I Have This Friend, He Has a Problem: TFT Review of Richard Yates by Tao Lin
I presume Richard Yates is a novel about Tao Lin’s sad and terrifying relationship with a high school student thinly veiled as a novel about Haley Joel Osment, a twenty-something writer with vegan tendencies living in New York City, and Dakota Fanning, some girl struggling with puberty (well, she’s 16) living in New Jersey.
The relationship documented in Richard Yates is exactly as warped and full of mind games as any relationship I’ve ever been in. Haley Joel Osment is selfish, insecure, controlling, and says things like, “Did you do anything today that you haven’t told me?” And Dakota Fanning is weak, unstable, immature, and apologizes after orgasm. Their dialogue throughout the book is redundant and circular, revisiting topics such as when and how a visit will take place or what each of them has stolen from a store to give to the other. They are two unlikable characters with very few redeeming qualities (although it is cute that they both talk about suicide as if it were a hobby) involved in one pathetic, awkward, long-term, semi-long-distance relationship.
Richard Yates is full of mundane facts about annoying characters who are too complicated for a clear narrative and don’t really want or expect you to understand anyway, but that is precisely why it is so engrossing. They’re like the people you’ve been forced to be around since you were a little kid, and even though you have nothing in common with them, you can’t help but feel something like love towards them. Richard Yates has the strange balance between authentic/tedious/bizarre that trashy reality shows have, at once boring and impossible to stop watching. I finished Richard Yates in a day, taking it to work with me, to the toilet, to my friend’s house, and into the bathtub.
It is difficult to understand why the two characters are attracted to each other, what is keeping them together, or how they met. But they are clearly obsessed with one another, and also obsessed with their own obsession, which leads to dialogue such as:
I can predict what is going to happen. I predicted it before and every time I lectured you. [...] I can also predict that you will probably try a little harder since I said I can predict. And maybe do something I can’t predict, until the next time I say it. There’s really nothing you can say anymore. I wouldn’t know what to say. I would think that there is something really wrong with one of us.
I’m uncomfortable thinking that the dialogues in Richard Yates were Lin’s real-life thoughts and instant messages at one point, and that he made the decision to publish them knowing how creepy and selfish they make him look, and without adding details that might present Lin in a more appealing light or make the relationship seem worthwhile.
There are many details about Osment/Lin’s professional life that are obviously intended to make the reader suspect that it is autobiographical. The characters think about writing a book about how to shoplift from American Apparel, for instance, and put things on eBay. I’m guessing/hoping that part of Lin’s reason for publishing Richard Yates is that he felt some kind of guilt for treating a person this way, especially a person so young and already prone to emotional problems, and hoped that publishing the story would help alleviate some of that guilt by opening the doors to criticism and judgment. But there is something confusing and creepy about being hard on the character representing yourself, and exposing selfish and pathetic parts of your personality, but then applying various gimmicks to throw the reader off such as giving himself a cutesy celebrity name and giving the book a title that makes no sense. It sort of reminds me of how people say, “I have this friend, and he has a problem…” and you know you’re supposed to have this pretense that everything you say means something else, but at the same time the pretense is totally transparent.
In that way, Richard Yates is a cry for help cleverly disguised as a cry for help. Tao Lin basically just published the transcription of an entire relationship, which would probably be difficult, shameful and relieving for anyone. All he has to do now is sit back and watch all the free therapy come in via book reviews and critical analysis.
Art by Antonia Blair.
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