Saturday, February 25, 2012
I am not typically in the business of 'slamming' things, because frankly there are too many things out there worth slamming, and besides, that goes against the basis of what I'm trying to do here. However, there are exceptions. Occasionally, I'll come across something that irks me to the point where I feel the need to voice my negative opinion of said thing, and Tao Lin's Richard Yates is one such exception. It's not that Tao Lin is a bad writer, or that Richard Yates is a particularly bad book, but that he is so overpraised as a contemporary genius that offends me, as a writer myself, who aspires to one day deservingly hold such titles. First, I want to examine a quote on the back of Richard Yates which I find to be exceptionally nauseating. It reads:
"Richard Yates is hilarious, menacing, and hugely intelligent. Tao Lin is a Kafka for the iPhone generation."
This is the sort of quote that brings to mind sexual favors or blackmail, because it's so hyperbolic, even for literary ass-kissing, because to call Richard Yates 'hilarious' is like calling Inception 'depressing.' It is mildly comical at best, and even then only before the cheap schtick wears off. I have read several different definitions of the word 'menacing' and I cannot possibly fathom what dictionary Clancy Martin is in possession of. Richard Yates is many things("unique"), but to say it is 'hugely intelligent' is just absolutely ridiculous. Lin is a decent writer, and has a subtle sense of humor, but let's be honest here; the book is essentially a live-journal entry converted into dry, self-aware, humorous prose by some guy who went to NYU and happens to be familiar with youth culture. Me, you, - anyone - could have written this book, and to say it is 'hugely intelligent' does nothing more than make David Foster Wallace's bloated corpse roll around in his grave a bit. Last, but not least, this person goes on to say Tao Lin is a 'Kafka for the iPhone generation.' Now, I was going offer some witty rebuttal to this, to expand on how absurd such a statement is, how much nerve this person has to say such an idiotic thing, but you know what? No. It doesn't deserve such tact or clemency. It deserves the anger in which it evoked in me: So fuck you, Clancy Martin. I don't know who you are, but I fucking hate you and I hope you lose all your fingers in a bowling accident. No exaggeration intended.
Richard Yates is supposed to be ironic, maybe even entirely tongue in cheek - a mockery of relationships in the digital age – but also show how, despite the format of communication, it’s really not that much different from prior generations. And despite the juvenile (pathetic?) nature of the characters and culture within – is meant to expose profound truths about human nature. The problem is that these ‘profound truths’ are anything but profound. Yes, technology makes us lonely and separates us as much as it connects us. Yes, love is complicated. Yes, youth is complicated. Yes, life is complicated. These are not only things which have been written about by thousands of writers before him (and far more poetically, I might add), but are also obvious to anyone with half an analytical brain. Then there are his blatant pretensions he takes part in, ie. the index at the end of the book (why?), the Vice-vomit cover design, and that self-written magazine article he did, which I have yet to read, which might make the whole affair that much sillier depending on the route Lin took. Then of course there are the names of the characters and the book itself. Seeing the names Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning printed was mildly amusing for a few pages. With brevity in mind, Richard Yates would have worked really well as a (short) short story, however as a full length novel its humorous effect is lost well early in the book.
Tangential anecdote: when I was 16, I dated a 12 year old. She was my first girlfriend and I was under the impression that she was 14 for the first 3 months of our relationship, because that is how old she told me she was. 90% of our interaction consisted of chatting over aol instant messenger, 8% took place over the phone, and occasionally, we would see each other secretly in person, roughly 2% of the time. I’d sneak out of my house and drive an hour to see her, sneak into her window, and we’d have to be quiet because her parents were in the room next door. She took my virginity, and I took hers. Her sense of humor was cute and a little on the morbid side. I tried my best to be all the things I thought I was supposed to be – to play my role, while still being true to my emotions, which was often being discontent. I occasionally patronized her. We were both confused. It was uncannily similar to what I’ve been reading in Richard Yates, only I would never dream, not in a lifetime, that it would be worth writing about and sharing with others outside of my livejournal at the time.
Part of me is convinced that Tao Lin is playing a big joke - an elaborate trolling for his own amusement, and his supporters are all playing a part in it, and I am the gullible one falling for it. That’s what I want to believe. That would make me feel better about the world and the current state of literature. But, somehow this is doubtful. Somehow, all these heartless monkeys with English degrees who suck so badly at writing anything other than lab-language that they end up doing journalism, really do find Richard Yates to be funny, and to be some practical genius. But the question still remains, with Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning fresh in my mind: how is this book funny? Maybe it’s funny because it’s so fucking dull and boring, and it uses the same jokes and the same scenarios over and over and over for 200 pages – and that’s the big fat farcical joke. Ha ha. Funny like the comedic version of a 20 hour Tarkovsky film (but that would be giving Lin too much credit). Funny like a kidney stone that takes two weeks to come out, and you have to laugh at it to keep from blowing your brains out or stabbing yourself in the throat with a kitchen knife. Is this what humor has come to? Is unfunny the new funny and I just did not get the memo? Has humor expended itself and is desperately flailing around on the ground in a puddle of its own coagulated blood, trying to figure out a way to resuscitate itself?
Again, Tao Lin is a decent writer and obviously a pretty smart guy, if for no other reason than for his talent for marketing his unremarkable writing. But his name should never be uttered or written in the same sentence as an immortal such as Kafka and [insert Tao Lin book here] is certainly not the [insert lit-crit glowing superlative here] novel of the last however-many years. Richard Yates is solid and easy to read, 'cute' even, but painfully uninteresting and to regard it or its ideas as special in any way, is a far bigger inside joke on modern culture than the book itself ever hopes to be.
Posted by Matt at 10:23 PM