Camera Obscura

Richard Yates BY Tao Lin. Melville House. Paperback, 208 pages. $14.

The cover of Richard Yates

So I went to a party in Bushwick, Brooklyn, some weeks ago, the height of summer’s heat wave. Tao Lin was leaning against an air conditioner. I’d just been asked to review this book—his second novel, Richard Yates. I went over, told him I’d been asked, and offered him the opportunity to write the review himself, which I would submit under my own name. Bookforum would then publish the review, and a day or so later Lin would reveal the truth on his blog, etc.

Lin said he’d think about it, then contacted me the next day to decline. Which proves he’s cannier than I’d thought.

I told him that I’d have to write the review in his style, then—submit it for publication and later, when the review came out, claim publicly that Lin wrote it for me. I’d have to write directly but without adverbs, without (illuminating or useful) adjectives. I would have to use regular language, few commas, and no semicolons; when I wrote something particularly hackneyed I’d have to put it between quotation marks. This would all be “work.”

This is the work of which Lin’s career is made—that plus exhaustive blogging, unstoppable PR, and insipid stunts like the one attempted above. Lin’s previous books—a novel, a novella, a collection of stories, and two of poems—are beside the point, and that’s the point. The most cogent praise I can give him is that he is the writer who has best understood the possibilities of prose and poetry on the Internet, though I’m not sure that is complimentary. By compulsively maintaining his websites and perpetrating schemes such as selling stock in books yet to be written, peddling his hideous graphic art on eBay, and offering free books in exchange for positive ratings at online emporia, his presence has become superliterary. Most of the people who read Lin will not understand that word, however: It doesn’t mean super as in “great,” kids; it means “beyond literature, not bookish anymore.”

Lin’s new novel is called Richard Yates and the writer Richard Yates is barely mentioned in it and this sentence that doesn’t have any commas and is all just information might be a typical sentence from it. (Though perhaps it is too long.) Richard Yates is called what it’s called because it’s about an unhappy couple in suburbia. The male is referred to as Haley Joel Osment, the female as Dakota Fanning: two empty names of two empty child celebrities, the former a bland cipher, the latter lately a prodigy tart. However, neither character appears in the book as the star he or she is in life. Rather, Osment is a double for Lin and Fanning for a woman, a girl, really, who will remain nameless but whose identity will surely be provided by a blog comment somewhere soon. Alternately, you can PayPal me five dollars and I’ll send you her e-mail address.

Lin’s plot, in other words, is life’s. Osment meets Fanning, who’s still a minor and lives with her mother; he begins a flirtation, travels then moves to New Jersey to be close to her, to control her. Osment publishes books and sets about ruining Fanning: telling her what to eat and so encouraging her eating disorder, telling her what culture to consume, even telling her mother how best to raise her.

What’s uncomfortable about the book is the notion that all of this actually happened, that this book seems to be pure transcription: not only of events but also, appreciably, of e-mails and g-chat sessions. The situations fairly sweat verisimilitude, being as mundane and relentlessly torpid as the afternoon I’ve spent writing this review:

“Email me if you have anything to say,” said Haley Joel Osment in an email the next afternoon. “I’m editing my novel. I was going to email you but I feel tired now. And you didn’t email me. So I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

“I’m going to try harder,” said Dakota Fanning in an email. “Do you believe me? I’ve been trying. If I hadn’t you wouldn’t have visited me or let me visit you. I just need to try harder. I am now. I am going to try harder. I didn’t email you because I thought you wanted to be left alone, that you wanted time to think. I miss you. You are my best friend.”

“I think I feel indifferent to you right now,” said Haley Joel Osment in an email.

