Twenty-seven-year-old Brooklyn author Tao Lin has been labeled a “hipster author” since his first book, a collection of poetry, was published in 2006. This (let’s be honest, slightly derogatory) pigeonholing was not completely unwarranted: Lin is an outspoken proponent of vegetarianism, his novels frequently center on young characters living in an urban setting, and his writing style seems both bored and superficial. I mean, Christ, his last work was entitled Shoplifting from American Apparel and consisted largely of absurd Gchat conversations.
A young author playing to a demographic that likes its art obscure isn’t a bad idea by any means—something that probably isn’t lost on Lin, whose self-stylized hipster persona is so extreme it could perhaps be deliberate. But hipsterdom and the ambiguous “literary community” are not contiguous groups, and for this reason he’s had difficulty being taken seriously as a fiction writer. His latest novel, Richard Yates, which leaves behind the banality of his previous works in favor of something far weightier, should help change this.
The protagonist of Richard Yates is aspiring writer Haley Joel Osment, an autistic man in his mid-twenties. The novel’s action revolves around his relationship with suburban high-schooler Dakota Fanning, whom Osment met over the Internet. Lin provides minimal exposition—how the two met, how Osment can afford a Wall Street apartment, what kind of writer Osment is, and why they share names with child stars are never explained. The story focuses instead on the couple’s relationship in the moment. This means there is still a generous helping of Gchat conversations, but this time around they actually matter. They’re between characters we care about and they flesh them out as individuals, a far cry from the faceless exercises in boredom that characterized Lin’s earlier Gchat dialogue.
The conversations are still quite surreal, and Yates might be Lin’s strangest work to date. Lin’s cold, detached style—imagine an anti-social Raymond Carver—formerly reflected the ennui of hipsterdom, but here, without any hipsters in sight, it comes off as alien. When combined with Osment’s autism and the conversations’ medium, it’s rarely clear how things should be interpreted. Early in the book the ambiguity is cute and funny, but when the tone becomes more serious the hazy sense of confusion becomes much more ominous.
Dakota Fanning, who turns out to be a troubled and self-destructive teenager, is responsible for most of the novel’s darker moments. Lin’s descriptions of her behavior are presented casually, but are quite intense and show that he has more in common with Bret Easton Ellis than a shared fascination with the superficial. And while Osment’s attempts to help Fanning come off as frighteningly controlling, Fanning clearly has the emotional upper hand in their romance, turning the book into a surprisingly rich rumination on power and control in relationships.
Lin’s newest novel deftly handles actual emotions. Not only does this undermine his detractors, it also shows that he has grown as a writer and sets him up to make the jump to the literary mainstream. His self-promotion antics may rub some the wrong way, but if he keeps writing this well, there’s no doubt he’ll be showing up on “best authors under 40” lists very soon.