Off the Road
By Colin Herd.
Richard Yates, Tao Lin, Melville House Publishing 2010
“its apparent effortlessness, its complete accessibility, its luminous particularity, its deep seriousness toward us human beings – about whom it conjures shocking insights and appraisals. We marvel at its consummate writerliness, its almost simple durability as a purely made thing of words that defeats all attempts at classification. Realism, naturalism, social satire – the standard critical bracketry – all go begging before this splendid book.” Richard Ford
While I’ve been gawking at my screen trying to think of something unsaid to say about Tao Lin, his second novel Richard Yates has been receiving favourable reviews almost across the board, including broadly positive endorsements in the London Review of Books and the Guardian, since its U.K. release a few weeks ago. And commentators keep nailing aspects of the book so much better than I could. In his handsomely-titled ‘A Kind of Gnawing Offness’, David Haglund summarized the plot as the “sad, inexorable progress of a lopsided love affair”. Nicholas Lezard thought Tao Lin’s boiled down and “achingly hip” style packed “concern for people, for the truth, a wish that lives could be lived better.” Most impressive of all is Alec Niedenthal at HTMLGIANT who thinks that Richard Yates hits “the zero-point at which the tranquility which has always marked Tao’s work becomes its opposite”. None of these, however, captures the achievement of Richard Yates as forcefully and succinctly as does the quotation from the novelist Richard Ford with which I started this review. The only technicality being that Ford’s lavish endorsement is not strictly speaking directed at Richard Yates but Richard Yates, specifically his classic debut novel Revolutionary Road.
But it might just as well be directed at Lin because it’s uncanny how Richard Yates successfully ticks every box that Ford sets out as qualities of the novel’s namesake.
I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, because in many ways Revolutionary Road and Richard Yates are closely aligned. Both books chart the progress of an uneasy relationship as it falls apart and consequently derails the stability of the female character. In Revolutionary Road April Wheeler hatches a plan to move her family to Paris and break the monotony of her (she feels) clichéd suburban existence. Her plan is met with a sort of unspoken reluctance from her husband Frank. The relationship between Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment (the intriguingly named protagonists in Lin’s book) has a similar tension in the almost inverse plans they have for Haley Joel Osment to move to New Jersey. Both Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment seem at different points to be reluctant and enthusiastic and skeptical about the other’s devotion to the plan. They have repeated long gmail-exchanges about whether and what time and how long for the other should make the New York-New Jersey trip. Just as the narration of Revolutionary Road is dominated by Frank Wheeler’s point of view, Richard Yates is dominated by Haley Joel Osment’s. April Wheeler puts or finds herself in a secondary position to Frank’s desires and career, catering always for him but harbouring her own ambition too. In Richard Yates, food is the cause of extreme anxiety for Dakota Fanning, who has convinced herself in typically non-euphemistic language, that she’s “obese”. Suffering from Bulimia, and desperately telling herself to keep up with her boyfriend’s vegan lifestyle, she winds herself into a heartbreakingly secretive double-life, which is achingly made plain in a long, exhausting, relentless, ‘confessional’ passage in which Dakota Fanning lists in a gmail chat all the lies she’s told Haley Joel Osment, mainly about what she’s eaten or what exercise/activity she’s not done:
‘On October 4 I don’t think I ate half a vegan burger for breakfast then brought the other half to school. I don’t remember what I ate but I really don’t think I did that.’
‘On October 16 I told you I ate soybean pasta with black beans. I ate that but I put sugar on the black beans. Then later I binge ate instead of doing pilates I think and then threw up.’
Lin has always got a lot of mileage out of food in his writing, where hunger and thirst seem bound up with other desires and hopes and anxieties. I’m thinking of a recent Twitter update: “i want my pineapple to exit the refrigerator, cut itself into squares, put itself in a bowl w/ a fork & for the bowl to fly to my bed to me”. But I could also be thinking of a poem from his first book you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books 2006):
i want to pour orange juice on my face
i want to pour a carton of orange juice onto my face and body
when i am lying on my bed, in the morning
and I want it to be Sunday and I want to go back to sleep
and when I fall back asleep I want the orange juice to quickly evaporate
and take me with it
But this is the first instance I can think of in Lin’s work where food is the cause of such extreme anxiety and depression for a character. Bulimia could be seen as being worked into the novel’s form itself, chewing up aspects of the formal dynamics of Tao Lin’s previous works and his influences from literature, music and film and regurgitating them. The index at the end of the novel feels very much like Dakota Fanning’s long confession/ catalogue of her consumption. Echoes of April Wheeler’s fatal attempt at self-abortion can be seen in Dakota Fanning’s Bulimic vomiting, but are more overtly established early on in Richard Yates, in a gmail chat on the first page:
“I saw a hamster eating its babies,” said Haley Joel Osment. “I wanted to give it a high-five. But it didn’t know what a high-five is.”
“I would eat my babies if I had some. I don’t have any babies.”
“How old are you?” said Haley Joel Osment.
“16. It’s probably good I don’t have babies.”
Both Revolutionary Road and Richard Yates are novels of influence, the influence of one partner over the other, the lack of influence of a young couple over the outcome of their relationship and their lives and the influence of silently hypocritical societal standards. Summed up in the dying moments of Revolutionary Road by the character Mrs Givings who says to her husband, “Well, but I mean really congenial people… Our kind of people. Oh, I was very fond of the Wheelers but they always were – a bit whimsical for my taste. A bit neurotic.”
This is why I take the provocative names of the characters and the name of the novel itself so seriously, they add the tension and excitement of the influence of media and celebrity on the decisions taken in daily life. Lin allows the influence of Richard Yates, and Revolutionary Road to hang over and cast a shadow across his novel. He sublimates his book to mythological figures: Richard Yates, Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, allowing their different levels of influence and celebrity colour the reading of his novel. At two separate points, two of only a handful of times Richard Yates is mentioned in the novel, Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment sit transfixed staring at a Richard Yates author photo, as if its some kind of icon possessing them. At another point Haley joel Osment uses a Richard Yates novel as a mouse-pad which I possibly pushing it read as a sort of Ouija board of influence controlling Osment’s clicks and twitches and gmail chats. Lin borrows the atmosphere of a kind of Revolutionary Road era ‘age of anxiety’, but rather than a background of Cold War tension and the desire for conformity, he instates an age of, maybe, mouse-click anxiety (that’s not going to catch on is it?) with which his K-Mart realist fiction is drenched. Richard Yates takes up where Revolutionary Road finishes off, reinstating a serious and compassionate examination of the lives of whimsical, anxious, neurotic characters, and critically examining the society that envelops them. It is a must-read, important, unbearably sad novel.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and forthcoming in Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 26th, 2010.