Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Richard Yates - Tao Lin

This will be one of the last posts on Flying Houses for a long time. A friend of mine recently told me that I should spend more time studying and less time blogging since studying involves the financial investment. But I requested this book and I am not going to be negligent when it comes to following through on promises.

Yes, perhaps a bit of personal narrative is in order before this official review begins, since it is such a serious occasion. I requested a copy of Richard Yates from Tao Lin's publicist on July 6, 2010, approximately 5 weeks before I would move to Brooklyn for law school. I knew I would receive the book in my new apartment in Brooklyn, and I knew there would be law school assignments, and I knew it would appear negligent if I blogged about underground literature instead of reading and briefing cases. But I did it anyway because I knew it was the last chance I would have to do an advance review of a relatively highly-anticipated new title.

I will not be interviewing Tao as I did for previous reviews of Eeeee Eee Eeee and Shoplifting from American Apparel. Not that I don't want to, but again, time, and negligence. I received Richard Yates in my apartment foyer on Monday, August 16. There were two packages from Melville House* and I was just out of my 2nd day of "preliminary" law school classes. I was very depressed. I was thinking that there was no way I could possibly survive the next three years. It would not be sustainable. In this depressed mood, I immediately began reading Richard Yates, which is usually the best time to read books by Tao Lin. I read for an hour and made it through roughly 1/4 of the book and then decided it was time to go get drunk and watch a movie on Netflix. It was Comedians of Comedy and I laughed very much. Sometimes I would go outside and smoke a cigarette. I would put my iPod boombox by my window and play music and go outside and sit outside my window on a stoop and listen to the music and smoke. It came time to go to bed and I began having a nervous breakdown. Sometime around three or four o'clock in the morning I fell asleep. Then I woke up around 6:30 am or so and resumed having a nervous breakdown, and I opened up my word processor and did a free-write about the inevitability of my decision to suicide. This put me in a weird manic mood, and I went to shower and then went to another set of preliminary classes around 8:15 am.

Several hours later, the nervous breakdown had been quelled, and I enjoyed a calm lunch in the school cafeteria while reading Richard Yates. Then later I smoked a cigarette in the school's gated entrance and read more of Richard Yates. I was enjoying it very much.

I did not read any more of it on Tuesday night. I watched two movies on Netflix after being at a bar for a school outing--The Trials of Henry Kissinger and The Cruise (the latter of which I had seen before and should be required viewing for anyone living in New York City), also while drinking more beer and continuing to smoke cigarettes in this manner.

This morning, Wednesday, I resolved not to smoke any cigarettes or drink anything alcoholic. I went to the bookstore and waited forty-five minutes to get my books and was very frustrated but then happy it was over. I went to a pizza place for lunch and read more of Richard Yates, but only a few pages. Then I went into the school library and read a few more pages of Richard Yates. Then I went to class, and then I came home, and I resolved to finish reading the rest of Richard Yates. I also received a chapbook from Jordan Castro today and think I will try to review it as the last true blog post for a long time.

And I finished reading Richard Yates around 7:05 PM and it is now 7:35 PM. So, I suppose we can begin then?

Richard Yates is a very narrow book. It is about one thing, and one thing only: a relationship between a 16-year-old named Dakota Fanning and a 22-year-old named Haley Joel Osment. It is perhaps worth noting that Tao Lin does not attempt to seriously recreate the lives of these celebrities. Haley Joel Osment (hereafter referred to as HJO) is a graduate of New York University who spends a lot of time in Bobst Library and lives on Wall St. Dakota Fanning (hereafter referred to as DF) is a high-school student living in Secaucus, New Jersey. They meet on the internet and quickly begin dating and take buses and trains to visit one another.

It is about that one thing only, but within that, it is about many other things: self-mutilation, bulimia, health food stores, sex, lying, G-chat, movies, emo bands, and writers like Lorrie Moore and Richard Yates--in short, par for the course for a Tao Lin novel. I don't begrudge Tao for writing about the same topics. I have written enough to know that certain themes become obsessive to certain writers, and there is no shame in repetition, so long as it offers something new.

And I have been looking forward to this book for a couple years now and I predicted that it would be Tao Lin's most mainstream effort yet, and in certain regards I am right and in certain regards I am wrong. Tao does branch out into a more detailed "consistent" "straightforward" narrative than he has in the past. It is much more focused on the characters and there are no tangents that make little sense, as in Eeeee Eee Eeee. And I think technically, the rough draft of this novel was finished before Shoplifting from American Apparel was written, and then this novel was edited heavily after that novella was finished.

And perhaps that holds the key to my feelings. In a sense, I appreciate what Tao is trying to do with this book. But in another sense, I could not get into it as much as his previous two long-form prose works. Perhaps it is because I was rushing through it because I was in law school.

