September 2010

Lorian Long

fiction

Richard Yates by Tao Lin

I finished Tao Lin's Richard Yates five weeks ago and started writing this review five weeks later. Unlike any reading experience I've had, Richard Yates numbed me. Numbed me to the point of not knowing what to say for five weeks, other than, "It's about Gmail chats between two characters named Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, and it is funny sometimes." I can't decide if this is ultimately interesting or uninteresting. I say "ultimately" because I usually like the first ten or twelve pages of Tao Lin's books, and I like his poetry, and I think "I want to keep reading this." On the first page of Richard Yates, Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment share this exchange:

"I saw a hamster eating its babies,” said Haley Joel Osment. “I wanted to give it a high-five. But it didn't know what a high-five is."

“I would eat my babies if I had some. I don't have any babies.”

“How old are you?” said Haley Joel Osment.

“16. It's probably good I don't have babies."

I read this and wished I had written it. Or maybe I wished I had conversations on Gchat about eating babies. But then the moment comes when I slip into a state of ennui, and wish I could discover Tao Lin for the first time over and over again. The novelty wears off and I am left thinking, "They sell your books at Urban Outfitters." But they sell Lolita at Urban Outfitters. Who cares?

The attention given to Lin has had an impact on my life as a writer and a reader, and I think other “writers on the internet” feel the same way. Good or bad. The issue for me is that I feel exactly the way Lin seems to want his readers to feel, which is blank, neutral, not, no thing, nothing. And what does this mean? Good questions, for one thing: Is the purpose of Art to make us feel something, or nourish us in some way? Does Tao Lin nourish us? What does it mean to “write honestly”? What is “artistic honesty,” and what does "honesty" even mean in a world where the Internet is a natural, necessary thing?

Most popular Google searches for "the internet is":

a series of tubes
down
over
a playground
completely over.
made of cats
boring
dead
for
forever criminal minds

Criminal Minds is a show on CBS, and "The Internet Is Forever" is the title of episode 22, season 5. This seems relevant.

Is Tao Lin’s medicated prose my generation’s brain voice? It feels weird to use the expression “my generation” outside of a rock song, but I don’t think there is any “young writer” who is as generationally polarizing as Lin right now, and he knows this. When asked about his audience, he has said, “My target demographics are hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, sarcastic vegans, college students.” I feel validated in my emptiness when I read Richard Yates because of this statement. I am unnerved by this, but also stimulated.

I feel like what I’m writing about has been written about before, and Tao Lin is the subject of a redundant discussion regarding hipsters. Maybe he is too fashionable for me. Whatever the catch is, I feel totally unprepared to write this book review, because I feel like my opinion is cheap, like the idea of separating art from the artist. What is the difference between a writer and a salesperson? 

Richard Yates is about Haley Joel Osment, a 22-year-old male living in New York City. He sleeps in late. He spends a lot of time using the computer at New York University’s Bobst Library, Gchatting and writing emails to Dakota Fanning, a 16-year-old female who lives in a small town in New Jersey. They have sex. They have incredibly private moments, both online and offline, but always seem to read as “online,” because of monotonously clipped, declarative sentences. The distance between what a character is feeling and authorial execution is an ocean, frightening in its capability. For example, a scene where Dakota Fanning tells Haley Joel Osment she cuts herself:

They sat on the edge of the guest bed. He moved her dress and saw cuts on her chest. She said she had lied about the scars on her thighs being from cutting too deep when she wanted a little blood to use in Valentine’s cards for her friends. She said she had cut her thighs because she hated herself and wanted to remind herself of things. She said something about tape man. "You probably think I’m a stupid melodramatic twelve-year-old now," she said.

They talked for about thirty minutes.

Dakota Fanning said she wouldn’t cut herself anymore.

What makes this not the best example of what I’m trying to say about online brain voice and emotional heaviness, and maybe a better example of why Lin hypnotizes me in a very stubborn way, are the Valentine’s cards. That is a motherfuckingly so-good detail. Sentences occasionally lead in the direction of perfect spurts of words:

"Yes. I can’t remember if I have the SATs Saturday morning or Sunday morning. I think I have them Saturday. It is Saturday. I just looked. Why are we always fucked. We are fucked. Look at that typo,” said Dakota Fanning about fucked being spelled as fuckexc. "That is how fucked we are. My brother is missing. The lady who electrocutes us just called."

And then we are drifting into another fog of neutral facial expressions. The technique of using linguistic sucker punches to interrupt the slight humming of minimalist text can be a narcotic, but I can only take so much of it before the word “schtick” breaks the stupor and I feel nothing for the characters or the story, because I’m too aware of Tao Lin’s power over me. Is this the point, though? To surrender yourself the way we surrender everyday via Facebook, Gchat, P4K, McDonald’s? Where does consumerism end and art begin?

Richard Yates by Tao Lin
Melville House
ISBN: 1935554158
208 Pages