Richard Yates is not as terrible as descriptions of it might lead you to believe... and nine more thoughts on the new book by the hipster author.
1. Richard Yates is not as terrible as descriptions of it might lead you to believe. Yes, the main characters are, for some oblique reason, named after child actors, and the bulk of the novel consists of Gmail chat transcripts, but this proves to be an apt method for exploring contemporary modes of intimacy.
2. When I started, I thought I would finish the book in a few hours. It ended up taking days. It seems designed to retard reading, so you experience time dragging. This is formally appropriate, given that the characters' consciousness of boredom, their fear of it, is a primary theme. The book didn't bore me so much as make me ask myself, as the characters often do, "Am I bored?"
Author: Tao Lin
Publisher: Melville House
Publication Date: 2010-09
Length: 208 pages
3. Despite its frequent references to "neutral facial expressions" and the like, the book is not nearly as affectless as, say, a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet. We are frequently in the head of the male character, whose thoughts reveal him as a discerning connoisseur of ambivalence.
4. Though it is about a relationship between a putative adult in his 20s and a teenage girl, Richard Yates is not testing the boundary between being exploitative and interrogating the idea of exploitation, à la the Harmony Korine film Gummo. Both works, however, are interested in underparented, self-styled outcasts, as well as the various forms self-harm and self-exploitation can take. Media technologies have vastly expanded the possibilities and modalities. But whereas Korine seems preoccupied with destroyed innocence, Lin focuses on the communication process itself as entropic.
5. The novel may be meant to be darkly funny, and a few sentences here and there are clearly deadpan jokes, but mainly it evokes a grim atmosphere of cloying despair. It doesn't read like a satire on the relationship it meticulously chronicles (as I first thought it would when I salvaged it from a free pile), the characters are not parody figures to laugh at. Instead, they are convincingly rendered depressed people whose obsessional relationship with media serves to intensify their sense of isolation rather than relieve it.
6. The 1970s brought us the culture of narcissism; if Richard Yates is any indication, the 2000s have apparently taken us into the culture of borderline personalities. Lin may be suggesting that psychotic mood swings, personal-space invasions, boundarylessness, an irresolvable abandonment issues have become endemic, structurally induced. The sort of subjectivity engendered by social media in a consumerist age have these properties built in to it. Borderline behavior is the new normal for digital natives.
7. The relationship in the novel suggests that technology, convenience (of communication and as a general value), and constant connectivity have conspired to make love impossible. Instead, endless scrutiny and disappointment. Every moment can be one of surveillance, of thwarted expectation: Why didn't you text? Why didn't you take a picture and send it to me? Why didn't you record me a song with GarageBand? Why didn't you find out everything worth knowing about my hobbies? Why didn't you leverage mobile technologies to monitor yourself enact deep and lasting personality changes?
8. The relationship in the novel is revealed to be made up of memes, which are subject to the same life cycle as they are in the media generally. What results is that the signs that signify intimacy between the two are rapidly exhausted or turned into cliches. The dedication to producing new intimacy memes only accelerates the process of their exhaustion, making each of them more emotively feeble even as they are more time-consuming and elaborate. General feelings of inadequacy ensue. These mirror the sense of inadequacy we feel when confronted with the volume of compelling information presented to us online. Just as there is no keeping up with all we can and would very much like to know, there is no keeping up with what love now can potentially be.
9. I only have the galley, but if the actual book contains the promised index, then that's brilliant. It's probably the most powerful thing in the whole novel, a parting shot reminding readers how connectivity and the online milieu makes a relationship into a catalog, into a list of things. Individuals can be analyzed into a variety of cultural reference points and gestures, and strangers can access only those which are relevant to them. (The novel's title is more or less a random item out of the index of all the indexable phenomena mentioned in the book.) The ineffable qualities of emotional experience that could escape being anatomized in this way simply vanish; unquantifiable qualities no longer register.