‘Nobody wants to discuss how lonely life is,’ a character in Richard Yates quips. ‘Everyone is more interested in toothpaste.’ Yet Tao Lin’s newest novel appears to be just that: a stoic mediation on loneliness. Haley Joel Osment, a recent NYU graduate, and Dakota Fanning, a high school student, meet over the internet and become somewhat infatuated with each other (ignoring the fact that they are named after child actors is your best choice; none of the ways you could interpret that quirk would add much to the story). Their relationship moves along tweely: they speak nonsense to each other and they shoplift in tandem. But this overly cute hipster romance soon deteriorates. What Haley recognises in Dakota as mere unhappiness turns out to be a darker problem. What Dakota sees as benevolence in Haley turns out to be his need to exert emotional authority over her. Thankfully, Lin injects some comedy into the moody courtship, often through Dakota’s demented mother.
Lin’s prose is sometimes described as sparse, but that word doesn’t quite do his work justice. His lean and often maniacal sentences propel the work forward with a slanted momentum. What first seems like a stock tale of romance gone sour evolves into a parable about the fickleness of human desire and the futility of detachment when it comes to love. Catherine Lacey