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Tao Lin Makes New York Times Book Review “Suicidal,” Confused About the “Internet”

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Maybe it is a thing that some people who write reviews of art never use Google to read anything that might provide a context for the art they are writing about because the art should stand on its own, and an assessment of a piece of art should not be influenced or framed by the artist or other reviewers of the art. That seems to be a valid and perhaps very common stance when it comes to the complicated task of assessing the quality art. But sometimes, then, there are mistakes in the reviews, or at least misguided presumptions about why the artist made a certain choice, even though the artist has explicitly stated otherwise. Sure, there is always the possibility that an artist is being disingenuous about his intentions, so other interpretations are welcomed, too, except when they are also factually inaccurate. That’s what happens in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review piece on young American author Tao Lin’s latest novel, Richard Yates.

Charles Bock, the prize-winning author of 2008’s Beautiful Children, is given the not easy job of reviewing Lin’s latest in this weekend’s Book Review. It is the biggest review of Lin’s career. (A nuanced Voice review is here.) Early on, Bock notes that the two main characters in Lin’s “exploration of illicit love” are named Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, just like the child actors. Bock notes:

(As their communications begin online, the celebrity monikers are presumably screen names.)

Then, the reviewer quotes a line from the book: “‘I’ve only had the opportunity to hold a hamster once,’ said Dakota Fanning on Gmail chat.”

These two sentences do not track. Users of Gmail chat, especially obsessive users, like Lin’s characters and presumably the bulk of his audience, know that there are no “screen names” on Gmail chat, known colloquially as Gchat. The name displayed when you chat is simply the name registered along with your email account and while, yes, you can make this whatever you want, even the name of a celebrity, it is not a “screen name” in the same way that Gchat’s earlier alternative, AOL Instant Messanger (AIM), used the term. “Screen names” are not mentioned in the book. If the names were online monikers, why would characters “in real life,” like Dakota’s mother, refer to the pair by these same names?

Also, Tao Lin explained to The Rumpus book club, his naming choice, and repeated a similar explanation in other interviews:

Tao Lin: I’ll explain the names, Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. At first, maybe for a year, from 2006-2007, the characters were named something like “Dan” and “Michelle” or even, some parts, “Tao” and “[person Dakota Fanning is based on’s name].” One day I was talking to someone, I said something like “I should just name them Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning,” because I knew I would need to “deal with” what I viewed as the “problem” of naming the characters, in that I didn’t want to make up names, or to use my own name (like some people do in autobiographical works, Phillip Roth for example), and it seemed funny and exciting, so I did Microsoft find-and-replace, and after that there seemed to be no reason not to keep those as the names.

Interestingly, Lin said the choice of those two names “was intuitive, I think those two names were the first names that I thought of.” In fact, at this moment, the real Haley Joel Osment is 22-years-old and the real Dakokta Fanning is 16-years-old. These are the exact ages and names of the characters in Richard Yates. This could be a coincidence.

Now, maybe to you this all sounds like nitpicking. If so, you are probably an old person, not a Gmail user, or have already decided you despise Tao Lin. (If you still have no idea who Lin is, the Observer made a slideshow.) But on some level, it is important:

It is important because young people have a chip on their shoulder, like they always have, about how adults just don’t understand. And so when a peer — Lin is 27 — is reviewed somewhere like the Times, it is met with conflicting attitudes, often in the same person: it’s one part we’re being legitimized and another part, they’re going to get it wrong anyway. Reviews like Bock’s give away their unfamiliarity with the intricacies (or at least specifics) of the seemingly superficial, easily dismissed subject matter right away and then proceed to tear down the work anyway. Bock concludes:

By the time I reached the last 50 pages, each time the characters said they wanted to kill themselves, I knew exactly how they felt.

Maybe it’s that chip on the shoulder, but it feels like an affront on a generation, not a novel. Regardless of what you think about his writing or promotional tactics, Lin, in many ways, is of the internet. He has adjusted his art for the era, for better or worse, and gross misunderstandings of the world in which he operates make it not about his words, but about the youth’s place in art and literature.

It begins to feel like the classic cartoon image of a small person being held by the forehead by a much larger rival, the smaller of the two swinging wildly, but not connecting. The bigger figure laughs and holds the small one in place effortlessly and it’s futile because the little one’s arms don’t reach the bigger body.

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