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May 13, 2017

Tao Lin’s “Richard Yates” impressive and moving

Courtesy Melville House

Author Tao Lin’s world is one in which the enemy has already won. The hopes and dreams of previous generations have been cleaned out for the sake of convenience. Joy is only something that can be found in art and, occasionally, other people. Furthering this issue is the unreliability of others – the very need for others is something which in itself can rarely be filled. While people are willing to share time, the emotional commitment requested, and sometimes needed, is something that others aren’t always able to deliver. People are people and, while intentions can quite often be good, consequences can be quite awful.

With Lin’s latest novel, “Richard Yates,” this world has been conjured up with startling vividness and vitality. While his trademark spare style hasn’t exactly shifted, it has become more focused in a way that simultaneously disturbs and exhilarates on a level not previously reached by this author. The Gmail conversations that he littered his previous book, “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” with have practically taken over in his latest book. It certainly works, but it is unsettling to read.

The book follows the romantic and abusive entanglements of fictional characters 22-year-old Haley Joel Osment and 16-year-old Dakota Fanning. They go to suburban carnivals, walk around New York City, watch “Chungking Express” and have both their most fulfilling and least healthy interactions on the internet. She develops an eating disorder, and it seems like his emotional abuse of her is the cause. But in this world, cause is a tricky thing.

Osment’s thoughts and actions, while certainly not wonderful, do not necessarily go too far off the beaten path of acceptable behavior. His less than desirable actions mainly consist of being in a relationship with a younger person and shoplifting. And yet, as readers, we view each one of his actions as further compounding the emotional crippling of young Fanning. At times, it is quite difficult to read. We are trapped with these two characters who have very few meaningful interactions with people besides each other. It is a terrifying, truthful thing; They feed off each others’ disillusionment.

“Richard Yates” reads like a fresh work from Hemingway. If you allow yourself to believe that he has distanced himself from his characters, then Lin has lifted his admittedly quite off-putting writing to the level of high-art. An accusation that has been leveled against many of the so-called “alt” writers, like Miranda July and Lin, is that they depend on truisms and sweeping statements spoken by their characters, which act as vessels for the ideas of the authors. While this isn’t necessarily an inherently bad thing, one could easily come to view this kind of writing as smug.

But “Richard Yates” isn’t smug at all. It moves with a pulsing vitality. Reading it gives one the feeling one gets when discovering something wonderful and new. It happened last year, when the movie “Moon” came out. People who left that theater were stunned at its amalgamation of science-fiction tropes and meditations on humanity. It has happened again here. Lin has used literary techniques made famous by people like Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, to say something original and fascinating.

Mark Schiffer can be reached at

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