A Kind of Gnawing Offness
The title of Tao Lin’s sixth book and second novel is an act of mild provocation. Richard Yates belongs to a biography, not a novel – certainly not one in which Yates himself doesn’t appear. One character in the book steals a copy of The Easter Parade; another reads Disturbing the Peace; a third tells an anecdote about a reading Yates once gave. That’s pretty much it as far as Yates is concerned. Lin’s previous novel was called Eeeee Eee Eeee, after the sound made by dolphins. The dolphins in Eeeee Eee Eeee also speak English, live underground and club the actor Elijah Wood to death. But given the difficulty that the book’s characters (even the human ones) have in communicating with each other, a non-verbal sound – a squeal that might convey delight or anguish or simply ‘I’m here’ – is a fitting title.
‘Richard Yates’ is harder to account for. The novel depicts a romantic relationship between two young people from the beginning to what could be the end, and the light cast on each lover is harsh: the young man is cruel, the girl (she’s 16, her lover is 22) is dishonest, and each expects too much from the other. In all this, the book vaguely resembles Revolutionary Road. But highlighting this slight resemblance is hardly the title’s primary effect. Sticking an author’s name on a work of fiction that has very little to do with him calls attention to the arbitrariness of titles, to the provisional nature of publishing conventions (and the conventions of language). It’s a gesture more typ-ical of the art world, perhaps, than the literary world. (Lin also creates and sells visual art: twee drawings and collages of hamsters and other creatures.)
And then there are the names of the principals. The girl in Richard Yates is called Dakota Fanning; the young man, Haley Joel Osment. Both names belong to Hollywood child actors: Fanning, born in 1994, had her breakout role when she was seven in I Am Sam, opposite Sean Penn; Osment, b. 1988, is still best known for his role in The Sixth Sense alongside Bruce Willis. But Lin’s characters are not them. ‘Haley Joel Osment’ is a young writer whose life resembles Tao Lin’s; ‘Dakota Fanning’ is a high-school student in New Jersey. Their names may be a comment on the media-saturated culture of contemporary America, and may also hint that, like many child actors, these protagonists are in over their heads. In 2006, the year Richard Yates is set, the real Fanning played a character who was raped, sparking massive news coverage and concerned editorials about what was ‘age appropriate’; readers familiar with that affair will notice connections, intended or not, between it and the events of Lin’s novel. But Lin doesn’t do anything cute with the names: he uses them as straightforwardly as David Foster Wallace uses X and Y in ‘Octet #6’, for example, or as Lorrie Moore uses Mother and Baby in ‘People like That Are the Only People Here’. Jonathan Lethem has said that ‘strange character names are an easy way to make sure the reader feels, at the deepest level, they’re entering a propositional space where they have to suspend some of their reading protocols and suspend disbelief and make leaps.’ What makes Lin’s strategy in Richard Yates especially curious is that the novel otherwise follows the standard protocols of realism (no talking dolphins this time); the names themselves are the leap.