Caitlin Constantine's Reviews > Richard Yates

Richard Yates by Tao Lin
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Aug 22, 10

Read from August 17 to 22, 2010

If it were possible to give a book zero stars I would have done it for this one. I cannot think of a time I have hated a book this much. I have read a lot of things that indicate Tao Lin is the future of American creative writing, that say he is one of the most widely imitated writers in MFA programs, etc etc. I would imagine that it's because his writing style, which consists of nothing more than declarative sentences that state action and dialogue as it happens, is very easy to imitate. Why bother with craft and wordplay and love of language when you can just write everything as if it is a gmail chat conversation?


That wasn't even my biggest problem with the book. No, my biggest problem with the book is that it is about a twenty-something writer from New York City who takes up with a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs and engages her in a destructive romantic relationship that implodes, but only after months of controlling, dominating behavior on his part. The female character, named Dakota Fanning, develops bulimia because the male character, Haley Joel Osment (are you puking yet?), says he doesn't find her physically attractive because she's chubby. He then strictly monitors her food and exercise, and when he finds out that she lies to him about things like binging and purging, he begins demanding that she give him minute-by-minute recountings of her days and interrogates her when he picks up on a single discrepancy. He is a straight-up abusive boyfriend, and we read about it from his perspective, which is that they are just this tragic, doomed couple when really he's a controlling fuckwit who cannot see past his obsessions with veganism and shoplifting to regard his girlfriend as a human being with her own agency for one bloody second. Lin seems to have no understanding of the actual dynamics at play, of the power imbalances, of the fact that treating another person like your own personal home-improvement project is a shitty thing to do.

(I've seen some say that they thought DF was as much to blame for the dysfunctional relationship as HJO, because of the lying, which betrays just how little they understand about emotional abuse. When someone is constantly leaning on you to do this or do that or be this way or be that way in order to make that person happy, and you fail to live up to those standards, if you are entrapped in the cycle of abuse, you will more likely than not lie rather than incur the wrath of the other person.)

In short, it was a poorly-written novel about a guy who abuses his teenage girlfriend. I did not find it funny or hugely intelligent or hilarious or any of the descriptors I've seen used to describe it in reviews. And this is not because I don't enjoy experimental literature. I've read some Kathy Acker and some Miranda July and I liked both. But I do not enjoy experimental literature when it is so lacking in heart, soul or understanding of actual human beings.

I recommend this for no one. Read at your own peril.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Alice (new)

Alice Great review, thanks for the warning!

message 2: by Callum (last edited Aug 25, 2010 04:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Callum This is a nicely-written review, but I feel that there are some key issues here.

Firstly, yes, it is very easy to imitate Tao Lin's style. It is also very easy to imitate, say, Dostoevsky's style (his writing was criticised, in his time, for being unrefined and careless). More difficult, as you'll know if you've had the misfortunate of coming across the droves of writers on the internet who imitate Lin (only a handful of whom are not terrible), is to pull it off — to do it well.

I feel that this book does it well. Lin's prose, here, at its extremity of refinement, reads like a script for a play to be directed in the mind: mostly dialogue, its sparse detailing and succinctly-communicated action providing just enough context to suggest the motions and emotions in which the character's words are embedded. It works to varying degrees, certainly, but it works.

My second issue with your review lies in the matter of HJO's abusive behaviour.

Just so that we're clear, I found it as repulsive as you did. I make notes in my books as I read, and for about 80 pages of Richard Yates they mostly consisted of expressions of horror, anger or sadness at his blinkered dictatorship (and her dismaying submissiveness). Reading those pages was, for me, a genuinely unpleasant and unsettling experience.

Where I disagree with you is your implication that this makes the book less good/recommendable. It does not. It makes its characters more dislikable. I find myself being drawn towards another Dostoevsky comparison, which is absurd, because he and Lin share little in common. You seem to have uncovered the precise areas of their overlap.

You say that "Lin seems to have no understanding of the actual dynamics at play, of the power imbalances, of the fact that treating another person like your own personal home-improvement project is a shitty thing to do." This is an inadvisable statement at best. What suggests this? Certainly, there is some ambiguity — HJO, obviously, is just a retelling of Tao Lin himself four years ago. Nonetheless, it is not clear that he has no idea of his actions' "shittiness". HJO, on at least three occasions, actually expresses vague reservations about his behaviour, an awareness of its negativity, and a desire to change. Would Lin have written those thoughts, looking back over the years, had he not become more aware of his cruelty? Maybe yes, maybe no. The fact remains, though, that there is nothing in this novel to suggest either way — at least where authorial intent, or perception, is concerned. Your assumption is groundless, and seems to imply more of an emotional reflex than a considered response.

