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Tao Lin, Richard Yates

The most interesting part of reading Tao Lin’s new novel RICHARD YATES was when I set it on a footstool & the book slid slowly off & I didn’t know the footstool was crooked.

If you’ve never read Lin before, maybe you’ll be impressed by his style or approach – but I’ve read all of his books to date & at this point I feel more regurgitation than genuine writing.

38 thoughts on “Tao Lin, Richard Yates

  1. Thank you for this, which has what so many reviews fail to include: how you feel about the book.

    Usually I care less about what the book is and more about what I can be from reading the book.

    I was trying to make up my mind about this one, even (or, especially) after reading his others. This helped.

  2. what could be more genuine than an honest, concrete (and yet still poetic in a quiet way) account of an emotional lived experience that stays with you and then is written down without censorship or fear?

    1. I agree with you about the concrete yet quiet poetic nature of the book, but for me, SHOPLIFTING was a kind of elongation of BED and YATES is like an elongation of SHOPLIFTING, so I feel like if you’ve read those previous books, this one may not do anything new for you.

      Also, I always feel compelled to tell people that when I read EEE I was blown away – there was a magnetism to Lin’s style and I was fully drawn in – so I keep waiting for the next of his books that will do that again, and for me, RICHARD YATES does not.

      1. i appreciate you explaining, j.a. we probably just have a difference of opinion in terms of what the different works are “doing” or how they are different, what they accomplish. To me, SHOPLIFTING was stylistically very different than BED, both in terms of prose and form. Obviously, one’s a novella and the other a collection of stories, but BED has more or less conventional short stories in it, with beginnings, middles, and ends, and utilizes a Lorrie Moore-esque prose style that has been pushed toward greater weirdness (the similes are zanier, basically). Whereas, SHOPLIFTING has an amorphous form, to some degree, with non sequitur after non sequitur, sometimes within the same paragraph and sometimes shifting scenes in a somewhat surprising fashion. And the prose is much more sparse than in BED, with no lyricism, no metaphors or similes, and mostly very short sentences.

        While YATES seems to share some source material with SHOPLIFTING, and does seem to elongate the “Sheila”-related material from that earlier book, in my opinion, it is once again different in form and, more subtly, different in prose style. Where SHOPLIFTING shifts from scene to scene and forward in time in a non sequitur-ish fashion, and features many different characters (and many different love interests) interacting with the protagonist, YATES focuses exclusively and intensely on one relationship with one person. As such, it seems to be Tao’s most sustained attempt by far to examine human relationships, regardless of whether he would ever identify his intentions as such. Because the events unfold more or less in chronological order without many gaps or non sequiturs, the narrative has, in my opinion, more “driving force” than SHOPLIFTING, for example. For me anyway, I was very interested to know what would happen next to these characters. Finally, the prose style, while certainly not a big departure from SHOPLIFTING (and there are many so-called great authors with a signature prose style, of course), is still different. One specific stylistic choice I would point out is the omission of commas, more than is commonly the case, perhaps in the interest of having the sentences themselves be as “propulsive” or “moving” as the narrative and as the character’s minds and emotions.

        One of many, many examples of this would be: “On the second train he read 110 pages of an Ernest Hemingway biography that said Ernest Hemingway accidentally shot his own legs twice with a gun when he caught a shark while fishing and that in the Spanish Civil War he had a Tommy gun and they were in trouble and he ran into an area and used the Tommy gun and then they were safe.” The book also seems to have possibly been influenced by Zachary German’s book, with the use of an index at the end, and perhaps the tic of a person’s name or title being rendered in full after the first time, as in Ernest Hemingway above, amongst other instances.

        I’m not trying to convince you of anything, J.A., by the way, just felt like offering up information/things I noticed as an FYI to anyone who might be interested or something. Thanks.

      2. having said all that, j.a., i would say tao seems to have settled into a tone, a prose style, and an approach to literature, to some degree, although there’s no telling what he’ll do next. very vaguely and generally speaking, it’s the beckett approach, as opposed to the joyce one. rather than building/adding/experimenting, one strips away, denies, sticks one’s face in one’s own feces repeatedly on and on. rather than bring in history, literature, other languages, plays, wordplay, one stares at the wall, slaps oneself in the face, and simply writes down one’s emotions. in tao’s case via concrete reality and actual events. and in his case, “showing off” and lyricism, however brief, has been abnegated to an even greater degree, and the book takes on the perspective of the indifferent universe, as opposed to one’s own speaking, fevered mind.

