Nobody’s Protest Novel
On Tao Lin
Tao Lin, Taipei. Vintage, 2013.
The will that animates Tao Lin’s early fiction could easily be described as whimsical, and yet no less easily as somber. Neither aspect was uncommon in American narrations of the early third millennium, nor was it rare for both to manifest within a single narrative, but their relative proportion varied wildly. Enormous sums of cheery froth could be swept around a miserable grain of salt; pessimism could be magnified to such a scale and accompanied by such groundless, blatant moralizing as to render the entire project faintly, yet indelibly, ludicrous.
People were very confused. They wanted to be serious! But they also wanted to be “fun.” The whole situation, which tilted sometimes toward levity, sometimes toward anti-levity, never tilted decisively in either direction, and was always, in the end, pretty disappointing. People dealt with pretty disappointment in many ways. Some people had relationships to fall back on, and some had hierarchical beliefs and actions. Some had drugs, or philosophies, or religions, or media. They had food, most of them, and also memories. Sometimes, for some people, the combination of one too many of these things provided enough relief that they could imagine themselves as being pretty happy. Sometimes, for some people, the combination of these things did not relieve them of their pretty disappointment. They continued being disappointed, or sometimes, some of them, became depressed.
The voice of Lin’s first two books of fiction sounded slightly like the above two paragraphs. The short novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and short-story collection Bed—both put out by the independent publisher Melville House in May 2007—are remarkable for the deftness with which they play the fixed unhappiness of their material (failing or failed love relationships, primarily) against the inherently capricious, or mutable, or loopy nature of its depiction in language:
People went up and down Sixth Avenue with the word motherfucker in their heads. They felt no emotions, had no sensation of life, love, or the pursuit of happiness, but only the knowledge of being stuck between a Thursday and a Saturday, air and things, this thought and the next, philosophy and action; birth, death, God, the devil, heaven, and hell. There was no escape, ever, was what people felt.
Colin himself was dressed lightly, in dark and enveloping colors.
—“Cull the Steel Heart, Melt the Ice One, Love the Weak Thing; Say Nothing of Consolation, but Irrelevance, Disaster, and Nonexistence; Have no Hope or Hate—Nothing; Ruin Yourself Exclusively, Completely, and Whenever Possible,” Bed
Not everyone who walks Sixth Avenue carries a profanity within their head (though many likely do), and it doesn’t seem likely that they feel no emotion. The narration has no immediate bearing on the state of things. It isn’t realistic, and the narrator, I feel, knows this well; certainly he makes no pretense of offering more than a subjective impression—or, rather, projection. The sentences hardly seem the product of a mind unschooled in the confinement and confusion they describe, though that mind does seem sufficiently keen, as in unconfused, to temper the confinement with the spacious clauses and almost lighthearted variety of the second sentence. The passage figuratively lightens and literally airs itself out; it almost seems as if it’s not just Colin who is “dressed lightly, in dark and enveloping colors,” but the language itself.
The story progresses. Colin and Dana, a female friend he’s been out of touch with since their first semester of college, have made plans to attend a concert staged by the anarchist punk band Leftover Crack. Though Dana behaves in a flirtatious manner with Colin, both are aware that Dana has a boyfriend and nothing is going to happen between them. After the concert, they meet, by chance, some other young fans, kindhearted though a bit morose, and have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, pooling their money and inviting a homeless person to partake of their meal. Dana soon receives a phone call from her boyfriend, hugs Colin, and leaves. The story ends inside Colin’s memory of a night early in his freshman year, in New York in the fall of 2001, shortly after Dana, without cause or explanation, ceased speaking to him. After he left a free movie in Union Square, the bleak urban environment seemed, briefly but totally, to enter into concrete harmony with his free-floating emotions of abandonment.
