I’m baffled by the back cover of my Richard Yates galley. The relationship between the book’s two main characters–one, the Tao figure, 22, and the other 16–is described three times, in three separate paragraphs, as “illicit,” a heavy-handed enforcement of theme which should hold truck with the novel itself: one would expect, going in, that the scandal which supposedly holds the weight of the novel would actually sustain itself as a scandal. Which happens to be so little the case that it’s kind of funny, this negation of the back cover, and is a fascinating, if unintentional, way of diverting expectations: by Richard Yates failing totally in self-description.
The real book has little, in the end, to do with an “illicit love affair,” at least on my reading; instead, it signifies a deepening, widening and inversion of Tao’s already-honed formula–bored vegans emptying themselves out in the midst of everyone being an asshole–which in this book exposes itself as not exactly formulaic, but as a form, crystallized and repeated, finally reaching its limit, the zero-point at which the tranquility which has always marked Tao’s work becomes its opposite.
In Richard Yates, the bored vegans donning neutral facial expressions–Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment–are themselves the assholes, the lunatics, the destructive forces who are paradoxically almost too self-reflexive, too consumed with themselves, to understand on how profound of a level they’re ruining one another’s lives, and with what intensity they embody precisely the blinkered, “fucked” subjectivity from which they want to be kept safe. Whereas in Shoplifting from American Apparel, Sam was so “cleansed” and emptied that he could welcome whatever happens as what must be, Dakota and Haley, though they evince the same values as Sam, use those values (or, well, Haley, the Tao character, specifically does) to police one another’s lives. They eventually become so embroiled in their relationship that they can’t see beyond it enough to even desire an improvement–or to even see the latter as claustrophobic in the first place. All that Haley wants is Dakota, but his Dakota is only himself. Here is the underside of the “objectivity” scrawled across Tao’s work: to become God, and, loving, to love only what is yours. To love whatever says your name, which is only to love your name. It’s lonely up there.
All of this is, of course, delivered neutrally in the third-person, here a really curious and complex technique. Most of the time we get a melancholic and “twee” mood from Haley and Dakota’s conversations, from what they say and how they say it, and from how they process the events that interrupt or challenge their relationship (for instance, Dakota Fanning’s “overprotective” mother, the novel’s most empathetic character, who is confined to its periphery and drowned out)–a mood for which, for better or worse, one can now rely on Tao, but here he’s undermining and almost mocking that expectation while still fulfilling it. Because, after the first half of the book, that mood is only ever accompanied by the chilling knowledge, the unsaid of what we’ve read, that this mode of relating, vibrant and youthful in its way, is costing these characters their youth. It’s jarring and truly sad, in a wholly new and kind of breathtaking way for Tao, to become caught up in the love between Dakota and Haley, to witness them save one another, only to realize, again and again, that they will be the end to one another, the only thing one another ever loved–or, even worse, could love.
It would be easy to say that Richard Yates is Tao Lin’s best book yet. Others have said it. Plainly, however, it’s not–Richard Yates only proves that Tao’s work, as it should, undoes any pretensions to “best” or “worst.” Each book of Tao’s compounds and confounds the books that have come before it; each book both supplements Tao’s formula and claims that there is none, that Tao’s writing is not formula, but revision and sabotage at once, and of what source material, well, who knows. Who cares, really. Shoplifting from American Apparel is poise achieved deep within the noise of whatever; Richard Yates is the noise, so loud that it goes unheard, coiled at the very heart of that poise.