“‘People are assholes,’ said Haley Joel Osment. ‘You’re going to be angry at me. I think obese people are assholes. They take up more room. Taking up room is stupid. Eating more. People should eat less. And not take up room. And always do what they say. I can’t comprehend how a person can be late.’
‘I’m not angry at you. I will never be angry at you. I’m only angry at myself,’ [said Dakota Fanning.]
‘I can’t comprehend how people can be late or obese,’ said Haley Joel Osment” (66-7).
“Haley Joel Osment said Dakota Fanning should tell the therapist he was a graduate of New York University. Dakota Fanning said she did and the therapist was impressed and said something nice about New York University. Haley Joel Osment said the only purpose of going to New York University was so Dakota Fanning could now say to her therapist in the presence of her mother that Haley Joel Osment had gone to New York University” (77-8).
– Tao Lin, Richard Yates
* * *
I’m a member of the Rumpus Book Club, which is currently discussing Tao Lin‘s newest novel, Richard Yates. The book, which I have not yet finished, concerns the relationship between 22-year-old writer and NYU alum Haley Joel Osment and 16-year-old high school student Dakota Fanning. Haley meets Dakota online, talks to her on Gmail chat constantly, visits her in New Jersey, has illegal sex with her, and treats her like shit, causing her to spiral into bulimia.
Anyone who knows my history will already know that I have a lot to say about this.
Richard Yates is the third book I’ve read by Tao Lin. I’ve also heard him read in NYC. He’s friends with some of my friends. We’ve published in some of the same places.
When I was 14, in Georgia, in 1997, I met a guy online, who was 19, in Michigan. We talked on ICQ, and then AIM, all the time, for hours and hours every day, and all night long. When I was 15, he came to visit me covertly at sleep-away nerd camp. When I was 16, he came to visit me at home in Georgia, with my parents’ permission. When I was 17, I went to visit him in Michigan, with my parents’ permission. I lost my virginity with him. When I was 18, in 2001, I moved from Georgia to New York City, where I started as a freshman at NYU right before September 11th happened. Tao Lin started at NYU that same semester, I think. This was the same time period when students were killing themselves by jumping from the balconies in Bobst Library all the time, before the protective barriers were installed.
In 2002, prompted by infidelity on my part, I dropped out of NYU and ran away with my online boyfriend. I was 18; he was 23. We hitchhiked all over the country together. We panhandled for food. We panhandled to pay for an abortion when I got pregnant. He hit me. I don’t mean he slapped me; I mean he punched me in the face hard enough to knock me down. We stopped hitchhiking, broke up for a few weeks, got back together, and got an apartment together in Washington, DC. He got a job at Whole Foods. I got a job in a bookstore and then a yoga studio. We became vegetarians. We read the labels on everything we ate, and only ate whole grains and organic things. We were so poor, we hardly ate anything. At 5’10, I weighed 120 lbs.
All this was, as you can probably imagine, a disaster and a mindfuck that took me years to get over. I was literally missing for months and my mother was, understandably, a wreck. The police were involved. I, the missing scholarship girl, was on the top of new NYU president John Sexton’s to-do list.
There were aspects of the dynamic between me and my then-boyfriend that resembled that of the fictional Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning very much. It was a mess. I was very, very naive. But, even so, it was so much, SO much, deeper and more real than the relationship the characters in this book have, and our IM conversations were better-written and more “literary” than theirs, by a HUGE factor. And despite the fact that this particular experience of mine is close to some of the horror stories people tell about why kids shouldn’t be online, I am 100% grateful to have had pretty much unfettered access to the Internet while growing up.
Like Tao Lin, I’m 27. I started using the web as a social medium when I was 11. I started making personal websites when I was 14, which was how the ex in question originally got in contact with me. The benefits of having access to a world outside the reaches of the small, Southern town I grew up in far, far, FAR outweighed the negatives. But, as I have mentioned before, the Internet was a very different world in those days than in 2006, when Richard Yates is set. It was much smaller and felt like a private club in some ways. The people I knew IRL usually didn’t know the first thing about the web.
After we broke up, my ex went on the thruhike the Appalachian Trail, and to marry a very nice, very smart, and insecure girl from South Carolina, whom he met on the Internet. She is younger than I am. They are both vegans. He’s held a series of hipster-y jobs in hipster-y towns (e.g., a bike shop in Portland). He currently works at Whole Foods again, and he and his wife are separated. From what I can tell from his web presence, he is a lot happier and healthier than he was when we were together.
After we broke up, I went on to mend my relationship with my family, and to have a long series of power-imbalanced relationships with men who were, on average, 12.5 years older than I was. When I was 21, I went back to NYU and got a full-time job there with tuition remission benefits. I went to school part-time for five years and graduated summa cum laude with no student debt. I wrote about my hitch-hiking experience a lot, in places like The Sun. I’m applying to Ph.D. programs for next year. After eight years of vegetarianism, I recently started eating poultry again.
On the subject of NYU, it is the most expensive university in the world. The financial aid sucks in comparison with most universities on the same tier. What I would have paid, had I not worked here, even with a large scholarship, was completely ridiculous. I’m so glad I didn’t do it. An NYU education is not worth what it costs, period. I’ve heard it said that NYU, the largest private owner of real estate in NYC, could stop collecting tuition for ten years without feeling it. I believe it.
However, as much as NYU screws its students financially, it treats its employees (unless they are grad student TA’s in certain departments..) very, very well. In addition to my salary, as my employer, NYU gave me a high-quality, free education. And NYU’s retirement plan for employees is so generous (if I contribute 5% of my monthly income, NYU contributes 10%) that, at 27 (unless our economy really never recovers) I’ve already put away enough money toward my retirement that I’ll probably be fine when I’m 65.