already “love” him. There are lots of individual moments, but they never were sufficiently explored. I think Lin exhibits no novelistic talent in Richard Yates, but he does create art that speaks to a certain crowd, and he has written very good stuff. I’ll throw out the dictum: the only bad review is no review, and I think he will continue to pick up fans just as he’ll turn people off.

        You did address the slower elements of the book, but, and call me a cynic, I think reviewers feel a certain pressure to be kinder than they otherwise might be. I feel this same pressure, many lit mags won’t touch negative reviews, many reviewers have relations with publicists and writers, and they do not want to damage this. At the same time, screw it, I think the lit world needs a little fire, a little more fierce self-reflexive criticism.

        You did interpret my comments and your defense successfully negated my cynicism. Thanks for the feedback.



        1. You make a great point here:
          “I think reviewers feel a certain pressure to be kinder than they otherwise might be. I feel this same pressure, many lit mags won’t touch negative reviews, many reviewers have relations with publicists and writers, and they do not want to damage this.”

          I think you’re more or less right–and I do, as a whole, like Melville House’s vision, the books they put out, and, yes, their publicists are very nice to me (e.g. they send me lots of books).

          On the whole though, I try to avoid writing negative reviews, especially for un- or under-established novelists (Tao Lin might be a fame whore but he’s not a big league writer). If I really hate something I’ll go after it (you can see my review of Franzen’s Freedom —, but on the whole I think that the critic’s job should be to enlarge literature and expand its audience, not to belittle it. I try to keep John Updike’s rules in mind, which basically revolve around the idea that the book should be judged on its own terms, not the individual readers. It might not be a book for *me*, but does it have an audience somewhere?

          But of course, we all hate to see naked emperors (*cough*, Franzen).

          Thanks for posting your review. I’ll go read it now.


          1. Franzen seems to be getting beat up, but yeah, he’s a big boy and thus is not vulnerable to criticism. I’m curious to give Freedom a shot…but not much more than that, and your review adds to my lukewarm enthusiasm.

            On negative reviews, here’s a good article by Canadian Brian Fawcett about the topic, “On the absence of hatchet jobs amongst Canada’s book reviewers” which also applies to the US:

            By the way, I’ve linked to your review of David Shields’ Reality Hunger (my interview with him just came out on Gulf Coast this week), I’ll post on my blog soon.


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