One wonders not whether the real Fanning or Osment should retain counsel and sue Lin and his publisher but whether the unfortunate girl on whom Fanning is based will. It should be said that documentary fiction has been written before, but mostly in response to inexplicable, world-historical circumstances: Think of Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, which montages the titular tragedy out of Nazi testimony, or Alexander Kluge’s The Battle, a spare, remote found text narrating the Battle of Stalingrad. Lin’s novel posits the Stalingrad of the American 2000s as a lovers’ argument in a supermarket in Jersey.

But what bothers more than the truth of the book is that truth’s justification. To Lin’s generation, which is to say to mine as well, transparency is the new sincerity; many of our peers maintain that it’s psychologically healthy, and artistic, to expose oneself entirely online. Anonymity was so 1990s—the Age of Fake Screen Names. Today, only utter exposure can set one free, while the only thing proscribed is regret.

Ambitious, intelligent, without regret, Lin does have an acute sense for the ambiguous mood and the deadpannings of emotional truth, or what he perceives as emotional truth (though it’s closer to the millennial self-help movement known as Radical Honesty). Here are a few of the many facts strangers can learn from reading Lin’s blogs and comments on blogs: His penis measures five inches when erect, and he last had sex in December 2009; he regularly blends smoothies and is obsessed with hamsters. Fearless as Lin may be, his openness actually brings about a negation of openness; when exposure itself becomes overexposed, the effect is ruined, and what was previously shocking merely bores. Lin’s willingness to elucidate this boredom and dramatize the banal may appeal to a bored and banalized readership, but the writing itself is anything but appealing. The depleted language of Lin’s depressed books is the same depleted language of Lin’s depression, evident online.

Total transparency will always resolve itself in reduced expression (short paragraphs, “sentagraphs,” short sentences), as subjects like boredom become objectified in prose. Instead of encountering the syntactically strange, or a project of genuine depersonalization or fracture, Lin’s readers are stroked by a continuous stream of neutral declaratives. If Lin retains this transparency there will literally be no other way he can write; his style, once electively autistic, will become a disability, the dictator of his thoughts (it would be impressive if Lin went all Fernando Pessoa on us and wrote heteronymously). Literature is made when a writer exploits different rhetoric in an attempt to manipulate a reader; Lin’s “literature” is the account of his manipulation of his girlfriend in a prose that is interchangeable with anything online written by the under thirty commentariat.

From Richard Yates:

He finished showering and looked at his cell phone. He dried himself and did fifty jumping jacks. He put on clothes and picked up his cell phone. He sat on the floor facing his computer screen with his back against the side of his bed. He put in earphones. He set his cell phone upright facing him. He opened a Microsoft Word file of his poetry.

From a blog reviewing Richard Yates,

i liked pretty much everything about ‘richard yates.’ i liked the dialogue especially. i liked the descriptions of thought patterns. i liked its openness and its accessibility. i liked how i just kept wanting to read it, and i liked how fast i read it. i expect to read this book ~1-3 more times in the next year. i expect to tell people to read this book and to go see tao read from this book in the coming future.

And then there is Lin’s own blog, where he writes:

i don’t ‘understand’ the sentences inside book reviews talking about things, i really do not ‘understand’ what is happening when i read book reviews or hear people talking about writing beyond ‘i like it’ or something

my brain does not process a lot of things anymore

i have nothing to say really about anything

i don’t know, does that make sense, i type so much on this blog

i don’t know what i am typing about really though

i try to view everything as ‘art,’ as purposeless, i am not successful at all in this i don’t think, or maybe i am, i don’t know

i feel enlightened or severely detached somehow

i’m not sure what i’m talking about

It’s Lin’s essential conservatism that has him writing books at all, as opposed to full-time bloggery. No revolutionary, he’s just another believer in purposeless “art” who also believes in advancing his career. One hopes he’ll either gain scruples and write a book not about himself or entirely lose scruples by transitioning into performance art or the more entertaining forms of branding. Kiddies, forgive the majuscules and punctuation, but Lin’s honesty deserves them, and deserves this repost: “I’m not sure what I’m talking about.”

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel is Witz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010).