Here is my problem with it, essentially: it does not need to be a novel. I do not want to say that but it is the way I feel. I think it would have made an excellent short story, or a very good novella, but as the longest book he has done yet (not sure on this, but it seems longer than Eeeee Eee Eeee) it tends to drag. HJO and DF are two of the most interesting characters he has portrayed yet, but their story is too narrowly-focused.

So I went through periods where I thought the book was great, and periods where I thought it was not so great. My opinion depended on my mood, and the book could not distract me from present circumstances. Some people have been giving it bad reviews and not even reading to the end. I read to the end but I think the strongest parts are in the first 120 pages. It is in the last 80 pages that most of the "climactic" scenes occur, but I found HJO and DF's conversations becoming too repetitive, and almost too pointless. I do like how HJO wants to help DF near the end despite his weakening feelings for her. And I like the scene where they make funnel cakes at the carnival, and I like the scene where they go to Epcot, and I like the scene where they dye DF's hair black and she "turns goth." I also enjoy the references to self-mutilation and bulimia and Ernest Hemingway biographies and Nicholas Sparks for personal reasons.

There are many little moments in this book that are nice, but on the whole, I did not find it as interesting as Lin's two previous novels. Something has been made about this book being autobiographical and if that is the case then I understand why Tao felt that it needed to be published. I do not think everything in this book really happened. Or maybe everything in this book did happen, but certain details about people are skewed. I can't tell, and it doesn't really matter either way. It is fiction. And while I would love to give Tao positive reviews from here until the end of days, I can only half-heartedly recommend this novel.

It is worth reading for its "experimental" aspect for Tao Lin personally. It is more straightforward, in a sense, but it is also just like his previous work in that description is totally eschewed in favor of maximum repetitive action with repetitious objects. The element I like most is its "realist bent."

This is a minutely-detailed (though not deeply descriptive) account of a relationship that rings true. You feel that you are reading about a "real relationship" that might prove educational in some way. But it is only educational if you are a 22-year-old going out with a 16-year-old and all of the weird things that come with it. Neither HJO or DF is very mature, but obviously HJO has a slightly more complete view of life. The tagline for this book is, "What constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?" I am not sure I like it, and it does not seem like Tao wrote that tagline, but I may be wrong. Regardless of whether or not I like it, the implication is that this book is an exploration of that sort of "illicit sex" and one gets the impression that it will be "titillating." But it is not titillating at all, even with more than a few scenes of sexuality. There is lots of G-chat. I think maybe more than 50% of this book's content is in the form of G-chat. The rest is extremely dialogue-heavy, and most of the dialogue seems almost meaningless.

I haven't read any books by Richard Yates, but I did see the movie Revolutionary Road and that was a narrowly-focused narrative on one relationship. Perhaps his other books are like that, and this is Tao's homage to him. If so, that is fine, that is nice. Hemingway wrote The Torrents of Spring to make fun of Sherwood Anderson.

So maybe there is a deeper layer to this book that I can't quite see, but taken on its own terms, I feel that is lacking in something, or that there is too much of nothing in it. I do believe it would make a great short story, and if it were edited down to just a few essential scenes instead of an exhaustive diary of every conversation (most glaringly, the four-page paragraph where DF tells HJO every single time she has lied to him in a long e-mail, which is either the best or worst part of the book, depending on your view), I would have liked it much more. Such as it is, I am glad I read it, I am glad I reviewed it during this tumultuous time in my life, and I look forward to reading whatever else Tao Lin's next project will be. Shoplifting from American Apparel was "roughly" written after this, and it is my favorite thing by him so far, so whatever he has been working on for the last year, or whatever he will be working on for the next year, I think, will continue to improve. This does seem a bit like an object from a time-capsule despite its latter-day editing. I remember reading a blog post by Tao Lin a long time ago saying he was going to write a novel about Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment and thinking that it was a joke. Imagine my surprise when I read the plot descriptions for Richard Yates.

This novel isn't a joke though. It's a serious attempt at something different, and I respect that. One can learn something from it. Sometimes exhaustive recitation of events and conversations do not automatically make for compelling literature. I have been guilty of this (and am still guilty of this, at times) so I understand the motive behind it. But without any deeper significance, or any hints of deeper significance, the reader finds themselves lost, and wonders why this information was so important to communicate.

*I received two copies of Richard Yates because I requested one from the publicist and then entered Tao's contest, which gave a copy of the novel as an award to all legitimate participants. I have an extra copy so if anyone wants it, I will send it to them, but I would prefer for them to live in Brooklyn Heights so I don't have to mail it.


herocious said...

I agree with this review. It was elegantly put and fair.

I have trouble thinking RY is a novel. I think it is more of a script to a very dull movie that isn't capable of speaking to more than TL and his interns.

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