    1. i seem to be breathing still, thanks, chester. i reacted to the notion of the writing not being “genuine.” also, the appraisal initially seemed flippant to me, and coming from a person such as j.a. tyler, i was surprised. having read his comments down here, i don’t think he was trying to be flippant.

  3. Hey J.A.,

    Any chance of highlighting some passages that demonstrate what you’re criticizing?

    And, Stephen:
    Would you provide passages that show how Lin’s prose is, as you describe, “genuine,” and how it is an “honest, concrete (and yet still poetic in a quiet way) account of an emotional lived experience that stays with you and then is written down without censorship or fear”?

    This may be a tall order, but I’m asking because I haven’t read much actual criticism that unswervingly convinces me about Lin and Lin’s work in either direction.

    1. I’m not sure about specific passages John, but there is this:

      Both SHOPLIFTING and YATES have gmail chats between main characters, text messages between main characters, vegan food discussions, theft of clothing, and (most importantly for me) characters who feel sad and exclaim ‘I feel sad’ and then continue on with gmail chats, text messages, vegan food consumption, and clothing theft.

      And again, a person who has never read Lin might really enjoy the book because it would seem interesting and new, but for me, having read the rest of his titles, this just seemed like a longer version of the previous works.

    2. john, i would define the project overall as genuine. the project because it is a thinly novelized version of actual events, and things that could make tao’s stand-in seem, to some people, like an asshole, have been left in. perhaps the more precise word there would be “honest.” but it seems to have genuine intentions of revealing information in the interest of people understanding people better and in the interest of the author having nothing to hide. how are you using the word “genuine” in relation to the prose? do you mean “good”? or what do you mean? it is concrete because abstractions are avoided and almost everything in the book is physical action and dialogue in concrete reality. the book is based pretty closely on actual events and definitely involves lots of emotions. the characters and the state of their relationship and their emotions is in intense focus for the entirety of the book. the girl’s mother is almost the only other character.

      I would need your definition/context to demonstrate how the prose is “genuine,” but here is a section I find “poetic”:

      “Haley Joel Osment was lying in the dark on his air mattress in a three-person apartment on Wall Street. His room had no windows. He said he was walking today and noticed he was thinking ‘Life is stupid. I am stupid.’ But it was one sentence not two. Dakota Fanning said that was okay. She said she had a broken violin she was saving because she wanted to smash it but she always said ‘no, not yet.’ When they had nothing to say they were quiet and then said ‘hi’ to each other around forty times.”

        1. contextually… re “having or expressing the qualities of poetry (as though aesthetic or emotional impact)”

          seems like… anything… can do that… so the excerpt stephen chose… can do that… for stephen… and for other people too, i feel… i feel ‘richard yates’ has poetic qualities… it is like… very rhythmic and like… calming… aesthetic…

          anyway though, even if you don’t agree with what i just tried to outline/express above, the book has a lot to do with emotions, so like, through ’emotional impact,’ i guess you could also say it is poetic.

  4. Oh my god, J.A. Hilarious. I sometimes feel like I don’t get Tao Lin because I’m probably just too old, but I feel like a book should WANT me to read it. If a book just kind of shrugs at me throughout and says, eh, whatever. I’m too bored and detached to worry about you reading me or something, then I just can’t be bothered to work up any interest. I need a little passion, some actual stakes in my literature and the characters in it.

    That said, I don’t really feel the vitriol that a lot of people seem to feel towards Tao, like he’s singlehandedly ruining literature or something. It seems like there are a lot of people who are genuinely interested in what he’s doing, and that’s cool with me. Sure, it’s not my cup of tea, and it’s not new to me like it is to some young ‘uns–having been young during the whole slacker/grunge era, I’ve seen the whole thing before–but if people like it, sweet. More power to him. Doesn’t hurt the books and writers I love.

    1. Yeah, I don’t get that about people either – no matter what I think of his books at any point I will never buy into the school that he is ruining lit or anything – I am just hoping for a new Lin book that explodes in my face.

