A Kind of Gnawing Offness

David Haglund

  • Richard Yates by Tao Lin
    Melville House, 206 pp, £10.99, October 2010, ISBN 978 1 935554 15 8

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.

Or perhaps they’re a stunt. That’s certainly a criticism Lin has faced before. Born in 1983 in Virginia and brought up in Florida, he went to college in New York City, where he started a popular blog called Reader of Depressing Books and began publishing poetry and fiction. He soon made a name for himself as a prankster of a particularly annoying sort. At readings, he recited his poem ‘i went fishing with my family when i was five’, in which the narrator catches a whale (after nine short lines, the poem repeats ‘the next night we ate whale’ an enormous number of times), for up to seven minutes at a stretch. After the magazine n+1 rejected his stories, he wrote new ones in which characters (occasionally hamsters) had the same name as one of the magazine’s editors. To promote his second poetry collection, he plastered various places in New York (including the office door of the Manhattan-based gossip website Gawker, which had once denounced his ‘spammy, retarded, deceptive, always on the verge of interesting but never actually interesting internet stunts’) with stickers that said: BRITNEY SPEARS. By far his biggest publicity coup was offering six shares, for $2000 each, in the future royalties of what has become Richard Yates: he sold all six and was interviewed on the BBC. He did all this while other writers, facing a newly thrifty publishing industry and the age of ‘social networking’, brooded over the necessity of selling themselves online (a recent YouTube video promoting Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom begins with Franzen registering his ‘profound discomfort at having to make videos like this’). Lin, meanwhile, has plastered himself all over the internet: MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, eBay, and the comment threads of blogs everywhere.

Online, Lin avoids uppercase letters and employs a maddening number of scare quotes and brackets. His subject is nearly always himself. ‘feels like i have a “craving” satiable only by [nonexistent activity combining “idly masturbating”/“eating cold carbs”/“screaming loudly”]’ was one of his recent posts to Twitter. He writes poems in a similar style. Collected in you are a little bit happier than i am and the slightly better Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, they read like the occasional, mostly unrevised thoughts of a smart, self-conscious, possibly depressed young American; they can be tiring to read, but are sometimes quite funny. ‘i want to start a band’ expresses the will to power behind that desire: ‘i want my guitarist to be my jealous girlfriend/and i want my drummer to have a secret crush on me/and to communicate her attraction to me through her drum-playing’. These collections seem to be popular with undergraduates.

His fiction is more varied, and more appealing. Admittedly, his first collection of stories, Bed, is frequently overwritten. Lin takes decent metaphors and similes – he describes someone’s university education as being as ‘dully stimulating as tropical fish’, for instance – too far, so that those fish are then ‘darting, slowing, and then not floating to the top but just sort of self-destructing’. On the next page, the character’s mind is ‘fishless and still’ (another arresting phrase), ‘though occasionally something enormous and blurry like the Loch Ness monster would roll through, in a sort of cartwheel’ (sigh). Even so, Lin convincingly portrays the in-between stretches in a young person’s life: the undefined years just after college, the point in a relationship past excitement but before serious commitment. Boredom is a frequent subject, as are (mostly) mild depression and a possibly related feeling of social disaffection; one protagonist experiences life with a ‘kind of gnawing offness’. With their little jolts from lyric to comic to sad, and their jokey, extravagant metaphors for life in general (‘Life wasn’t some incredible movie. Life was all the movies, ever, happening at once. There were good ones, bad ones, some went straight to video’), the stories owe an obvious debt to Lorrie Moore. But there’s a casually apocalyptic mood that seems different: ‘This was the month that people began to suspect that terrorists had infiltrated Middle America,’ the first story begins.

A similar atmosphere hangs over Eeeee Eee Eeee. It’s the story, such as it is, of Andrew, recently graduated from college in New York and living again with his parents in Florida, delivering pizzas for Domino’s. He hangs out with his friends, thinking about his time in New York and his ex-girlfriend there. Occasionally a dolphin or a bear or a moose appears. The dolphins sometimes kill celebrities, Sean Penn and Philip Roth as well as Elijah Wood. Eeeee Eee Eeee seems vaguely adolescent; its ideal reader is probably 18 or 19 years old. (The New York Public Library shelves the book in the ‘Young Adult’ section.) And its long closing scene, in which the unnamed president of the United States joins Andrew and his friends at a sushi place and reveals that he’s an alien before launching into a rambling disquisition about Buddhists and Fernando Pessoa, is half-baked. Still, the book captures the dispirited aimlessness of many recent college graduates in America as well as anything I’ve read.

Eeeee Eee Eeee came out in 2007, a few months before Lin turned 24. Two years later a novella appeared, Shoplifting from American Apparel. In addition to shoplifting, the book’s protagonist, Sam, goes to rock shows and readings and bars, passing the time with a handful of thinly described friends. He also spends hours on Gmail Chat, Google’s instant messaging service. The book opens with a chat between Sam and his friend Luis. Sam has been trying to sleep. ‘God I felt fucked lying on the bed,’ he tells Luis. ‘I played video games,’ Luis says. ‘I killed people for two hours then I got bored.’ ‘This is fucked,’ Sam replies.

