Not a review of Richard Yates by Tao Lin

These are some thoughts on Richard Yates by Tao Lin, not a review.

Richard Yates
, like Tao Lin, is mysterious. Despite laying bare huge, intimate parts of his life, I still find reading him like trying to crack a simple but elusive code. In trying to be open, rhetoric-free and honest, Richard Yates is still a very considered work, filled with chance, right down to the quasi-arbitrary title. So it’s hard enough to separate fact from fiction, plain-speaking Gmail from literary rhetoric, let alone crack the Tao Lin code. Oh well. I think that's part of the point, it's certainly part of its charm, if you're into that kind of thing.

Richard Yates has no chapter breaks (it does have an index, interestingly) and reads pretty much like one long conversation between the main characters Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment (for a full breakdown of the reasoning behind the character's names, the autobiographical nature, etc etc check out Tao Lin's site for many proper reviews). Reading it feels like eavesdropping for a really long time on strangers. Being privy to everything, intimacy is inevitable even if you don’t like or understand them.

DF and HJO talk in a very specific, detached and flat way. It’s so relentless I found my thought process towards the book coming to reflect that of the characters. 'I am confused by this, I think. That makes me uncomfortable, probably. I don't know.'

Conversations are often unapologetically mundane and stuttered, but can be funny for exactly those reasons:

He asked if there were more things she had lied about. She said she had to think. She said she was still thinking. After about 2 minutes she said she was still thinking.

They create terms for certain types of people - ‘cheese beasts’ and ‘party girls’ - which I also found funny. But the definition of a ‘party girl’ is one of the most revealing details in the book to me, a

term they had for people who did not speak in a quiet monotone and were not severely detached.'

The fact that this is most other people in the world indicates just how isolated they both feel and make themselves. They have a philosophy of language, of social interaction and values, sex and art built upon HJO’s faith in absolute honesty at the exclusion of all else. The whole book feels kind of like an analysis of it’s successes and ultimate failure. The philosophy, though not necessarily the relationship.

At the end, when HJO and DF’s mother are for the first time not in conflict, but united in trying to cope with DF’s increasingly erratic behaviour, the conversation and style seems to shift into a more straightforward mode. It’s here that the implied ‘honesty’ in their relationship is all-but abandoned, as the scale of DF’s lying is apparent. We leave the bubble of DF and HJO and their language, entering the final, beautifully-pitched sequence that severs the story, and perhaps the relationship, in a way that seems to distil all the mounting ordinariness and emotion up to that point.

Just as HJO demands total honesty from the relationship, Tao Lin has written an apparently honest book, with personal experiences laid bare. But these conversations, and the novel, have been crafted, asking questions of the nature of that honesty. From attempted transparency in their relationship comes spectacular deception. Perhaps because relationships should never be 100% honest, you cannot be one person and mystery maintains interest. Perhaps it’s because character frailty and obsession will always infect your values, whatever they are, no matter how aggressively you enforce them. Perhaps the more aggressively you enforce them.

When HJO uncovers DF's eating disorder and challenges her failure to adhere to the rules they agreed upon, DF’s line perfectly illuminates her problems, their relationship, and the whole book.

I wanted to change and stop throwing up but was afraid to say it because it sounded like a movie.

For her, honesty felt dishonest. The argument ends with a brutal ultimatum from HJO -

Either change or kill yourself. I'm going to sleep.

In response DF, just says she agrees.

I got a sense of peace at the end of the book, a reluctant harmony that felt like this unique and effortfully unconventional relationship melting into all the other relationships that struggle to find a shared state of mind that is strong enough to survive living in the world.

I didn’t know if I would enjoy this book (so many other people haven’t) and in many ways I didn’t. But I found it touching, as intriguing as I hoped, and deserving of much more scrutiny than most things I’ve read recently, and than many reviews have given it credit for. More specifically, unlike Ani Smith I do think I will read it again. It's too mysterious not to.


  1. I don't know how specific I should get as to my history, so to speak, with TL. But I read a few of his blog posts, which I found almost unbearably annoying. I was obsessed with how much he annoyed me for a few days. A friend had the same reaction, and we talked about our feeling of revulsion about not just him but his minions, who slavishly mimic his style. Ultimately, though, I shrugged him off. He can go right on doing his Andy Warhol act, I thought. I could care less.

    Then another friend, who's one of the best-read people I know, posted a review of RY in which he basically praised it. I was shocked. We got together for coffee, and I basically said, WTF? Well, he said, he didn't expect to like the book, and while he was reading it, he kept wondering if TL had any idea what he was doing. Then, at the end, there was no question that he knew what he was doing. There was a method to the madness. And since I respect my friend's opinion, which is bolstered by your review, I may in fact read RY one day. I'm really curious.

  2. Thanks for the comment, DR. It is, without a doubt, a considered process and Tao definitely knows what he is doing. The fury and the adoration both work in his favour I think. I couldn't bear to be immersed in as much controversy, criticism and analysis as he is, but I enjoyed Richard Yates and will continue to enjoy trying to figure him out. He is a talented guy.