Outside, the streets were closed to cars. People walked on them. Missing-person flyers were taped over ads and poles. It was very quiet without any cars. Colin felt vast and detailless and disembodied; it was the same tired and endless feeling everywhere, he felt, inside of him and out—in the stung and ashen air, the buildings tall and pale as apparitions, the strange and lowered sky. Colin didn’t want to go back to his room. He walked around for a very long time, looking down at the sidewalks and streets, and thought of the things that he and Dana might say to each other if she were with him. And every once in a while he would catch himself smiling and laughing a little, and it was those moments right after—as, having lapsed into fantasy, there was a correction, a moment of nothing and then a loose and sudden rush, back into the real world in a trick of escape, as if to some new place of possibilities—that he felt at once, and with clarity, most exhilarated, appreciative, disappointed, and accepting.
The stories in Bed are primarily driven by affective content: their sentences, however finely, weirdly crafted, keep faith with the characters’ wavering emotions, not the other way around. Such wavering, though by definition rarely smooth, is nonetheless continuous, and thus at least partially consoling: the core construction is “and,” as if Colin’s imagination, with its tremendous capacity for negative experience, could arrange the terms of his dissatisfaction so as to leave him, however unaccompanied without, at least less isolated in relation to himself.
In a later phase of his career, Lin would helpfully describe this as his “Lorrie Moore style,” and the similarities between Moore’s sad, precisely unhinged clauses (“She felt such inexplicable desolation then, such sludge in the heart, felt the season’s mockery, all that chartreuse humidity in her throat like a gag”) and those of Bed or Eeeee Eee Eeee (“a weightlessness entered into Chelsea’s blood—an inside ventilation, like a bacteria of ghosts . . . her heart, her small and weary core, neglected now for years, vanished a little, from the center out, took on the strange and hollowed heaviness of a weakly inflated balloon”) can seem so evident as to equal an identity. Yet there’s something more at work than the mere regurgitation of a style. Desperate flights of fancy run through the heads of both Lorrie Moore’s and Tao Lin’s characters, but in Moore’s work the brief fanciful phrasings never bleed out into, let alone alter, the external reality in which her characters have been inscribed. Her brilliant English major, hopelessly frustrated by menial secretarial labor and the built-in inequalities of an affair with a wealthy married man, inhabits a fictional world wherein all the laws of real-world physics are in full effect. Her thoughts alone can drift or hover; unless she has a parachute equipped, she can’t float out an office window and land safely on the ground. Likewise, the language of her co-workers and “lover” stays firmly grounded in the discourse typical of actual secretaries and upper-middle-class professionals.
Whereas in Eeeee Eee Eeee, a novel framed as a recursive set of memories belonging to Andrew, a depressed male doing menial labor for a Domino’s Pizza in Florida, the laws of reality have been suspended—within its space an ominous alien, a talking hamster, a subterranean colony of dolphins, a talking bear with the ability to teleport (it doesn’t make him any happier), and a talking moose well versed in the writings of the 20th-century Portuguese experimental lyric poet Fernando Pessoa all figure prominently. And though the laws of physics apply in Bed, several stories feature human beings speaking or behaving in a strange, or estranging, manner:
At the anti-war meeting, they wanted to abolish the words “We,” “Us,” and “Them.” Some others wanted to abolish the word “I.” They were frustrated. “We this, we that; us this, them that; us vs. them, no wonder things are the way they are.” They wanted semantic unity. They were going to make friends with the terrorists. That was their plan. An older man—a professor?—stood and made the case that the terrorists did not want any new friends, had enough friends already, too many, actually; that what they really wanted was romantic love. He was probably a graduate student. Another man stood and said, “Love is a thing on sale for more money than there exists.” It seemed an inappropriately capitalist thing to say, or else much too cynical, and the man was ignored. Finally, it was settled: whatever happened, they would just make friends. There were sign up sheets, and then a six-piece jazz-rock band played.
—“Love Is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists”
I’m sure there are critics who will consider the passage questionable on the grounds that it trivializes serious matters. Perhaps a New York City rally against invading Iraq could be described as more than an ideologically disorganized gathering that soon reduced itself to a “social” event. I would argue, however, that the depiction, though hardly realist, and regardless of political validity, contains some impulse toward truth; that the patent unreality of the passage has been devised to induce the reader to ask certain philosophical questions beyond the immediate context: What is collective identity? On what grounds is it constituted? How is it constituted? When and how is it desirable to “take sides”? Is the disparity between friendship and romantic love analogous to the gap between terror and peace?
