I recently read the novel Richard Yates by Tao Lin. By the time I finished the first 100 pages, I found myself thinking, "This is the worst book I have ever read." There was no plot, no character arc, not even an apt simile or metaphor or interesting turn of phrase. I got angrier and angrier as I continued to read, and more and more convinced that I was right about this being the worst book I had ever read.
It wasn't until several days after I came to the completely unsatisfying conclusion to Richard Yates (I'm not exaggerating when I say I nearly flung the fucking thing across the room in frustration) that I began to question my reaction to the book. My own devil's advocate started turning against me. Was there something worthwhile in Richard Yates that I missed? Why did I think it was the worst book I'd ever read?
I'll get this out of the way: I'm not going to discuss Tao Lin the person - or more accurately, the persona. In short, he's young, he's weird, and many people love him passionately and others hate him passionately. (Maybe more of the latter.) I'm not interested in writing a tirade against Tao Lin. Those kinds of blog postings are out there.
After thinking it through for a while, I came to the conclusion that the biggest reason I felt so frustrated with Richard Yates was that I felt duped. I'd never read anything by Tao Lin before, so I had no frame of reference on his work before reading Richard Yates. But a few of his books are always laid out on the featured table at my favorite place in the world, and they always caught my attention in a maybe-someday-I'll-read-one sort of way. So one day I picked up Richard Yates, and read the opening pages. The book begins like so:
"I've only had the opportunity to hold a hamster once," said Dakota Fanning on Gmail chat. "Its paws were so tiny. I think I cried a little."So, at that point, I'm thinking, at least this is different. I'd never seen a Gchat conversation used in a book before, and I was curious about the characters names. (As you can probably glean, the book isn't about the real-life Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment. Those are just the names that Lin gives them.)
"I saw a hamster eating its babies," said Haley Joel Osment. "I wanted to give it a high-five. But it didn't know what a high-five is."
"I would eat my babies if I had some. I don't have any babies."
I flipped the book over and read the back cover, where one question is framed in a yellow highlighted background: "What constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?" Certainly an attention-grabber. When I initially read this, I took it as a promise of the kind of question the book might take a shot at answering. Having finished the book, I now understand it for what it really is - namely, the publisher's cheap attempt at selling a few more copies. This book is not about illicit sex, nor is it even about "a generation," let alone one presumably "with no rules." Sure, it's a little weird that the 22-year-old Haley Joel Osment is having a relationship with the 16-year-old Dakota Fanning. But this is hardly the central question of the book, if there is such a thing as a central question (or any sort of coherent answer) in Richard Yates.
So what is the book about? Well, that opening passage I quoted for you? That is pretty much how the entire novel reads. What at first seems quirky or stylistically unusual eventually reveals itself for what it is - a cheap gimmick. (Not to mention the overall style of the writing, which I suppose some would call minimalist, but I would call lazy. The phrase "a neutral facial expression," as in "He looked at Dakota Fanning with a neutral facial expression," appears about a half-dozen times.) More than half of the novel plays out in pointless gchat conversations. In the remaining portions, they get together and hang out and do boring things and occasionally argue about nothing. And Lin does little to grant any sort of meaning or subtext to the banal, irritating, circular arguments that Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning get into. Here's an excerpt from one of the novel's most insightful moments:
Dakota Fanning left the room holding a towel. "She left without saying anything," thought Haley Joel Osment and lay on her bed and covered his head with a blanket. "If I don't say something about that we'll be less considerate and have lower expectations. If I do say something I'll be less good at accepting disappointments. I want to be more accepting. But I also want to be more considerate." He thought about never complaining. He thought about complaining about everything. Dakota Fanning came in the room. Haley Joel Osment went in the bathroom and removed his clothes and stood naked in the bathtub sunlight. "I just need to feel good all the time," he thought.If you're thinking of reading Richard Yates, I encourage you instead to think of the most boring, unhappy couple you know. That couple that you never want to invite to a party, not because they'll make a scene, but because they're always stuck in some quiet argument about something really really stupid, and more or less drag down the cosmic energy in every room they enter. Ask that couple if they will let you read their text messages and Gchat conversations for a couple months. Ask them to list every single mundane thing they do for those same two months. You'd get a much clearer insight into the human condition than you would out of any passage of Richard Yates. Not even my own devil's advocate can convince me otherwise.