“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: Richard Yates by Tao Lin

Richard Yates
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.


Unknown said...

Really!? RY moved you? RY is never boring or flat? RY gave the "everyday meaning"? RY is a deceptively simple novel? Wow Wow Wow.

Honestly, I feel like getting all that you did out of RY was a lot harder than it was for TL to write it.


Emmett Stinson said...

Yes, I know there is a whole underground industry in hating Tao Lin, of which I assume you are a part. I agree that the Haley Joel Osment character is often unlikeable, but isn't that the point of the book--to frame the book from his perspective but show the limitations of that frame? This is precisely the sense in which it is deceptively simple. It's simple prose means many readers will go through it and miss the nuance (that is, as I see it, the point of the style), but, like most examples of minimalism in the arts (eg. Phillip Glass, Brian Eno, Tony Conrad), what's at stake is the minute differences amongst the repetition. Maybe that's something you can't or don't appreciate, but that doesn't invalidate the technique!

Caleb Powell said...

Hmmmmm...TOE nails it. Richard Yates will go down as the most overrated book since Kerouac's On the Road. It covers a lot of complex topics in a very superficial manner...it's about as good a read as the 2004 Honda Civic Users Manual.

Emmett Stinson said...

I really don't sympathise with these kind of reactions to the book; Richard Yates wasn't my favourite book of the year, but it is ultimately a well-written book. I suspect your objects are to what it is, rather than how it is what it is. As to Lin being overrated--I suppose he has a large presence on the internet, but it's not exactly like he's Jonathan Franzen, either.

Emmett Stinson said...

Oh, and as a final note, I'd actually really like to read a novel based on the 2004 Honda Civic Manual: this is a capital idea!

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