And, also, maybe: Who would write this way? And furthermore: Why?
Class began that year, for New York University freshmen, on September 5, two days after Labor Day. Six days later, terrorists put planes through buildings roughly a half hour’s walk from campus, and classes stopped for a few weeks; then they began again.
Undergraduate life is typically “eventful,” and that of Tao Lin (NYU ’05, bachelor of arts, journalism) was no exception. He roomed with strangers in a Jersey City residence. He made friends in his freshman year, among them his first girlfriend, and in the spring semester, encouraged by a writing instructor, began to take the reading and writing of fiction seriously. After the relationship with the girlfriend ended during his sophomore year, he minimized his social activity and concentrated his energies on producing short stories for creative-writing workshops in which he was enrolled. He submitted his stories to New York literary publications, the New Yorker and the Paris Review, among others (this magazine included), and received rejection letters in return.
Still, the stories were accepted elsewhere, by “lesser” literary periodicals. He found a literary agent. The agent shopped the story manuscript to about thirty publishers; it was unanimously rejected. By this time, the summer of 2005, Lin had graduated from college. He was 22. He remained in New York while working at a library and a movie theater. He maintained a blog titled Reader of Depressing Books, where he expressed cogently, although inelegantly and at times obnoxiously, his opinions on ethics, politics, literature, and aesthetics. Pleasure (defined as relief from pain) was good; pain, evil: so, from a universal perspective, the proper ethical actions would be those that maximized the total amount of pleasure and minimized the total amount of pain. The politics were anarchist; disconnected from all social institutions, they called on individuals to voluntarily transform their own thoughts and actions and to refrain from imposing their will on others (since it caused pain). I’m not so sure that politics divested of collective action can still be considered politics; it might be better to say that ethics have entirely replaced, or nullified, or superseded, what’s normally referred to as “politics.” To quote an author Lin was very fond of:
A sensitive and honest-minded man, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Questions of “realism” were irrelevant to Lin: he had no problem with the fact that the characters in Don DeLillo novels all sound exactly like the author. He expressed the belief that major US literary publishers and publications held an arbitrary preference for “international” or “complicated” or “historical” fiction, such as the works of Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie, over the fiction he preferred, which tended to consist of plain, nonhistorical narratives of individual misery and isolation: among the works he positively cited were the stories of Jean Rhys, Lorrie Moore, Rebecca Curtis, Ann Beattie, and Joy Williams. The purpose of art was sympathetic consolation: by recognizing one’s own unhappiness in fiction, one could, if not abolish one’s unhappiness (everyone was inherently and irrevocably unhappy), nonetheless alleviate it to a certain degree. So art, since it reduced the net amount of universal pain, was fundamentally ethical—as with “politics,” “aesthetics” were entirely replaced, or nullified, or superseded, by ethics. Just as questions of political validity depended entirely on the individual actor, questions of aesthetic quality depended entirely on the individual reader: if some communication sympathetically consoled a person, that communication was art—to that person. It was entirely possible that that thing would not be art to another person. There was no abstract standard of “good” or “bad” art that could reconcile disparate opinions. The disparity could be registered, but that, it seemed, was all that could be done.
The blunt, unnuanced accounting of “net” pleasure and “net” pain may owe something to utilitarian ideas, the sense of universal orientation something to Taoist literature, and the emphasis on individual restraint something to Roman Stoicism, but by far the dominating presence in Lin’s thought was that of the 19th-century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, whose concepts he discovered and absorbed during his college years, albeit outside class. Influenced by strains of Indian philosophy, Schopenhauer’s writings posit, in a prose style of extraordinary fineness, that an overarching force known as the Will constitutes the fundamental essence and existence of the universe; all individual entities, desires, and mentalities serve as expressions of this Will, and—constricted by the categories of causation and materiality—are entirely determined.
