The Year of Reading Dangerously: Tao Lin
Fast forward fifty years and, if you were looking for a suitable counterpart to Richard Brautigan’s chronicling of the slackers and misfits of his generation, you might do worse than turn to Tao Lin, whose latest novel name checks another American writer of the sixties, Richard Yates. Yates himself is only mentioned six times in the novel (I can use the handy index to be sure of this fact), but presumably it is writing about dysfunctional relationships that is the more telling link. That and, of course, a mischievous desire to play on names and celebrity: the lovers in Richard Yates are called Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment.
I think we can be fairly sure that the characters in the novel are not the actors of the same name – neither of them mention acting (Dakota is at school and Haley is a writer), and they frequently discuss Dakota’s weight issues. However, there are a number of other coincidences: the ‘real’ Haley is six years older than Dakota as in the novel, and their ages as given in the novel (16 and 22) were their ages in 2010, when the novel was published, though not in 2006, when it is set. Why choose these names? Well, obviously Lin is having fun by giving very ordinary characters celebrity tags, furthering emphasising their ordinariness. Those particular celebrities, however, have perhaps been particularly chosen: Haley Joel Osment’s most famous role was in The Sixth Sense…playing a ghost; Dakota Fanning’s most famous role is probably in the Twilight series…playing a vampire. As one of Lin’s purposes seems to be to show the emotional and spiritual deadness of his characters (see also their casual references to suicide), it is more likely the actors’ roles that we should be reminded of rather than the actors. (This in itself, of course, makes a further point).
To read the novel is to enter a very small world that focuses entirely on Haley and Dakota’s relationship, in much the way they do. When they are together they talk about themselves and their feelings and when they are apart they talk on Gmail about themselves and their feelings. Both are very needy. Haley frequently complains that Dakota is making him feel lonely, for example when she sings to herself:
“People sing like that when they aren’t focused on anyone else except themselves. It makes the people around them feel alone.”
For much of the novel the age difference between them is not obvious as Haley is as childish as Dakota. One way Lin achieves this impression is to report their feelings without always giving us the cause:
“She came out and Haley Joel Osment became upset about something. About a minute later he was upset about something else, that she wasn’t making him feel better. He stared at the ground feeling her looking at him and then felt a little confused as he looked at her staring at the ground.”
Lin delineates the minutiae of their emotional lives with a dispassionate accuracy that also diminishes them (as does the constant use of their full names). “Upset”, here used twice, is a word that we would normally associate with a child and the deliberate repetition of “looking…staring…looked…stared” bleaches out any drama from the scene. This is the unceasing register of the novel. Even the sex scenes are not only empty of love (as is the entire novel) but of passion:
“Dakota Fanning pushed him a little and he lay on his back and lifted his head and looked at her face with a neutral facial expression and though ‘She looks very sexy.’
After a few minutes he orgasmed.
They lay without talking for about ten minutes.”
As a reader, it is sometimes difficult to know whether to laugh at Haley and Dakota or pity them. Initially their narcissistic neediness and incessant whining seem entirely the stuff of satire, but this is partly because it is only as the novel unfolds that the characters develop some depth as our only knowledge of them comes from what they are prepared to tell each other. No archaic conventions such as description or background: this a novel trapped in the now. One of the darker aspects of the novel is their youthful fetishizing of truth, as when Dakota e-mails:
“You have done the greatest thing for me than anyone has my entire life. You have been honest with me.”
Unfortunately this has included truths such as:
“I’m horrible caring so much about weight. But obviously I need to be physically attracted to someone or else some part of the relationship is not fulfilled.”
As Dakota’s bulimia is revealed, Haley insists on honesty from her:
“What have you lied about today and yesterday?”
This culminates in a four page e-mail in which Dakota confesses all her lies, yet behind it all you sense not a more open relationship, but the interrogation of a bully. The final lines perhaps reveal the true nature of their relationship:
“Haley Joel Osment looked in her direction without focusing on her face.”
This ultimately makes the novel rather bleak, but Lin has undoubtedly identified important truths of his own generation.
Danger rating: a bit like walking into a bar and noticing that everyone is half your age – disorientating but not unpleasant.