"RICHARD YATES is named after real-life writer Richard Yates, but it has nothing to do with him," reads the publisher's notes for Tao Lin's Richard Yates. I'm wondering if this was taken from the original pitch for the book. Though the main character, Haley Joel Osment (no, not the), reads a book by Richard Yates, and occasionally stares at the author's picture and "thinks about it," the book really doesn't have anything to do with Richard Yates.
The novel is either hilarious or exasperating, just like the author himself. Lin receives extensive literary coverage for his promotional antics. He auctioned off his belongings with the caveat that people promise to send him their bid amounts regardless of who won the auction. He was recently arrested for trespassing at an NYU bookstore after he was banned for shoplifting. Last year, he sold a percentage of the royalties for Richard Yates.
Endless online chats make up the bulk of Lin's new novel, punctuated by details of the characters' mundane lives. Lin tells the story in his distinctive, unadorned style—this isn't Hemingway; it's not even Raymond Carver. Lin's prose is sparse, literal, and radically original. It reads so easily that the story sucks you in, though it's sort of like finding yourself in a vacuum.
The two protagonists Osment and Dakota Fanning (no, not the) are in the midst of a blossoming internet romance, even though she's only 16 and he's like 23. Their illicit relationship draws the ire of Fanning's overprotective mother, and the couple must contend with her rage as well as Fanning's eating disorders, Osment's ambivalence, and their shared depression.
The naked insecurities of the characters are maddening, but this is apparently Lin's concern: The lives we lead have become so tied up in a detached virtual world of narcissistic representation that making real connections is a constant struggle. Exploring this idea through the seething malaise of two self-involved lovers works on paper, but it's difficult to get involved with them, to care about them at all, to have any sympathy left after reading the names "Haley Joel Osment" and "Dakota Fanning" over and over again. Even taken as a rueful and mocking look at our youth culture, there is nothing to involve the reader.