I’m feeling pretty generous today, so I’m going to extend to Tao Lin a courtesy I’d ordinarily not. I’m going to humor him. For the duration of this post, I’m not even going to so much as roll a single eyeball over his whole “If you don’t get me, you’re obvs too old to understand me” bullshit. But please know this will end with my tongue bloody from restraint.
In order to do this, I need to consider his novel Richard Yates from the perspective that this is artistic social commentary that just happens to use words as its medium, and just happens to be in the size and shape of contemporary fiction. I think this is what Tao Lin wants.
There isn’t anything I would call a conventional plot. It’s not burdened by arcs, or apexes, or climaxes. Rather it is something like a straight line, or an ever-edited pile of similar events. Maybe even a circle. Twenty-two-year-old writer/wanderer/underemployed/shoplifter/vegan/NYU grad Haley Joel Osment and 16-year-old Dakota Fanning have an iRelationship, built and shaped on the sort of inane G-chats that happen between people who are bored. They don’t “talk” so much as “say.” Mostly it’s a collection of silly back-and-forths and plans for when they will meet up again.
Consider the introduction to the characters:
“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.”
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.”
Occasionally Haley Joel Osment (not the one of “Sixth Sense” fame) travels to New Jersey to see Dakota Fanning (not the one of “The Runaways” fame), occasionally Dakota Fanning travels to Greenwich Village to see Haley Joel Osment. They spend their time together walking around, shoplifting, doing it, and eating vegan food. Chat. Hang. Chat about hanging some more. They yawningly toss out suicide wishes.
The closest thing to story escalation comes as Dakota Fanning starts copping to her eating disorder, and actually takes action in her death threats by leaving the house and heading toward the train tracks. Haley Joel Osment becomes more clingy, demanding to know the minute details of how Dakota Fanning has spent her day. It’s a sort of quiet nod to a status-update culture, although this particular piece of art is curiously void of mentions of Twitter and Facebook.
There is a total lack of emotion, both in the prose and in the communication between characters. I think this speaks to the impersonal slash personal connections that come from exchanging information in a way that allows for deletes, and time to consider phraseology. A place where you don’t have to crack a smile to type “LMFAO.” And even when there is face-to-face time, characters express themselves in the limited ways of online communication, verbalizing “I feel embarrassed” and “I feel sad” instead of turning red or making a frowny face.
Part of me thinks that Tao Lin’s cult popularity is, in itself, a ruse. A sort of antisocial entity testing his own peers for what they will admire. He has figured out a way to spiral viral with a quirky personae and a lack of capitalization, and he used it to build a following of emo teens in need of the internet’s version of Jack Kerouac. Someone doing something different in a way that resonates. (Although entire Lin paragraphs could be housed in a single Kerouac sentence). Lin brand-drops, and is heavy on texting, chatting, emailing — more than any other contemporary writers I’ve read. He doesn’t have Bieber fever. He veers obscure, with hints of chain. Cool. He isn’t past tense. He’ll quickly become past tense. But right now he is superduper present tense.
I had a writing professor in college who said that just because you’re writing about being bored doesn’t mean the story has to be boring. I’m looking at you, Tao Lin. This thing is a total repetitious snooze. Again, I think this is his intent: To perfectly convey the limbo of real life. Realistically, more often than not, nothing happens in the course of a day. Sometimes weeks. Two years can pass at status quo: wandering, eating, shoplifting, G-chatting with barely perceptible shifts in the median level of happiness, and little progress made toward achieving goals because those goals are still spongy. Moving toward them is more of a step toward failing than it is a step toward achieving. And it’s so hard to commit to a path when there are so many. Especially at age 22.
Here’s the thing: This isn’t a good novel. At all. It’s dull. The characters are badly drawn and unlikeable in a distracting way. If I didn’t love to hate books so much, I wouldn’t have gotten past the first sentences.
I definitely hated Shoplifting from American Apparel. And really, this one is written in the same key, with all the same ticks. The characters are inter-changeable between the two. But for some reason he is just a little bit more successful at getting his ideas across with Richard Yates. But I’ve seen bathroom graffiti that trumped American Apparel, so that isn’t a huge credit to Richard Yates.
That said, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this collection of words — which means it succeeds on some level. It’s a statement, regardless of if I found the statement a pleasure to read or not. I assure you that thinking about this book is better than reading it. Of course, I could be totally wrong. There is a chance that Tao Lin is just a shitty writer who has gotten lucky. That I’m giving him far more credit than he deserves. Just like his legions of freaky little fans.