Tao Lin’s last book ended with a non-sequitur about marine biology. His new one, the novel Richard Yates, opens with a discussion about a hamster eating its babies. “I wanted to give it a high-five,” says a 22-year-old writer named Haley Joel Osment (no relation to the Hollywood child star) over Gmail chat. “But it didn’t know what a high-five was.”
These examples are as good a litmus test as any to determine if you will enjoy Lin’s particular brand of emotionally numb, minimalist fiction. If your reaction is “Get on with the plot already,” you’re in for a disappointment. If, on the other hand, you find this description funny, or strangely accurate—how much of our own lives these days consists of making dumb jokes over the internet?—you’re in for a surprising, disorienting treat. Richard Yates takes the sparse autobiographical style of Lin’s 2009 novella Shoplifting from American Apparel and pushes it in newer and far darker directions.
Our heroes are Osment and a 16-year-old he meets over the internet named Dakota Fanning (again, no relation). Both are glib and insecure, but they’re drawn to one another all the same. They begin a covert long-distance relationship that involves Osment making the two-hour commute from New York City to visit Fanning at her mother’s house in small-town New Jersey, or vice versa. Most of their interaction takes place via text message and over the internet. For a while, they make each other happy—they steal clothes and organic vegetables, occasionally have sex, and draw each other pictures in Microsoft Paint. But it’s not long before their mutual depression and neuroses get the better of them, and the relationship quickly takes a series of destructive turns.
Richard Yates, like much of Lin’s work, is fundamentally about disconnection. His protagonists’ names don’t connect to their characters. Osment and Fanning’s respective thoughts don’t connect with what they end up saying out loud. Most of the time they don’t appear to be in control of their facial expressions, either. Even Lin’s sentences are incommunicado with one another—there’s hardly a conjunction (but, and, if) to be found. This novel is not a seamlessly constructed tapestry. It’s a stack of carpet samples.
Beneath the icy style, however, is a meticulously plotted novel that asks all kinds of urgent questions about the world an entire generation of people are growing up in. Lin’s fans and detractors alike will agree that he can strike nerves like few other writers working today. His lack of descriptive flourishes and (as seen through Osment, anyway) general confusion about how to engage with society at large strike me as a challenge to readers on two levels: as readers of literature, and also as citizens of the world. I think some people get angry with Lin because he asks the question so pointedly and nakedly—the people dismissing it being, perhaps, those most disturbed by it.
As the book progresses, Osment becomes steadily less and less likable, lashing out at Fanning for the pettiest things and generally acting less like her boyfriend and more like a bully. Turning your reprehensible behaviour into art doesn’t excuse the behaviour, of course, but don’t be naïve. Lin knows this, too. If he did these things in real life, he should be ashamed of himself. But the resultant novel, in its frankness, is convincing, chilling, and maybe even a tiny bit brave.
Melville House, 208 pp., $17.95, paperback
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, October 21, 2010)