Author: Tao Lin

2010, Melville House

Filed Under: Literary

Three things helped me fight the urge to employ Tao Lin’s style in reviewing this book:

  1. I’d likely have ended up with an incredibly dull and unimaginative piece of writing
  2. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I feel no need to flatter Tao Lin
  3. Tao Lin imitators (“Linitators” —mine, I think) have sprung up all over the Internet, and all of them suck. This is because nobody can truly capture Tao Lin’s style. Except Tao Lin.

Richard Yates is, at its core, a romcom for the digital native crowd, delivered to us through Gchat, email, text, cell phone and, in an inspired move, by sometimes actually putting the lovers together in the same place. The lovers are 22-year-old Haley Joel Osment (not the cloying actor, but an NYU grad who writes poetry, shoplifts what he needs, and sometimes thinks “about the next three to eight years of his life,” often while wearing “a neutral facial expression”) and 16-year-old Dakota Fanning (not the cloying actor, but a Jersey girl who works at McDonald’s and looks at people with “a sad facial expression,” or sometimes with “a concerned facial expression”). The book’s tagline reads “What constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?”—but don’t expect much to be made of the fact that Dakota Fanning (the characters are always referred to by their full names) is underage. It’s an odd tagline, really—Lin is so deft at making the relationship seem perfectly acceptable that, outside of the occasional reference to the cops, the reader forgets that the young couple is breaking the law.

So, if not a racy Lolita-type narrative, what should the reader expect? Well, if you’ve read Tao Lin before, you already know what to expect—a lot of this:

They walked through the produce area. They walked through the cereal aisle. They sat on a bench in the eye solution area … He petted her hair and looked across the aisle at contact lens solution. He saw the brand he used. He saw other brands.

Also prepare for common Lin themes like veganism, shoplifting, hamsters—and, of course, suicidal tendencies and dispassion (“‘Party Girl’ … was a term they had for people who did not speak in a quiet monotone and were not severely detached”). Lin’s characters play at being unhappy, ironic, and disillusioned, but the reader gets a clear sense that they revel in their lassitude, detached little piglets in shit. Dakota Fanning and (especially) Haley Joel Osment thrive on emotional torture, both of themselves and each other, and to watch it build is equal parts fun and disgusting. In one instance, Haley Joel Osment catches Dakota Fanning in a couple of lies and begins forcing her to account for every moment they spend apart, which culminates in a near five-page email from Dakota Fanning detailing all of the lies she’s made to him over Gchat and email:

I lied the night I was late in the orange dress when I said I would drink half the green tea extract before going to see you. I didn’t want to because I didn’t like how it tasted. I lied when I said I would sell things at the flea market one time. I didn’t do anything to try to do it like tell my mom I wanted to do it so she would know and then drive me there with all my things to sell. I lied when I told you I was taking the green tea pills and drinking soymilk during the time you first gave them to me and I was still in school last year. I wasn’t taking them.

Or, enjoy this Gchat exchange between the two twits:

“I think I’m fucked for college. I don’t know where to go. And I only have an 1100 on my SATs.”

“Don’t worry about that. You’re committing suicide this year probably.”

“Yeah. You’re right,” said Dakota Fanning.

Critics have labeled Tao Lin a minimalist. At times, you can see their point (“Haley Joel Osment said he wanted to sit in a school bus. Dakota Fanning said that was bad. Haley Joel Osment moved toward a school bus”). But Lin the minimalist can also use 107 words to say that Haley Joel Osment goes to a cash machine and back:

He said he didn’t have money. He went outside to find an ATM. He walked a few minutes and found no ATM. He ran across a street into a deli and said “Do you have an ATM?” They did not. It was very sunny outside. Haley Joel Osment was sweating. “I don’t know,” he thought. “I should be able to find an ATM.” He walked across two streets. He saw an ATM. He entered his PIN and cash left the ATM and he calmly moved it into his pants pocket. He walked and ran to the restaurant with a neutral facial expression. Dakota Fanning was eating porridge.

But it’s smooth and readable, isn’t it? That’s the thing about Tao Lin. You want to be frustrated with his decisions. You want to say, “Nobody needs to use 107 words to describe an action that doesn’t merit any goddamn page time in the first place.” You want to say, “Give me some characters I can sink my teeth into; not this disaffected rabble.” But you don’t say those things. You simply ride the story out, and when you reach the end you shrug. You put the book away, and you realize that you feel about Lin’s novels much the same way the characters feel about their lives—they’re nothing to get excited about, and they certainly have their flaws … but they’re better than nothing. Once in a while, they even make you smile.

Profiles of Lin are popping up everywhere, and many literary pundits are asserting that Richard Yates will vault him from the underground into the mainstream. Some even claim that Lin is quietly become one of the more important voices of his era.  I just don’t see it. I can’t imagine Richard Yates or Shoplifting from American Apparel (much less Eeeee Eee Eeee) being assigned in college lit courses fifty years from now. Lin is good at what he does, and as more and more Lin imitators crop up, his style will become more widespread. And Lin probably will continue to be the voice of this newer brand of literature, this disaffected maximalist minimalism. I just don’t think it will ever develop into a major movement.

Besides, Tao Lin’s characters would hate to be mainstream. Not that they’d express an interest in keeping themselves alive long enough to get there.

Similar: Shoplifting from American Apparel (Tao Lin); probably any Gchat you’ve ever had.