“Richard Yates” by Tao Lin: If You Have to Ask, You’ll Never Know

For those of you who don’t already know, I work in a used bookstore on Chicago’s South side. One of the privileges of working in such a place is my own personal “hold shelf:” two little shelves in the break room where I can hoard all the low-priced books I want to buy later with my employee discount. Those shelves have been almost completely full for a while, so when I stumbled upon a copy of “Richard Yates” by Tao Lin (shelved with books by Richard Yates in our fiction section, which I found hilarious), it wasn’t very long before I bought it.
Surprisingly enough, it didn’t take me that long to read it, either. I started and finished “Richard Yates” over the course of a day. On the one hand, the book is only about 200-pages, so it’s not exactly War and Peace. On the other hand, many critics have slammed Lin’s style for being very lack luster — Lin himself even admitted that he purposefully tried not to use descriptive language, and at one point even “replaced all non-literal uses of ‘took,’ for example … ‘took a photograph’ to ‘photographed.'” He is intentionally what many critics would call “boring.”

I’ve been big on reading novels and non-fiction by poets lately, and it’s this type of meticulous effort with language that keeps me hooked on this subgenre. However, “Richard Yates” stood out to me, because, despite the fact that it was a complete page-turner for me, when I finished it, I had no fucking clue if I actually liked the book or not. In fact, I’ve never really been sure if I liked Tao Lin or not. He’s known for having polarized critics — you either love him or hate him. Well, after this book I’ve decided that I don’t have to feel too strongly one way or another. But I can accept the fact that Tao Lin is undoubtedly changing the literary game, and that’s bound to come with a certain level of discomfort, if not jealousy in some cases.

But while I can get behind the experimental aspects of Tao Lin, there was something about “Richard Yates” that really disturbed me. First off, this is, apparently, an autobiographical novel, however instead of the book profiling a younger Tao Lin, it chronicles the relationship of 22-year-old New York author, Haley Joel Osment, and 16-year-old recovering runaway Dakota Fanning (unrelated to their former childstar namesakes). The story begins as Osment and Fanning, who have met on the internet previously, meet in person for the first time and fall in love. Both characters are pretty “fucked;” they’re suicidal and depressed, Osment is a vegan health food freak, and Fanning is a self-mutilating bulimic. What I found most intriguing about their relationship was the mystique of the autobiographical, as Osment is basically a complete asshole to this girl for the majority of the book. He calls her “obese” constantly and criticizes her constantly, at one point driving her to attempt suicide. I thought, perhaps, that it was pretty brave of Lin to make a fictional version of himself be such a dick. But it also really, really bothered me. Because the fact that he was a total dick was never really addressed in the book (until one point toward the end when he changes his attitude a bit, and only after Fanning has suffered through so much I was convinced she was completely under the spell of an abusive relationship — I mean, duh, as if the six year age difference and statutory rape law violations weren’t enough to suggest that Osment is a sociopath in the first place).

I would say that when I finished the book, I was a little awestruck, simply because I had never read anything so openly cheeky before, let alone a piece of literature timely enough to address internet culture and online relationships, which is something I think a lot of young people can relate to today. But I was really confused by the dynamics of their relationship. So I went digging a little, and found this interview (which I referenced earlier). The interviewer addressed exactly my concerns about the Osment/Fanning relationship, however, I was a little disappointed by Lin’s responses:

I feel their relationship was direct and honest—each person’s intentions were available and, to a large degree, not “strategically available”—and “not malicious” in that there seemed to be little to no behavior designed to make the other jealous or to hurt the other person in order to gain power over them. Dakota Fanning’s lies aren’t honest, but I feel that they were “endearing, to some degree,” to me, and “not malicious,” said “in desperation,” to some degree, in order to extend the relationship in a manner that is focused on a long-term relationship.

I think the relationship in Richard Yates differs from many “dysfunctional” relationships in literature and movies and TV, where the characters cheat on the other, lie to the other (in a manner that the person who is lying is lying in order to “keep” the other person as a sort of “stand-in” for a future, anticipated person), scream profane words or “hateful” sentiments at the other, or do things like sabotage the other by breaking their cell phones or burning their dresses, or something. Those things don’t happen in Richard Yates. But those things, I think, maybe somehow seem less malicious, troubling, and harsh than how most readers, I think, will view the relationship in Richard Yates. Those things seem funny somehow. Maybe it is just the tone of those movies. …

In my view she [Dakota Fanning] has power over Haley Joel Osment at most times until the Gmail chat where Haley Joel Osment says “I think we’re fucked.” Then Haley Joel Osment has power until Dakota Fanning says she is going to the hospital. Then Haley Joel Osment has power in one sense and Dakota Fanning has power in another sense (in that Haley Joel Osment, though willingly, feels “compelled” to “help” Dakota Fanning). Throughout they both have power over each other, in that each other’s actions have a strong effect on the other’s emotions. I think I began and ended the book in a manner where I did, in part, because I wanted the entire book to be focused on a period where they each had power over the other.

So, this shit really disturbed me. Maybe it can boil down to the fact that I’m reading this from a female perspective and it’s written from a male perspective so I sympathize with Fanning more. But also, I am a 22 year old writer in an urban area, so I relate a lot to Osment’s loneliness as well. Essentially, I could not believe that Lin did not categorize their interactions with each other (moreover Osment’s treatment of Fanning) as “malicious.” The most fucked up part, for me, was when he talked about power . . . excuse me, but the reason we have statutory rape laws is because the much older person will always have power over the much younger person? Or maybe I just don’t get it?

Anyway, I guess I still haven’t made up my mind on whether or not I actually “like” the book, although I gave it four stars on my goodreads account for literary merit. Although I’m a little disgusted by Lin’s exposition of his characters’ relationship, I do feel very curious to find out more, and will probably read his other books if we get them in at the bookstore. I just really want to find out if he’s joking or not. And I guess that’s his genius marketing ploy.

At the end of the day, I stand by my **** rating for this book, and recommend it to all hipsters/statutory rapists (for maximum enjoyment, you should really be both).

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