Returning briefly to my allusion to a second Dostoevsky parallel, I would say that the experience of a novel (or any other created object) does not have to be uniformly pleasant or positive to have ultimately been a "good" or "worthwhile" experience.

I have more points than I thought. You refer to the "understanding of actual human beings". I think that something this novel does (although I'm not sure yet that it could be said to do it well) is to highlight the disparity of humanity. We are not some heterogeneous lump to be "understood" at a sweep. This novel illustrates the inability of certain human beings to understand other human beings. Your review leaves me uncertain that you've understood that.

I'm also surprised that you didn't find it at all funny. There were some very witty bits in the first 100 pages of the book, before it all became crushing and horrific.

Anyway, I'm ~15 pages from finishing right now. I'm not necessarily making any qualitative judgements about the novel as a whole, yet. I just think that the reasoning behind yours is flawed.

Sorry for the rambliness.
I'm going to go and read those last 15.

Caitlin Constantine Donald wrote: "This is a nicely-written review, but I feel that there are some key issues here.

Firstly, yes, it is very easy to imitate Tao Lin's style. It is also very easy to imitate, say, Dostoevsky's style ..."

Hey Donald, wow, thanks for the thoughtful response! I appreciate you taking the time to write this out. You have definitely made me think more about this book and to understand that maybe I was so turned off by the characters and the writing style that I was having a hard time giving it deeper analysis. I don't have to love characters in a book - in fact, on the Rumpus Book Club email list I make the point that many of my favorite books are centered around protagonists who are deeply flawed and even despicable - and while you are asked to empathize with them to the extent that you see the world through their eyes, I always get the feeling that the author realizes their character is a bit of a shitball. If Tao Lin was conveying that in this book, it completely eluded me. But again, that might also be because I spent the last half of the book in a total rage. If his point was to have the reader enraged by HJO's behavior, then I guess he succeeded.

(Forgive the incoherence of this response. I was up til 1 a.m. dealing with primary election stuff, and I have only just begun my second cup of coffee of the day.)

Thanks again for your thoughtful response. I still don't like the book but you definitely made me think about it some more.

Callum Caitlin wrote: "Donald wrote: "This is a nicely-written review, but I feel that there are some key issues here.

Firstly, yes, it is very easy to imitate Tao Lin's style. It is also very easy to imitate, say, Dost..."

Thank you for the decency of your response, Caitlin. I was also a little foggy when I wrote my comment, having just woken up — I'm not sure what the timestamp will look like on your end, but I'm in England — and, rereading it, it seems a lot ruder than I intended (i.e. at all) in several places. I'm not sure I deserved your politeness.

Having finished the book, I'd say that it was something of a disappointment. Lin has a lot of potential, as is very clear in much of the rest of his output, but I don't think that it was realised, here, as it should have been. I don't dislike it to the degree that you do; I'd still say that it's "good", overall, in the sense that anything that a group of people have gone to the trouble of publishing should be "good". It should have been very good. Or, more than that, it should have been excellent.

It seems to be missing something — the wit and absurdism, perhaps, of his earlier writing. That was present in the first half of the book, and also began to reappear in the last sixth or so, but by that time it was overshadowed by the unpleasantness (still, to a degree, ongoing) of the characters' relationship(s), and, like you say, by the ambiguity surrounding the author's understanding of, and feelings regarding, that unpleasantness.

Of course, if you didn't see the wit in the first half of the book, then even that wouldn't redeem you to it. On that front, I guess the particular brand of humour employed just might not be some people's style (it may be that it's juvenile; I'm 19).

So, in the end, I agree with you in a lot of ways, although perhaps for different reasons.

This has become another missive. I've you've actually read all of it, then I can only thank you again for something I probably don't deserve (or, probably, for being nice enough to waste your time on it).

Incidentally, I'm very jealous that you're a part of the Rumpus Book Club. I'd like to join, but I've a feeling that I'd keep buying books at my normal rate on top of its (kind of steep) subscription. My student finances are terrifying enough as it is.

Callum just realised that I quoted you quoting me. ha...

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