And entirely miserable: dissatisfaction is intrinsic to Willing, which, even when it attains what it desires, derives no lasting happiness from that possession and soon lapses into the dissatisfaction of a new desire. Unhappiness pervades the Will in much the same way that the Will pervades reality. What relief there is from Willing can be derived only from art, ethical behavior, and religious asceticism, which are essentially identical in that they turn the individual’s Will against itself, elevating his awareness away from his personal desires and their attendant miseries and strife and toward more peaceful, sympathetic apprehensions of the world’s wholeness of being and variety of forms—seeing it lightly, so to speak, and in dark and enveloping colors.
As a lens through which to read and write literature, such philosophy has much to recommend it: the writings of Chekhov, Proust, and Beckett resonate to an extremely high degree with the ideas set forth in Schopenhauer’s books, of which they all were avid readers. It’s not hard to see why: Schopenhauer’s thought was rare among philosophies in the great respect it accorded not only to art but to emotion; if that emotion happened to be unhappy nearly all the time, so much the better for literature. Never foreign to dissatisfaction, Lin experienced it to an acute degree during the summer of 2005, and not only because he was no longer insulated by college life or because his manuscript was in the process of repeated rejection. He was infatuated or “obsessed” with a friend who, although she tolerated his infatuation, even going so far as to “lead him on,” was evidently not interested in pursuing a romantic relationship. The emotional temperature of the book of poems (you are a little bit happier than i am) and novel (Eeeee Eee Eeee) that emerged from this period was palpably different from the calibrated equilibrium of Bed. It could be colder and more biting.
i don’t want to end my life anymore
poodles also change
i am expressing myself pretty good right now
i want to express existential despair with a hammer
i want to express the meaninglessness of life with a knife and a ski mask
i think i can do it
do you think i can do it
can we have a conversation about that
what if i stabbed you in the arm with this poem
—“i am about to express myself”
You live a horribly distorted life. You don’t know anything. Fuck you if feel [sic] angry at someone else. I’ll kill you. You are stupid and boring. Killing isn’t bad. The only thing to be angry at is existence itself.
—the president, Eeeee Eee Eeee
Even taking into account a certain amount of playful self-awareness, I don’t believe it’s unfair to label the tenor of these passages as arbitrarily aggressive. A new spirit, more relativistic and violent, now at times animates the language. It’s not that the passive desperation of Bed has been abolished, but that it can no longer be considered a constant. Spikes of loud and semi-random violence punctuate these books. They don’t just take up space, they eat the air. For me, these books are the most volatile and gripping of Lin’s works so far: it’s here that he most energetically and blatantly contradicts his natural tendencies toward acquiescence, neutrality, and self-denial with drives toward antagonism, anger, and assertion, and the tension that emerges between these competing sets of impulses, once recognized, proves fascinating. Anger bursts the limits of the self, but only to be re-contained; in the case of these books, though, the rage, springing violently out from an identity selfless and fragile to begin with, runs so far that it outstrips any particular object, reaching a point where particularity itself, the singular nature of things and people separate from the wholeness of being, becomes the only object worthy of grievance—and only then can the anger, reconciled, but only to a point, fade.
Thus the wishful kill list of the poems expands to include not only the girl, the poet’s literary agent (a poem is titled “i am about to kill my literary agent”), and the poet’s literary agent’s family but “people” (“not just select kinds of people, like hitler did, but all people, like the universe did in the future”), the earth itself, the universe, and, last and least, the poet:
i think my problems live in a house on a mountain in north carolina
i think they are planning to come gouge me and kill me
—“i am about to express myself”
I had an urge one hour ago. To write poems
that make no sense, and
I felt happy. Stabbed
by hooded black youth.
Shocked by the willingness of grade-schoolers
to kill me. And eat my heart.
