A Lesson in Caring from Tao Lin

Tao Lin

“Anything notable that happens to me, I’ll write about.”

Tao Lin speaks haltingly, choosing his words carefully. It’s not surprising that he’s conscientious of what he says. At 27, the Brooklyn-based writer is regularly pegged as the literary vanguard of his generation.

Lin’s latest novel, Richard Yates, (Melville House), may engender similar acclaim.

It’s easy to label Lin as the voice of a generation, because he is young and because his books are autobiographical. His previous novel, Shoplifting at American Apparel, released last year (also from Melville), was about a mid-twenties writer, living in New York, traveling to Florida (Lin’s home state) and being arrested for shoplifting – Lin was arrested for the same in 2008.

“Everything I write is from my experience,” he says, which he does most of on his laptop at NYU’s main library. “But I’ll manipulate it in whatever way I feel is needed to have the effect that I want it to have.”

In Yates, that effect is powerful. In the short novel (a little over fifty thousand words), Haley Joel Osment, a twenty-two year old writer living in New York, works through a difficult and illegal relationship with Dakota Fanning, sixteen and living with her mother in New Jersey. These two characters in no way (except their names) relate to the real child actors. The book, not surprisingly, is based on a relationship in Lin’s past.

Lin has always written in a minimal and terse style, but Yates, his sixth book, is an impressive step forward in his development as a writer. Lin points out it’s the most concrete and literal writing he’s done.

It takes a little getting used to; the book’s bare descriptions of setting and his characters can be jarring. Take this frequently-used description, for example: “She made a neutral facial expression.”

Much of Yates is made up of long e-mail exchanges, G-chats and text messages between the book’s main characters. Though free of abbreviations (e.g., BRB, LOL) these sections are heavily detailed and surprisingly accurate, containing the side comments, miscommunications and stream of consciousness that these formats can create.

It’s a unique approach to a novel, but Lin is uncommitted about making any claims about its place among other books, remarking that if other people are grouping him in with other books called “literature,” then his books must be. Regardless, the writing is incredibly vivid and immensely relatable.

Lin has described Yates for the past year as a page-turner, which is odd, especially when he explains why.  

“I felt, it would be really interesting to make [Yates] a page-turner,” Lin says,

“Because the characters are talking about stuff that a normal page-turner would edit out. They’re just talking about stuff that’s not really about anything.

That is only partially true. Haley and Dakota talk about a lot: self-mutilation, lying, bulimia and suicide.

Nonetheless, remarks like this, alongside characters surrounded by technology, brand names and repeated lines of “We’re fucked,” are what have earned Lin a reputation of representing Generation Y, one that is often perceived as apathetic and unmotivated.

Whether or not this is true for young people, it’s an inaccurate description of Lin’s books.

“At each moment you can either kill yourself, try harder to detach yourself from people and reality, or be thinking of and doing what you can for the people you ‘like,’” Haley tells Dakota at one point in Yates.

 “Kill yourself” adds a twinge of melodrama to the scene. However, in a similar vein as Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, it comes down to this: do better for yourself and others, or give up.

Though disturbing at times, in order to get to the core of this idea, Yates looks closely at how Haley and Dakota act, not in heroic instances (like in normal page-turners), but in the everyday, demonstrating all the small moments and actions that can lead to unhappiness as well as the tiny ways to make things better.

If people in their twenties are listless and unsatisfied, then Lin is not their representative – he’s their champion, trying to help them out of ennui and resignation through writing that is closer to his own and his readers’ lives.

When lines like this occur in the novel – “He thought about meaninglessness. He felt meaningless. Life was meaningless. He thought about acceptance.” – I do not read it as existential lament. Rather, it’s advice.

Still, Lin can come off as a bit stricken with apathy in the measured and non-committal way he speaks.

But he’s not resigned. He’s brazen, summing up his novel succinctly: “Whatever’s in this book is what I value most.”

Photo of Tao Lin by Noah Kallina

Richard Yates
by Tao Lin
Melville House, 2010