[14 September 2010]
American author Richard Yates’ best known work is most likely the 1961 novel Revolutionary Road. While much of Tao Lin’s newest novel, Richard Yates, mirrors that book, I leave it to somebody more well read than I and with the insight required to do that comparison justice.
Rather, what this review shall focus on instead is the dynamic of the relationship of the two main characters and how utterly timeless it is, and timeless in a way that is kind of depressing. Lin, himself only in his late-20s, has already been hailed as a distinctive voice for the so-called “Generation Y”. While this might be true, to simplify things to that level would be a disservice to Lin’s careful dissection of young love and its many prat- and pitfalls, which have themselves failed to change since… well, since forever, as far as this writer can tell.
The two main characters of Richard Yates are named Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment. These are not the well-known child actors, as becomes clear within just a few pages. However, by not only ascribing these names to his protagonists, but then also rarely referring to them by anything but their full names (An average line of prose: “In her room Dakota Fanning asked Haley Joel Osment if he wanted to use the bathroom.”), Lin cements in the reader’s mind how the characters tend to view themselves: players on a vast silver-screen stage. Thus, nearly every movement made, every word said, seems calculated for maximum dramatic effect.
Since Haley Joel Osment’s point of view is the one the reader shares the most, the reader is treated to his calm yet fairly irrational inner monologue at times: “We’re not talking because I’m not talking”; “We are entering the next phase of our relationship”; “She’s different suddenly, power is shifting or something. I feel scared.”
This incessant need to scrutinize and label each and every action and reaction in a budding relationship could be the rightful claim of these 20-somethings, being raised as they have been in an environment where therapy is practically de rigueur and all are encouraged to “talk it out” in one form or another. Personally, though, I would say this mindset is not exclusive to those born after 1980, even if these particular symptoms might be. I have certainly noticed the tendency to dramatize or even catastrophize everyday life in myself and my compeers (for the record, I just turned 33, placing me at the tail-end of “Generation X”), and I would also wager to guess that this quirk goes back at least to when the moving pictures first established their grip on the imagination of the American public. Life is not a dream; life is a blockbuster movie starring you.
Therefore, even the most innocuous scenes are overblown. The young couple never have sex, but instead rape each other (“‘You raped me like ten times,’ said Dakota Fanning”). Dakota Fanning is never overweight or chunky or even fat; she is “obese”. As their relationship begins to unravel, Haley Joel Osment tries to get her to change what he sees as her terrible behavior, telling her, “You should change whether I’m with you or not. Either change or kill yourself. I’m going to sleep.”
What really underpins this inclination to catastrophe is Lin’s extremely matter-of-fact delivery. There are times when it feels like the book is coming down off a teletype. Although Haley Joel Osment is the point-of-view character, insights into his logic are rare. Even when the reader is given a peek into his mind, what he is thinking is simply laid out, never commented upon.
Lin does an excellent job of painting a dialogue-picture of these two characters and allowing the reader to draw from them what he or she will. This either comes out of an innate trust in the reader that he or she will relate to one or both of the characters, or from an incredible boredom with fiction that refuses to even hand over simple physical descriptions of the principles. Perhaps both.
Since this is where Lin takes his chances with the narrative, it may be where he loses some readers. This book is very dry, yet it may tax one’s patience as, say, when one’s friend enthusiastically recreates a disagreement with a spouse or partner. One may be interested or care because it is one’s friend, but on the other hand, one may want one’s friend to just shut up already.
However, if this is the case for a reader, I would encourage that reader to move beyond that as much as possible and take in the whole of what is going on in this story. Young love—forever the sweet subject of pop songs, romantic-comedy films, and acne medicine commercials—can often be a bitter, scarring experience. Richard Yates goes far in not only de-romanticizing the notion of romance but also, on a personal level, does much to remove the “otherness” of the young in general.
This novel is the most compelling peek into the lives of the kids these days—with their iPhones and their internet-dating and their what-have-you—that I can recall having read in recent years, and this notion that young love is not just for the young is something of a relief, I must admit.
Frankly, I’m just glad I’m not the only one who’s been put through this particular ringer. If that makes me selfish, that’s fine.