Editor Staff, Fiction, August 15th, 2011
Richard Yates (Tao Lin, Melville House 2010, 208 pages)
A Smalldoggies book review by Rick Klaras
I am admittedly late to the party in reviewing Richard Yates, Tao Lin’s semi-autobiographical novel about the illicit romantic relationship between Haley Joel Osment, an autistic vegan writer, and Dakota Fanning, his under-aged, troubled girlfriend. Because of this, it was impossible to approach it as I would have liked: sequestered away from the media like a murder trial juror and evaluating it based solely on the evidence before me, the book itself.
When I was about halfway through the novel, I even happened to meet a reviewer at a party who had recently written about it, and I couldn’t help but listen to his impression. “I just got done reviewing that awful new Tao Lin book”, he said. “Oh, which one?,” I asked, feigning ignorance. “Richard Yates.”
And there are things about Richard Yates that could be considered obnoxious, at least in a conventional literary sense. The names of two central characters for example, and the way Lin calls the two young lovers by their full, child-actor names over and over and over again. It’s as though the author calculated the maximum number of times that a reasonable person might avoid using personal pronouns and multiplied that magical Goldilocks number by three. Or perhaps it feels that way because of the names themselves. The punctuation and syntax of this novel make it seem as though the whole thing was written and edited in G-chat. But in its own way, it works. I got used to the names. The odd cadences and bad punctuation feel like the disjointed syncopation of your last electronic love affair. And Lin, in his gleeful disobedience of literary convention, captures a certain hushed sub-zeitgeist quite succinctly.
Minimalism is a popular term for Tao Lin’s style of writing. His prose has a cleanliness and economy to it. There is no florid metaphor. Everything is concrete. Everything… is what it is. The tiny details are under a microscope and the big ones glossed over.
Speaking of minimalism, I am reminded of certain composers of the 1960′s and ’70′s who were also dropped into that particular catch-all genre-slot, also alternately hailed and damned as the future or downfall of this or that. The slow accumulation of detail, the gradual shifts in tone, and the repetition made me recall just a hint of the feeling of say, Music for 18 Musicians.
Of course, one can find arguments being tossed around that he is or isn’t a minimalist, or an existentialist, or is or isn’t like this or that author. Such arguments (though I will freely admit my participation in similar ones) tend to make me want to become an animator so I can create the following looping cartoon: There is a man without pants. His head is held high and his nose, aloft. He has an armload of books and is ascending a long flight of stairs. The frame gradually tightens as it follows the man as he climbs and eventually strides right up a gaping asshole. The angle widens. Same man, same armload of books, same staircase, same inevitable asshole. Excuse the digression.
I found myself really enjoying this book. Despite the cool detachment and purposeful quirkiness, it’s tender and genuinely funny, and at times, frightening. Lin has a deft way of capturing the things that pass through one’s head and are never spoken, a keen sense of the protracted scale of time’s passage in one’s youth, and a sharp, understated wit. I understand why some people don’t appreciate Richard Yates, but the 17 year-old in me felt very simpatico with Haley and Dakota as they fumbled, obsessed, shoplifted, fucked things up and tried to fix them, and fell in and out of love and back in again. Is Lin’s work the be-all, end-all future of literature? No such animal. Is it a strong, weird, and crafty enough beast that some of its genes deserve to be passed down?
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Buy Richard Yates now: on Amazon.
Read more reviews about Richard Yates on Goodreads.
Find out more about Tao Lin on his blog.