—“Washington Mutual Is a Bank That Is Everywhere”
i lie on my bed and i wait for your phone call
the only person in the world that i like
my favorite person
not god but just a person
and i know you can’t save me, you didn’t create the universe in seven days
you’re just another person who isn’t in love with me
but maybe you can do something, still, i guess, and i want to murder you
When I read lines like these, with their rather gruesome good humor, I’m reminded of the “Public Service Announcement” that inaugurates that other debut masterpiece of violent ideation,The Slim Shady LP: “The views and events expressed here are totally fucked and are not necessarily the views of anyone. However, the events and suggestions that appear on this album are not to be taken lightly.” Poetry like this isn’t for everyone—no poetry is—and the lowercase typography and bare emotional content are likely to remind many readers of high-school poetry (their own, perhaps), triggering a squeamish antagonism that distracts from how, tonally, taken as a whole, these poems manage to be assertive without being overbearing and pitiful without lapsing into vanity, neither of which seems especially high school—or even college, really—to my mind. Rage is always ludicrous, but presented carefully, with a minimum of selfishness, it refuses to be discounted merely on those grounds; it can be taken seriously as an experience of the general (not just individual) poverty and dispossession at its root.
Given the highly (but by no means completely) subjective nature of tone, the distinction between violent language that promotes actual violence and violent art that defuses violent urges can be difficult to maintain, but it is possible, I think, given a detailed attention to form. If Lin, in you are a little bit happier than i am, does possess some of Eminem’s cheerful, snarling wit, he lacks, except in brief bursts (“happy. Stabbed / by hooded black youth”), the lyricist’s extraordinary sonic dexterity, a source of confidence and pleasure in itself, which subordinates violence to its cathartic, disciplined translation into air. Nor does he have the sort of mind intent on carefully developing arrays of symbols that could diffuse aggression into intricacy; aside from the animals (which appear so frequently that they probably cease to be symbols), Lin’s poetry is very poor in symbols. His formal organization, his “art,” emerges mostly out of horizontal, serial practices such as metonymy (along with metonymy’s douchebag cousin, quasi non sequitur), anaphora (the prevailing refrain in the book is “i want”), and mantra—of the sixty-six lines in the poem “4:30 a.m.” sixty read, “i am fucked existentially.”
The purpose of that repetition is, it seems, to exhaust the writer’s awareness, to the point that the framing of the mind gives out and perspective dilates, or shifts elsewhere; for the reader, however, the tactic can come off as cruel and immature. It’s only in the arrangement of the book—“4:30 a.m.” marks the rising anger that culminates, at the midpoint, with “i am about to express myself”; in the second half, the tunnel vision of the first, mostly limited to the poet’s miserable “i” and the girl’s exclusive and excluding “you,” widens to include other human beings in the “you” (former coworkers, former fellow students, current friends, the poet’s mother), while developing the possibility, for the “i,” of a teeth-bared, go-for-broke delight (“i drive one hundred and twenty miles per hour and take a digital photograph of my speedometer”)—that the immaturity and cruelty are resolved, at least in terms of art.
Eeeee Eee Eeee follows a similar build-up, let-down pattern: it begins with Andrew in the Florida present, thinking idly of killing rampages, then introduces the animals, who kill, Looney Tunes–style, celebrities such as Elijah Wood, Sean Penn, Wong Kar-wai, Kate Braverman, and Philip Roth, before it climaxes, in the past, at a New York City sushi bar, with the presidential tirade cited earlier, which justifies murder on the grounds that knowing the ultimate consequences of violence—couldn’t it, conceivably, save more lives in the future than it takes in the present?—is impossible. Like the alien at the sushi bar, the president does not appear earlier in the book. He comes out of nowhere, but his title suggests the conclusive and authoritative (not to mention unilaterally violent; the book was written during the Bush Administration, after all) function he performs thematically, concentrating other characters’ meandering fantasies of violence into a single voice. Winding up his tirade, he offers a few concluding remarks:
I guess, to be practical, uh, distribution of wealth, uninhibited sharing of material possessions, debasement and de-evaluation of human power and authority. Wariness against any kind of progress that involves numbers. I don’t know. Thank you. Good night.
