Tuesday, August 24, 2010
By Tao Lin
Melville House Press
Tao Lin’s Richard Yates is a novel about a 22-year-old male who falls in love with a 16-year-old girl he has met over the internet. Despite its contentious subject matter, however, Richard Yates is a surprisingly subtle and moving novel that succeeds due to its intense – indeed, borderline obsessive – focus on the banalities of the everyday lives of its two main characters.
Although Tao Lin is certainly not a household name, his work has attracted a sort of cult following in the United States, due to several of his writerly idiosyncrasies, including an incredibly pared-back, minimalist style, a focus on vegan dietary issues, and a tendency to employ seemingly autobiographical figures that blur the line between fact and fiction. For example, Tao Lin was arrested for shoplifting at an American Apparel store; he then documented the incident in his appropriately titled novella Shoplifting from American Apparel.
The main characters in Richard Yates are ‘named’ Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, in a reference to the child film stars of the same name, who are also six years apart in age. The book opens by documenting the start of their relationship, and some narrative tension is introduced by the two characters’ attempts to meet without drawing the attention of Dakota Fanning’s mother.
But this is a book propelled by character relationships rather than tense plotting. Indeed, long sections of the book simply consist of long internet chats between the characters. Although these dialogues are often funny, they are also extremely banal; while this is initially disarming, eventually the reader begins to feel like a voyeur, privy to the innermost intimacies of this couple. The effect is almost like reading the love letters of two people you have never met. This incredibly clever and well-managed effect leads to a sense of claustrophobia that ultimately mirrors the slow unravelling of the young couple’s relationship.
Even more impressively, Lin manages to achieve this effect through incredibly simple prose. Indeed, his style is so minimal that he makes Brett Easton Ellis and Raymond Carver look like Herman Melville. The writing, however, is never boring or flat, and the simplicity of the prose actually serves to make the book even more affecting and moving. (Indeed, the closest analogues to Lin’s style may be in film; for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and Wong Kar-Wai’s Chunking Express – which is mentioned in the book – work by a similar logic.)
But for all of the sadness in the book, it remains playful. The title Richard Yates refers to the American writer of the same name (and, as an aside, Richard Yates was the model for Elaine Benes’s father on Seinfeld). Although the characters are occasionally seen reading Yates’s novels, the book’s title is essentially ambiguous. Is Lin referring to the fact that most of Yates’s novels are about relationships that fall apart? Is Lin, a cult author, acknowledging his own position by referring to another author with a cult following? It’s impossible to know.
This is a powerful and deceptively simple novel that manages to imbue the everyday with an incredible significance and meaning, a fact that Lin both acknowledges and ironises by ending the book with an index that includes such terms as ‘Taco Bell’, ‘zombie’, and ‘hamster’. While this is an unconventional novel, it’s one that will undoubtedly appeal to readers of both experimental and more traditional narratives. This is an incredibly subtle and complex narrative composed out of extremely simple materials.
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 9:07 AM