      Your shrugging shoulders metaphor though is priceless and a really accurate description of how I felt at many points in YATES. Thanks for that,

    2. Hi anoelle,
      Can you give the names of some of the specific writers you are talking about re ‘I’ve seen the whole thing before’… I am not trying to prove you wrong or anything I would just be interested in those writers.

    1. I should clarify – I don’t dislike Lin – I think he seems to be a nice guy and I liked his publicity stunts – I also really did enjoy EEE – I just did not like YATES in the way I was hoping too,

      1. J. A., that comes across very clearly to me. I hope peoples’ kneejerk binary reactions to a respectful criticism of his most recent book isn’t as disturbingly shallow as it seems to be here. I’m reminded, reading seemingly unconsidered responses like these, of Derek White’s anti-manifesto (http://www.calamaripress.com/ABR-rev.htm). Do we have to love absolutely everything an indie writer (or press) produces, or can we honestly say he or she has done better and probably will do better next time?

        I haven’t read Richard Yates but I’ve read some of Lin’s stuff and though, Jesus, and I’ve read other stuff and thought, eh, so I trust your thoughts here.

    2. you should specify ‘dislike tao lin’s writing’ because most people are talking about that and not about him personally. also i can’t help but think you haven’t read much of the criticism of tao’s writing. a large amount of it is very well expressed in my opinion.

  5. Maybe that’s true, but why can’t you at least dig into the actual writing? I hate these posts filled with sly, implied knowledge that the author doesn’t really have.

    I haven’t read anything I’ve liked by the guy, but then again, I find his style so repulsive, I can’t even make my way through a pair of his clauses. I’d like to think I’m not judging too harshly, so I depend upon fine lit blogs like this one to confirm my deep-seated and irrational biases with seemingly rational arguments (motivated by those same deep-seated and irrational biases of course…); so that I can sleep well at night, knowing I dismissed an author for all the right wrong reasons.

    ps: Do you read Sutter Cane?

    1. That is an interesting article, though I feel like it might be trying a bit hard to find the connections with Lin’s book – but even so, the conversation is nice to read and certainly there is that kind of philosophical bent in RICHARD YATES. Thanks km,

  6. Thanks for this, J.A. I’m tired of the fundamental lie of what Tao Lin’s acolytes called “reality”. It’s mere reductionism that masquerades as meaning. The equivalent would be handing in a blank sheet of paper and calling it a nihlistic manifesto.

  7. I haven’t read Richard Yates, but after reading this discussion I read about the controversy around Michel Houellebecq’s new novel. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s reaction (below) seems to echo criticisms of Lin’s book. Coincidence, or does it point toward a bigger conversation?

    “What newness does this novel offer us?… Some chat on the human condition, an affected writing style that pretends towards the clean and technically proficient, a pretence that summons up real characters and mixes them with others he has invented himself, a bit of publicity for a few consumer products… all the name-dropping, all the mystery around him stems from a lack of imagination. Houellebecq turns to himself because he doesn’t know how to invent any more.”

    1. Wow – I feel like I could have written all of that about RICHARD YATES and felt good about the review – thanks Steve.

      Have you read the Houellebecq? I’d be interested to hear from someone who has read this and his previous books and can speak to the Guardian article…

      1. No, it’s only out in France this week, I think. I haven’t been able to find out when the English translation will be published. I have read the rest of his books, though, so I’m curious to see the difference. Though as the article says, it remains to be seen if that ‘difference’ is only apparent to this individual judge.

  8. The funniest review I’ve read of Richard Yates (should be retitled to Unbearable Longness of Book, even though it’s only 200 pages). I wrote a 1,500 word review, but yours said it in less than 100.

  9. Here: http://www.dooneyscafe.com/archives/2315

    It’s a Canadian site named after a bohemian cafe on Toronto’s Bloor Street, and the publication coincided with Tao Lin’s appearance in Toronto.

    One of the editors of the site, Brian Fawcett, is, in my opinion, one of the best Canadian writers of today, the author of Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, and has gotten himself into trouble for being a contrarian and knocking Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. This article of his, “On the absence of hatchet work amongst Canada’s Book Reviewers” is worth a look and also applies to the US:



    1. Nice. Thanks for linking it. You said it well there – I especially liked the part about the explosive sentences (which there certainly are) being buried in incessant / inundating sentences. Thanks,

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