In an email exchange published earlier this year, David Gates asked Jonathan Lethem: ‘If I write about people for whom the internet is – as far as the reader can see – peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction?’ If the answer is yes, then nearly every major author in America is now writing historical fiction. Writers seem stuck on the challenge of depicting the seamlessness with which the internet is already woven into our lives. Lin’s solution is to do what writers have done with handwritten letters for centuries. He quotes from instant messaging conversations extensively in both Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates, but he punctuates them the same way he punctuates the other dialogue, and everything is spelled correctly. This sacrifices some degree of verisimilitude – there are no real-life typos, and capital letters (unusually for him) are in the proper places – in order to show that online conversations don’t stand out anymore for many of us; they certainly wouldn’t for Lin’s characters. And they don’t stand out in his prose either.

Lin’s knack for portraying this new reality probably has something to do with his relative youth and his immersion in the web from early in life. He has written that ‘the “information age”, or whatever I am in – defined, currently, for me, as “nearly always having two browsers open with two Gmail accounts, StatCounter, Twitter, Facebook, one or two writing projects, and an iPod and cell phone in use” – is probably not more intense, alienating, or “overwhelming” than a forest, zoo, or Barnes & Noble poetry section.’ But it would be a mistake to overlook the artfulness at work in Shoplifting from American Apparel. Some sections of the book begin with the words ‘About four months later’ or ‘About two months later’ and so on. The construction jars at first, but the aptness of the phrasing becomes clear as you drift through this directionless stretch in the lives of New York twentysomethings. Their entire experience is explicitly determined by chance. Sam seems happiest when he goes to Atlantic City and plays blackjack and walks around a casino. At one point he mentions ‘Chaos by James something’. ‘Yes, chaos theory’, his friend Brandon replies, ‘James Gleick.’ The conversation ends there, abruptly, as most in the book do. Gleick, of course, popularised the ‘butterfly effect’, and many pages later we get this:

Something moved towards Sam’s face and Sam moved very fast.

‘What was that,’ said Joseph laughing.

‘An out-of-control butterfly,’ said Sam.

Lin captures certain qualities of contemporary life better than many writers in part because he dispenses with so much that is expected of current fiction, such as research, or thick description. Though he is the son of immigrants, he doesn’t write multigenerational sagas or dwell on cultural differences. During his wanderings, Sam drinks a lot of iced coffee, a drink that is emblematic of the book’s style: caffeinated but cold, with the literary pedigree of coffee but more than a hint of Starbucks.

Richard Yates has the same style as Shoplifting but a different sort of narrative: rather than wayward drift, we get the sad, inexorable progress of a lopsided love affair. It too begins with a Gmail chat, this time between the two protagonists, who are just getting to know each other. Haley is a writer and recent graduate of NYU; he lives in a room with no windows in a ‘three-person apartment on Wall Street’. Having ‘met’ Dakota online, he’s surprised when she says she’s 16. On the phone a few weeks later, they run out of things to talk about and say ‘hi’ to each other ‘around forty times’. Dakota’s mother, meanwhile, worries that Haley is a creep who will rape her daughter. ‘She thinks everyone on the internet is out to rape everybody,’ Dakota says. ‘What should I do?’ Haley asks. ‘You should rape me out of spite,’ she says. They joke about rape again after actually having sex; depending on where they are, Haley has learned on the internet, he may, in fact, have raped her, legally speaking (the age of consent in New Jersey is 16, in New York 17). Their relationship doesn’t feel illicit; Haley seems, emotionally at least, much younger than 22, and Dakota is fairly mature for 16 (she claims to have been with men older than Haley before). But the talk of rape suggests the imbalance of power that plays out in predictable ways over the course of the novel.

Lin strives for an impersonal tone, but the narrative voice, as in his earlier books, is limited to the consciousness of his alter ego. We sometimes overhear Haley’s thoughts, but never anyone else’s. And it’s not always clear just how free or indirect the discourse is.

Haley Joel Osment held her and thought ‘She lost interest in me, it’s over, I’ll go back to doing things alone in the library every day’ but when she woke they kissed and she loosened his belt and did something to his penis with her mouth and about ten minutes later walking to the train he thought: ‘She wouldn’t have done that if she didn’t want to see me again.’

Is this a deliberate depiction of Haley’s affectless response, or just another example of Lin’s vague, imprecise use of language? He often refers to facial expressions, highlighting the distance between a character’s thoughts and the way he presents himself to the world: ‘He looked at her with a bored facial expression and thought “Gazing at her indifferently” and looked away.’ Such descriptions have appeared in Lin’s previous books. But in Richard Yates the tic has metastasised: Haley’s brother has a ‘calm facial expression’, a stranger has ‘an intense facial expression’. The phrase ‘facial expression’ appears 80 times in the book (one of Lin’s many online acolytes has counted them). It’s an example of Lin’s limitations, but he still has time to learn how to extend his range: he turned 27 in July.