Tao Lin Reading – Richard Yates
What the hell is going on when Tao Lin reads at the same type of corporate bookstore from which his “protagonist” steals books in his new novel, Richard Yates? Why does Lin’s muddled, muffled, painfully awkward high school sophomore-on-Xanax voice sometimes feel like an act, and Yates is his alibi? How is it that none of this matters, that Richard Yates might be an important comment on modern life, or it might be a hybrid cash-in novel based on a copy/paste transcript of a melodramatic Gmail relationship?
I’m stumped. There seems to be something going on here, but I’m not intelligent enough to suss it out. Three weeks I’ve struggled with this constipated idea and now I need to shit it out.
Richard Yates initially felt like a bad joke. It was as frustrating and pointless as E3E5E4 was refreshing and disturbing. Yates lacks most of the absurdist beauty and humor that Eeeee Eee Eeee celebrated, banking instead on the irredeemably self-possessed and corpulent characters whose moaning about their respective psychic struggles literally never end. The novel dumped us where we started; presumably, the narrator will go back to the bulimic, self-abusing, possibly suicidal possibly attention-starved high school love interest whose seemingly pointless movements and actions shape the novel’s “plot.”
The voice mimicked the lifeless hum of Lin’s reading, or maybe the other way around. Lin’s flat delivery during his truncated appearance in front of a crowd of about 30 got a few nervous laughs. It also forever became, for better or worse, the voice I hear when I read Lin’s books.
Had I not overheard the spacey conversation between the author and a few supportive friends at Barnes & Noble, prior to the reading, I might’ve thought Lin’s blank-faced monotone was the result of a dare or a drug. Some industry people have claimed that Lin either flat-out pretends or up-plays his monotone personality to ingratiate himself with his core audience and sell more books. Whatever the case, Lin’s brief reading from Richard Yates was refreshing in its break from the usual choice of “gregarious bonhomie” or “quiet awe at what I have wrought” that most authors project.
I got the feeling that we are meant to read Yates with a monotone inflection. That its stony-faced seriousness is meant to be undercut by some of its labored humor. The monotone also emphasizes the humor in naming the protagonist and his young lover “Haley Joel Osment” and “Dakota Fanning” — pseudonyms, supposedly, for Lin and a former lover.
Lin took questions from the audience and never once entertained a bad question. He seemed to be interested in exact meanings, playing with language by refusing to engage in some cultural conversational niceities. He didn’t let the audience off the hook simply because we weren’t as intelligent. He spoke briefly about the novel’s origin from a Gmail chat log between himself and a former lover, that she’d still been in touch even after the novel’s release.
What are we to make of the claim that this is based on reality? Does it change anything? Does it make the plodding, desultory pace and plot worth more? What about reading it as a “reality show book” whose sum calls to question the novel as an accurate representation of living, a comment on the banality of everyday life and the silliness of the traditional construct of a novel, what we as readers expect from that construct?
Maybe. There’s tragedy in the protagonist’s frustration with face-to-face interactions, surprise consequences from unintended meanings in conversations, and the difficulty of expression, honesty, and reciprocity. It’s also impressive that Lin’s subtle maneuvers convince readers to empathize with a character who we’d previously hoped would embrace her suicidal tendencies, if only to stop the whining for a few minutes.
It’s drab, often boring and aimless, but that’s probably the point. Look back on your recent Skype, AIM, or Gmail chats and see how often you slip into any one of those characteristics. These chats are tangible evidence of our everyday boring, depressing selves. Would I want to read a novel whose basis relied on my last bitch session to my significant other? No, but Lin might have the skill to take us there.
Perhaps this novel wasn’t written “for” me. Research tells us that Tao Lin is a darling of young males whose blogs are littered with drug anecdotes and the word “fuck.” Is this a new wave curling off the foam of young writers who idolized Carver and drank heavily believing that a tortured soul and a swollen liver are prerequisites for a writing career?
While I’m guilty of overusing “fuck,” and I’m still a fan of Lin’s early work, I ultimately couldn’t enjoy Yates. Throughout my time reading the book I was haunted by an image of Mr. Lin and his friends laughing at me for giving this a serious read. Like he took a bet that he could not only get his publisher to print a Gmail chat log, but that thousands would buy it and proclaim its brilliance.
Again, I think there’s something great going on underneath all of this. Tao Lin is too damn good of a writer for there not to be. Living amongst “meta” and “viral” and “shameless self-aggrandizement” has turned me cynical, wary, and frightened, however. I want to see the brilliance; I think it could be there, but I don’t believe I’ll ever enjoy the act of reading it.
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