Tao Lin’s new novel Richard Yates is by turns frustratingly literal, genuinely insightful, monotonous, charming, plain-faced and sweet. At a little over 200 pages it really only allows room for two characters: Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning (with the latter’s mother occasionally appearing at the periphery), and concerns itself equally with the minutiae of their days and the complexities of their relationship.
Appropriating the names of child actors is just one of many layers of non sequitur Lin employs, arguably starting with the novel’s title. Yates’ work is mentioned on occasion, and it is arguable that Lin is concerned here with some themes similar to those found in the late writer’s stories; just as likely however is that the title and character names, like the cover image, were chosen to exacerbate that feeling of disconnection from which Lin’s characters suffer and with which Lin’s readers are inculcated to empathise. The connections between things here are uncertain, the gravity of cause and effect feels loosened somehow so that the reader feels simultaneously as though floating, ungrounded in the world of Lin’s creation, and swept on by its rhythm and momentum.
The novel is not without plot, and indeed it is a great deal more concrete than the plots found in some of the author’s previous work. Stylistically Richard Yates bears more resemblance to Lin’s 2009 novella Shoplifting From American Apparel than it does to his previous novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007). In an interview with Brandon Tietz, Lin explains his effort towards a more “concrete / literal prose style” for Richard Yates. He gives examples of how a sentence might have appeared differently from one novel to the next:
“Mike got out of the car” in [Shoplifting From American Apparel] would be “Mike left the car” in [Richard Yates] due to “got out” not being literal and being more words.
I have a page from an earlier draft of the novel in which you can see Lin in the process of making these alterations. In the margin he notes that a sentence could be more economically conveyed as dialogue, or strikes through extraneous reportage and notes “Boring”. These slight differences fit with the overall trend away from magical surrealism in Lin’s work over the last couple of years, but Richard Yates still retains moments of Coen-esque unreality:
“My brother emailed me,” said Haley Joel Osment. “He wants to pay me money to live in Connecticut for two weeks to potty train his and his girlfriend’s French bulldog Babo.
Like much of the novel it would be wrong to read the above with what Lin would call a “neutral facial expression” and yet it’s couched within the context of quite a tense exchange, and is followed, five lines later, by a threat of suicide. Also in the aforementioned interview Lin says:
My books that don’t have concretely surreal elements usually feel surreal to me in tone. Real life often seems “dreamlike” to me. I like viewing real life as a dream. I like writing about it as if it were a dream.
Lin’s detractors often criticise his one-note narrative style and his monotonous pacing, but these stylistic elements are also enormously challenging for the reader, who finds themself without the usual crutch of the author indicating to them how to feel. Lin’s style is artfully and meticulously constructed from elements of realism, minimalism, and reportage; seeming to give equal weight to wildly disparate narrative strands it asks the reader to assess relative importance for himself. This is made no easier by the fact that there are a number of fascinating dualities at the heart of Lin’s style: concrete v surrealist; surface detail v interiority; the specific v the vague. Whilst one might consider an economy of words to be one hallmark of Lin’s style, he is also fond of functionless detail, repetition and, in Richard Yates, unfailing use of the characters’ full names. Where he is generous with description it is most often on the level of volume rather than depth: details take precedence over insight, the reader again left to fend for themselves in parsing them. Which isn’t to say that there is objective, capital-M “Meaning” to be found. In a 2007 email to Gawker, Lin writes:
Though all meaning is arbitrary it can still be used as a tool just like arbitrary rules can be created to make life “better.”
This feels demonstrably true in Lin’s fiction. Nothing is given the weight one might expect an author to lend the “message” of his work – you might argue Richard Yates is a novel about loneliness, about discordance in relationships, about forms of communication and miscommunication, about any number of things. If you can resist the temptation to seek meaning however, there is enough enjoyment to be had in getting lost in the novel’s rich seam of detail and gathered up by the tempo of Lin’s prose.
In his ‘Ugly Fish Poem’ (from the 2008 collection Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) Lin writes:
i have wilfully and simultaneously subjected myself to multiple irreconcilable philosophies
It seems that, by treating all things equally in terms of prose tone, Lin allows for the possibility that all things are of equal importance. It is an interesting exercise to approach his novel with this philosophy in mind, and to find that a catalog of petty shoplifting, instant messenger conversations and relationship strife is perfectly capable of subtlety, nuance and indirectly expressed depths of feeling.