David Haglund writes:
The girl in Richard Yates is called Dakota Fanning; the young man, Haley Joel Osment. Both names belong to Hollywood child actors: Fanning, born in 1994, had her breakout role when she was seven in I Am Sam, opposite Sean Penn; Osment, b. 1988, is still best known for his role in The Sixth Sense alongside Bruce Willis. But Lin’s characters are not them. ‘Haley Joel Osment’ is a young writer whose life resembles Tao Lin’s; ‘Dakota Fanning’ is a high-school student in New Jersey. Their names may be a comment on the media-saturated culture of contemporary America, and may also hint that, like many child actors, these protagonists are in over their heads. In 2006, the year Richard Yates is set, the real Fanning played a character who was raped, sparking massive news coverage and concerned editorials about what was ‘age appropriate’; readers familiar with that affair will notice connections, intended or not, between it and the events of Lin’s novel. But Lin doesn’t do anything cute with the names: he uses them as straightforwardly as David Foster Wallace uses X and Y in ‘Octet #6’, for example, or as Lorrie Moore uses Mother and Baby in ‘People like That Are the Only People Here’. Jonathan Lethem has said that ‘strange character names are an easy way to make sure the reader feels, at the deepest level, they’re entering a propositional space where they have to suspend some of their reading protocols and suspend disbelief and make leaps.’ What makes Lin’s strategy in Richard Yates especially curious is that the novel otherwise follows the standard protocols of realism (no talking dolphins this time); the names themselves are the leap.