Richard Yates by Tao Lin

Richard Yates, Tao Lin’s latest novel, has been described as better and more mature than his last, Shoplifting from American Apparel. More mature, that could well be, but it’s also more claustrophobic. Where Shoplifting followed Sam—its Lin-like narrator—around among a relatively large group of friends and acquaintances, Richard Yates rarely leaves the confines of a single relationship: that between Haley Joel Osment, 22, a vegan, shoplifting graduate of New York University who vaguely writes and sells stolen goods on eBay for a living, and Dakota Fanning, a 16-year-old New Jersey high school student with depression and issues with her mom.

The two met online, of course, and of course have no connection whatever to their famous namesakes. Their names are the kind of gimmick that makes people hate Lin (the consumption partner said we had to stop talking about the novel when I mentioned that part), but it was strangely effective. With character names that mean nothing, there is a blank slate at the beginning of a book. But when the character names do have a meaning, the reader must actively blanken that slate.

Anyway, the names are a side issue. Since Haley Joel Osment and Shoplifting‘s Sam (and Lin) are effectively the same person, and they were both written by the same person, the novels share many qualities. Lots of Gmail chats where the conversation revolves around how fucked everyone is, banal descriptions of how young people without real jobs fill their time, emails, text messages, people reading depressing books and listening to depressing music and being “severely depressed” or “autistic,” and Haley going to do publishing stuff when his book comes out. But the focus on a single relationship seems to make the action even more sluggish, the emotions even harder to understand and more depressing (in Shoplifting, the girls Sam has trouble connecting with are strangers; here, things don’t get any easier after months of dating), and Haley’s personality seem much more frustrating. His “autism,” whatever it may be, turns out to be more than just trouble dealing with normal social interaction, but a deep selfishness that leaves Haley expecting others to be like him or at least extremely deferent to him if they are going to play any real part in his life.

Which leaves things between him and Dakota Fanning a bit tense. Haley Joel Osment demands, after he’s pretty clearly turned her bulimic with his organic vegan obsessions and calling her “obese,” that she account for her time obsessively and provide detail in the appropriate places. She tells him that “[s]he put on clothes and made lunch and walked to the bus stop” and he stops her to ask what she made for lunch. After she lists the food, he asks how she made it. After her answer, he scolds, “Why didn’t you say that the first time instead of saying you just made lunch.” She apologizes, admitting she “should have been more specific.”

On one level, this is an unhealthily obsessed boyfriend demanding his younger, emotionally vulnerable girlfriend explain every minute she spends in his absence (although the creepiness of this is mitigated, slightly, by the fact that she did spend the first four months of their relationship lying to him about exactly the things he’s now asking to know). But it’s also a writer demanding that his girlfriend’s stories have the proper level of novelistic detail and adhere to his own, as far as Haley Joel Osment is a proxy for Tao Lin, beliefs about what is important in narrative: a list of actions accounting for the passage of time, and unusually detailed descriptions of food and drink. Dakota Fanning is recounting her daily activities to a creative writing workshop of one.

And those who seem to want to talk much more about Lin and his public persona than about his writing should take note. Dakota Fanning is forced, essentially, to share with Haley Joel Osment in private the exact kinds of information Lin does in public. The great indictment against Twitter is that it’s little more than a venue for letting all one’s friends know what one had for lunch that day, is it not? Joshua Cohen complains in Bookforum that “[t]o Lin’s generation, which is to say to mine as well, transparency is the new sincerity. …Today, only utter exposure can set one free, while the only thing proscribed is regret.” But where oh where in Richard Yates does transparency and exposure set Haley and Dakota free; where do their attempts to be transparent do anything but leave them full of regret at their inability to be sincere or free?

On the last day of the novel, struggling to account for the full amount of time between the end of the school day and meeting up with Haley, Dakota insists she is not lying or leaving anything out:

“I must have bullshitted around for a long time then. I told you everything.”

“Don’t say ‘bullshitted.’ That doesn’t mean anything. You should tell me exactly what you did, not just say ‘bullshitted.'”

In light of Haley’s own life and how it’s narrated, this is a great joke. Lin painstaking tells us exactly what Haley does (and eats), which pretty much amounts, for the entirety of the novel, to bullshitting around for a long time. That is to say, that is all any of his details and exactitude amount to: bullshitting around, doing nothing, being fucked. The lists of actions and facial expressions (neutral, confused, strange, nervous; see index for full list) don’t get Haley any closer to trusting Dakota or get the two of them any closer emotionally. It should be an argument for the purposelessness of Richard Yates itself, which according to Cohen’s excerpt of Lin’s blog would be okay by him. Of course, for me it also works as a reason for reading, but there is no denying there is a lot of bleakness here.

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