In Tao Lin’s new novel Richard Yates, a 22-year-old named Haley Joel Osment and a 16-year-old named Dakota Fanning meet-cute, on the Internet, where they Gmail chat about the impossibility of giving a hamster a high-five. Eventually, despite the actionable gap in their ages and the depressing character of their banter (“My parents are divorced. Say something funny”), Osment rides a train out to the suburban New Jersey town in which Fanning lives. Standing on the platform, he sees her from a distance, walking toward him in rain boots and a black dress. In this moment, Lin gives us a glimpse into Osment’s mind:
“I am thinking about something,” thought Haley Joel Osment.
“We’ll make jokes,” he thought. “Sometimes we’ll eat food together.”
By now, we know Lin’s work well enough to expect this kind of stilted prose. In his free-associative first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), he fantasized about killing Sean Penn, Salman Rushdie, and Jhumpa Lahiri, letting his p.o.v. drift across multiple, interchangeable twenty-something narrators who all shared a kind of unhappiness, though they usually couldn’t say why. (Also, there were anthropomorphic dolphins. And bears.) By last year’s Shoplifting From American Apparel, Lin had his template fixed. Instead of a conventional narrative, we would be presented with a repetitive stream of mundane actions and objects: elaborately constructed smoothies, glasses of soy milk spiked with green-tea extract, idle threats of suicide, sets of pushups, organic fair-trade vegan chocolate nut bars. In lieu of interiority, he gave status updates: “I feel weird.” “I feel good right now.” “I feel okay.”
In Richard Yates, Osment and Fanning trade e-mails, text messages, phone calls, and, occasionally, visit each other in real life, where they have minimally described sex and commit petty crimes, like shoplifting. “I just want to walk around with you at night and sometimes ass and crotch rape you,” Osment says to Fanning. In turn, she looks at him with facial expressions that will be variously described as “worried,” “bored,” “calm,” “angry,” “shy,” and so on—there’s even a helpful index in back, to help you keep track of when and how many times each adjective is used.
Osment, perhaps not surprisingly, turns out to be almost psychopathically controlling and needy, telling Fanning, for instance, that he feels alone when she’s asleep. Her weight and desire to live fluctuate in response. The book climaxes with a three-page e-mail sent from Fanning to Osment containing every lie she’s ever told him: “I told you that I didn’t believe in Santa Claus past age 4. I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop believing in Santa Claus until I was like 7. I don’t know when exactly but it was definitely longer than 4. I lied when I wrote you a long email and said I couldn’t really listen to Bjork and Radiohead anymore. I could still listen to Bjork but was only trying to avoid listening to Radiohead.” Etc.
This torrent of uninflected detail is maddening, but there is a purpose to it. Lin’s partisans typically resort to kids-these-days platitudes in defending his work—”Lin’s writing . . . has perfectly captured the aimless malaise of the Internet generation,” Salon‘s Daniel Roberts recently wrote—but the author deserves more credit than that. He has a singular aesthetic. His relentless, near-autistic focus on the surfaces of social interaction belongs to a literary lineage that includes not just the frequently cited Bret Easton Ellis but also Alain Robbe-Grillet, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Dennis Cooper. “There’s something refreshing to me about Lin’s writing,” the smart Atlantic critic Hua Hsu wrote recently, “the way it manages to be wholly about him, but deny our craving for interiority or motive.” Indeed. As Lin himself recently told Interview: “I just actually don’t have opinions about society. I can discern that certain things have an effect on certain other things but I don’t view those effects as good or bad.”
These are the words of a brilliant, and successful, performance artist. (And make no mistake, at this Lin is supremely gifted—ask Gawker, whose office front door he arbitrarily covered with stickers that said “Britney Spears,” or the NYU security guard who recently arrested him for trespassing at a bookstore from which he had been banned after a prior arrest for, yup, shoplifting.) They are also, as a statement of writerly intent, deeply depressing.
The phrase “I don’t know” appears on nearly every passive-aggressive, noncommittal page of the listless Richard Yates, as it did almost as frequently in the two novels that preceded it. Lin’s characters really don’t know. They are depressed but can’t be bothered to figure out why. They are inarticulate, but to no particular end. The motivation and technique behind successful human connection—friendship, love, small talk—elude them, and they make no effort to learn. “Andrew had forgotten how to be happy!” goes one passage in Eeeee Eee Eeee. “He suspected that it involved unwarranted feelings of fondness for other people, too much self-esteem, a sort of long-term delusion that manifested itself as charisma, and a blocking out of certain things, like lonely people.”
Lonely people are Lin’s primary subject, a distinction he shares with practically every other novelist currently working. Fiction is a solitary pursuit pursued by solitary people. (David Foster Wallace wrote, he once said, to feel “unlonely.”) But where most writers see an abyss to be bridged, Lin confronts a set of limits faced by nearly every human on the planet, and reflexively affirms those limits. All of his tricks—singling out words that feel foreign or vernacular (“I thought they were going to ‘jump’ us”); reducing human interaction to a series of quantifiable exchanges (“After the giant email she sent three short emails.”); repeating variants of the same meaningless phrase (“We are fucked”)—boil down to a passive acceptance of the default wasteland that exists between us and other people. That distance is always going to be there, of course—we don’t need Lin to tell us that. It’d be nice if he helped us close it a bit though.