Then the animals appear, and a discussion of Fernando Pessoa and the relative purposes of life and art begins. Then Salman Rushdie arrives. He plays heads-up poker with the president. Lelu, who met Andrew at a book party and tagged along with him to the sushi bar, speaks up.
“I want a Fatwa,” Lelu said.
Lelu sat on the table and looked down at Salman Rushdie.
“How do I get a Fatwa,” Lelu said. “I want a Fatwa.”
“You are stupid and boring,” the president said to Lelu.
“You’re just trying to provoke me,” Lelu said.
“You are stupid and boring,” the president said to Salman Rushdie.
“I am Salman Rushdie,” Salman Rushdie said.
Shortly afterward, the bear, as he has been wont to do throughout the book to various figures, puts a blanket over Salman Rushdie’s head. The animals recede as the novel zooms forward in time, briefly summarizing how Andrew was “let go” from his jobs at a movie theater and a library in New York, how he returned to Florida, now delivers pizza. It ends with Andrew at his friend Steve’s house, alone in the bedroom of Ellen, Steve’s depressed and antisocial sister:
He felt a little lonely. He felt good.
It was November.
He pulled the blanket over his head and listened to Steve, in the kitchen, cleaning dishes, then microwaving something, then nothing for a while; and then the TV, making a cheering noise.
I didn’t know the name Kate Braverman at first—I had to look her up online—but the other celebrity names I knew, and I think I understand the frame of mind in which they all would be taken to be on the same level, before being debased, devalued, and rhetorically killed. The only sort of person who would find not just a literary one-percenter like Philip Roth but a moderately successful short-story writer like Kate Braverman worthy of leveling via fictional annihilation is an angry, unpublished writer of short stories. Bookshelves are as tall as billboards from an ant’s perspective—particularly if that ant has been trained, by television, not to discriminate between various kinds of spotlighting. (One man’s Booker Prize for Fiction is another man’s fatwa, and both those men are Salman Rushdie.) In literature and film alike, it can seem as if there are too many faces, and even if the idea of murdering them all is only, in the end, an idea, perhaps we could stand to cover more of them with blankets.
Lin wasn’t wrong to believe that Bed deserved to be published. Two or three of its nine stories seem flawed to me—mostly since Lin runs into trouble when the cast of major characters rises above two—but the remaining stories come off as intelligent, emotionally credible, and tonally confident at a level well beyond his undergraduate years. His problem was that he didn’t understand how publishing worked—didn’t understand enough, at least, at first. Publishers were simply unwilling to take a chance on a young, uncertified author of short stories of low-keyed, humorously framed despair. As we’re often told, short stories don’t sell as well as novels, and the prevailing period style, performative and studded with obvious cultural and historical “import”—the louder and closer the better—had little in common with Lin’s more quotidian and isolationist aesthetic.
The situation, as the year developed, was that after having had one book worth publishing and not being able to put it out, Lin now had three. It’s tempting, maybe, to speculate on what would have become of his style had he faced further rejection: tempting but pointless, since unknowable. Soon after, the world opened up for him, to some extent: you are a little bit happier than i am won a first-book contest from Action Books and was published in 2006; Bed and Eeeee Eee Eeee found an appreciative publisher in Melville House.
There is a belief that one comes to New York to become a writer. This belief is false—or at least incomplete. One comes here to be recognized by others as a writer, and until that happens one feels like, and for all intents and purposes is, to use Lin’s favored terminology, shit. Having survived and even thrived off rejection, now Lin, confident in the knowledge that his future work would be welcome at Melville House, was in a meaningfully more stable position from which to develop his ideas and style. The next phase of his writing, both on its own terms and on those of the world around it, would take place in a space in which “acceptance” was, if not exactly possible, still somehow plausible, regardless.
Depressed and antisocial though she was, Ellen Kennedy was nonetheless a 16-year-old girl, with all the energy and curiosity 16 connotes. She drew things. She wrote and read. She held down a menial job in fast food. And from her mother’s home in northeast Pennsylvania she maintained relationships with older men, among them a poet in Minnesota, 21, and a comic-book fan in Philadelphia, 28. She had run away from home to see the latter; the police had found her there; her mother had wished to press charges. It was likely in this context that her mother, on discovering Ellen’s clandestine relationship with a New York University graduate, 22, permitted the relationship to develop, even going so far as to invite the graduate to live with them, where she could, if not control the situation, at least keep better watch over it.
