In Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, the two protagonists, Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment dream of self improvement and suicide. For them, there is no middle ground. There is only absolute resignation or whole-hearted perfectionism. Symbolically, they walk around the perimeter of Price Chopper to pass the time. Most frequently, they look at each other with “neutral” facial expression – the whole text oscillates between exactitude and vagueness in this way. There are moments of sincerity (or at least a striving for sincerity), such as the list of lies Dakota Fanning makes in an email in the closing pages. But this serious naivety is undercut by the inclusion of a near cynical irony, as in stealing from an ethical food store.
Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment exchange meaningful, emotion-ridden messages through Gmail chat and email, but when actually in the presence of one another, visit vacuous franchises and don’t really “connect”. Their relationship takes “place” in a virtual environment that is somehow more real, due to its permanent digital imprint, than indistinct ephemeral personal encounters. Not only does this flip our expectations of what constitutes a personal relationship, it also keeps the characters in a constant motion between abstract idealism and melancholic realism. The outcome is both sad and hopeful – while their real life experiences fail to match the potential promised by the web (and by wider culture etc.) the existence of their perfect digital communication (and cultural archetypes) acts as something to strive towards; a target to aim for; a memory of summer to get them through a current desolation.
The characters and the text bounce forwards between the two poles – modernist affirmative pragmatism at the top and postmodern nihilism at the bottom in a kind of apathetic middle ground. Every time they grasp at an absolute truth, they are swallowed by the guilt of relativism; every time they contemplate suicide, they find some reason or sense some absolute truth that prevents them from taking action. Like snails retracting their eyes when touched, they shy away from either extreme, living life permanently in a middle.
I say a middle, because it is not a concrete place. Instead, the middle is comprised only of the movement between the two poles, and has no tangible quality of its own. It is the travel – unquantifiable, not qualitative in material terms – rather than the destination. Thus, Plato’s metaxy can be called into play. As movement between two poles and beyond, the concept fits the ambling plot of Richard Yates. Both the ideas that there is nothing worth living for, and that there is the possibility of everything worth living for are simultaneously true, and the bouncing between them becomes the stuff of living. The novel is ultimately an example of the New Sincerity AND the Old Postmodern.