The recent novel by Tao Lin, Richard Yates, has a perfect ending: an index.
alert 117, 184
concerned 84, 99, 187
and so on. The entry for facial expressions might be the best poem of 2010.
The prose in Richard Yates is so tightly coupled with the details of what (little) happens that is it is conceivable that one could, with an Excel spreadsheet with the right VLOOKUP functions, reverse engineer the novel from the index.
Richard Yates details the GChat, text message, and real life interchanges between a twenty-six-year old Manhattan writer named Haley Joel Osment and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend named Dakota Fanning. A nice touch here is that Mr. Lin makes no attempt to differentiate between these modes of communication through any stylistic convention (as does Gary Shteyngart in the other Facebook (and then some) novel of the summer Super Sad True Love Story) because between these two, there isn't any. Sentences roll out factory fresh like status updates. Pronouns are rare in Richard Yates. They are referred to as "Haley Joel Osment" and "Dakota Fanning," full-named like Facebook accounts, a style I will mimic in the next two paragraphs to give you a taste.
One would not be far off describing the book and the people in it as cold, but that might be misleading once one considers the climate. The world of young people is cold. Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning look on the world often with dead eyes, hiding away a hormonal fire raging therein. Dakota Fanning is perfectly sixteen: mildly ignored by a single mom who is torn between the pros and cons of this bad idea relationship. Dakota Fanning cuts herself. Dakota Fanning obsesses about her weight. Dakota Fanning has half-cooked idealizations about her relationship with Haley Joel Osment.
Haley Joel Osment is also perfectly twenty-six. Haley Joel Osment lives in a sparsely furnished apartment and has a cake job he treats with limp derision. Haley Joel Osment is basically carried on the shoulders of the world like all twenty-six year-old men are and has gotten bored with the view up there. Haley Joel Osment vents his repressed frustrations on his girlfriend Dakota Fanning in incrementally cruel ways. It is telling that Haley Joel Osment is the narrator, because it precisely how Haley Joel Osment and all twenty-six-year-olds like Haley Joel Osment see the world: as vaguely irksome narratives revolving around Haley Joel Osment.
See how grating that full name bullshit is? After a while, though, it becomes a little soothing, like the purr of an aquarium motor. So much so that when emotions eventually do rise to the surface and the protective bubble bursts a little, it is almost disappointing. One almost wants the circuit of youth to be closed, cycling through each other at dizzying speed, but in fact, like the cell phones on which they live their lives, reception is spotty and access is wide open. There is sex in Richard Yates, but is some of the least sexiest sex in the whole of teen sex writing, because actual teen sex is kinda boring, at least for the ones having it. It's the lead-up and fall-out tat are exciting. The act itself is a drive more than a trip.
Mr. Lin is smart to make being a voyeur boring as well. It allows you to co-opt Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning's shallow darkness for a while. When they do get to mischief, like when they shoplift clothes to sell on eBay, my reaction was, hmm, not a bad idea. I mean, if you are going to shoplift anyway....
Like all novels of youth, those traipsing through Richard Yates (named for the Revolutionary Road author whose books Haley Joel Osment steals from Barnes & Noble) is idealized. No one is Holden Caulfield, no one is Huckleberry Finn and no one is Haley Joel Osment nor are they Dakota Fanning. The two stand in for a weird kind of hope that the next generation will form the right reptilian traits needed to thrive in the world they will inherit. They are the product of neglect, marketing, the wind, themselves, ourselves, nothing. As a era-defining poet said when I was Dakota Fanning's age, they are the sons and heirs of nothing in particular. And yet, they find things on which to spend this inheritance, like we all do. In a way, I'd hate to watch these two grow out of it, despite the implanted longing to tell them to do so. You can say the Internet destroyed the youth but you created it, and are probably using it to tell someone your astute finding, and the youth isn't listening anyway. Would you?
So is Richard Yates a good book? Yes, but it doesn't matter. Why? Because it doesn't matter. One might be inclined to call it a better meta-novel than it is a novel, but it really isn't a meta-novel. It is a tale of low-watt lives on a low-sling trajectory told with laser precision. Whether it is a tome for the ages, a milestone marker on our road to enlightenment is probably a better question for whatever Illuminati manage the Internet. They will maybe one day rebuild humanity as a manifestation of timestamped Facebook updates and blog posts, something that will become at once more false and more true to what we were really like, because that is what literature of any stripe or quality does. When that happens, then we'll know what makes it.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or