By no standard of well-being could the relationship be considered healthy. The girl was eager to please the young man but had trouble keeping her word. She would show up to their rendezvous later than she said she would. She would not do things with the young man that she had said they would do. She was bulimic and a cutter and depressed. She felt trapped, “surrounded by endless shit.”
The young man had a problem with expression. He expected the girl to recognize when she had displeased him without being prompted by any clear sign of displeasure. He did not appreciate the girl’s abject apologies for being inconsistent, or her professions of affection for him, or her promises to change herself for the better; if anything, they aggravated his distrust. He demanded total reciprocity between them, but his tone of voice was all too often unforgiving and despotic. He spied on her communications and her internet browsing history.
The girl looked up to the young man but could not please him except by, under his guidance, changing her life to match her words. And this, in spite of, or despite, his help, she couldn’t do. She resorted to lying to him about her efforts to eat better and be less depressed (and not lie to him) when he wasn’t around; on uncovering these lies, the young man grew that much more displeased, triggering a further cycle of contrition, dishonesty, and frustration. Eventually Lin broke off the relationship. He moved out of Ellen’s mother’s house and back to Brooklyn. It was the spring of 2007. The relationship had lasted roughly a year.
A pattern was emerging: imbalanced, failed relationship with girl gives rise to book of poems and novel. In this case, the book of poems was Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and the novel Richard Yates. (The brief history above is drawn primarily from the latter work.) Yet things had changed as well. This time the relationship was sexual, and more than sexual: there was a genuine sympathy between them, both being socially marginal people prone to crude/whimsical perspectives. And Lin held power over Ellen Kennedy. His relationship with her had been the first in which he had desired the other less; not to mention the first in which he had been offered, at least in theory, the opportunity to radically alter another human being’s behavior, to rebuild an identity from the ground up. Nothing of the sort occurred, but the frustration Lin experienced in his attempts to change his girlfriend would lead him, as was his habit, to turn on himself. He attempted to develop greater control over the direction of his own thoughts and activities. The majority of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy consists of stiff, willfully nonaggressive statements of intention, ideology, and fact; neutral language purged of virtually all its emotional signature: the book has been defaced, or hamsterized, not merely at the level of content (the book has many hamsters) but tonally as well. Stressed time and again is the capacity to reduce one’s misery by conditioning one’s mind to view that misery from a different, vastly more distant, perspective:
we have our undesirable situations whether we are upset about them or not
if we are upset about our problems we have two problems: the problem
and our being upset about it; with thoughts as the cause of emotions
rather than the outcome the causal order is reversed
the benefit of this is that we can change our thoughts
to feel or act differently regardless of the situation
—“a stoic philosophy based on the scientific fact that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors”
It’s good advice, and even somewhat true. I’m not so sure that a severely depressed reader, let alone one 16 years old, is going to be able to impose her mental will so easily on her disastrous (lack of) feeling, but poetry along these lines may well make it easier, if not exactly possible—though that stealthily imperious “we” probably doesn’t help matters any. The book isn’t quite boring—there’s enough variety (political, ethical, biographical, comical) to keep this reader interested—but it is numbing. What compensation there is for the stretches of numbness takes the form of a handful of lines where images of vacancy and distances become vehicles for lyric expression, whether a poignant, simple sadness reminiscent of Pessoa (“the distances i have described in my poems / will expand to find me / but they will never find me . . . i want to remember you as a river / with a flower on it / i’ll be right back”), or a calm, expansive, and exuberant song of oneself:
i have licked the ashen barnacles of the low ports of melbourne
i have swum with the handsome redfish of the small piers of melbourne
i have been to jetty park near cape canaveral
and journeyed deep into the rocks, at my own peril
to stare at the handsome feet of young caucasian humans
i have felt a love of life that i believe is good
and i have felt it alone; i have always felt alienated from my peers
—“ugly fish poem, part one”
It’s telling that these lines spring out of isolation, whether metaphysical or social, that the beauty of the possibility of company emerges only in a context of transience and departure: a flower on a river can’t be still, and its presence serves only to heighten one’s sense of time’s inexorable motion forward. Yet insofar as the book is directed toward a solid, present “you” (“i want to help you overcome severe depression and i think i can do it”), it tends to weaken. Lin sometimes seems to believe, or have willed himself to believe, that the drastic inequalities in age and will between the author and (putative) reader could be resolved by ignoring or making light of them. Even when this works, it only works up to a point, and when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t:
as a teenager i experienced existential despair as an unsexy sensation
of repressed orgasm in the chest; today i experience existential despair
as a distinct sensation of wanting to lecture you
on how i am better than you, without crushing your hopes and dreams
if this is about to become a social situation i will be right back
my unit of communication is the 200-page novel
always remember that i am better than you, according to me
small feelings of permanence later get wrapped and sold on amazon
—“eleven page poem, page nine”
It’s not the condescension that kills the poem so much as the poet’s inability to commit to it fully. The tone, instead of being bitter or bittersweet, comes off as curdled and smirking; the texture, unable to negotiate between soft and jagged, ends up being just dull. The communal faults and isolated virtues of the poems in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy seem to cancel one another out without ever coming into sight of one another. This situation likely reflects Lin’s imbalanced love relationship in real life. But the book as a whole, even if its composition constitutes some triumph of the will over itself, doesn’t come together tonally or formally. It’s the one book of his seven most likely, for me, to stay on the shelf.
All the rage and confrontation that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy strains itself to blur or fade out snaps back, in the two-hundred-page novel Richard Yates, into a sharp, exclusive focus; constricted by a ruthless minimalism informed by “Kmart realism,” the novel is saturated with hostile encounters and bad faith both suspected and confirmed. While walking down Sixth Avenue with her boyfriend, Haley Joel Osment, Dakota Fanning experiences a fit of uncontrollable rage directed against herself, Haley, and “everyone.” Haley, in his manner, tries to calm her down.
He ran to her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” she said. “I’ll kill you.”
They turned onto 11th Street and walked toward Fifth Avenue. Dakota Fanning stopped walking. Haley Joel Osment faced her at an angle with a serious facial expression while sometimes grinning or smiling.
“Don’t laugh at me,” said Dakota Fanning.
“This is funny, you were ‘screaming in agony,’” said Haley Joel Osment. “Why don’t you have a sense of humor right now?” he said with a strange facial expression.
They are in New York City despite having promised Dakota’s mother, away on a business trip, that they would not go there. When later, in an attempt to be completely honest in all things, Dakota tells her mother about their outing, a heated confrontation between Haley and Dakota’s mother takes place. Haley is accused of being a purveyor of “self-righteous bullshit”; he, in turn, accuses Dakota’s mother of being a bad influence on Dakota and strongly and insistently implies that he is a better influence. The novel ends, significantly and a bit sarcastically or sadly, on Thanksgiving; during dinner at Dakota’s uncle’s house, the couple spends much of their time alone in an upstairs room, where Haley, not for the first time, relentlessly interrogates Dakota in an attempt to verify that she has not been vomiting her food. For the first time in the book, he does not succeed in extracting a confession from her, though he does drive her to tears. Later, alone with her in another room, he notices a cut on her arm, and succeeds in extracting a different confession from her.
She said when he was upstairs using the computer she opened the drawer and looked at the different knives and chose the steak knife and held it to her neck. “Then I think I cried and just cut my arm,” she said. “I put the knife back and closed the drawer and brought you the vegan burger and tomato bowl. It was stupid.”
“When you said you wouldn’t cut yourself anymore did you mean you wouldn’t cut yourself hard?”
“No,” said Dakota Fanning in a bored voice.
Haley Joel Osment stood and left the room.
The “concrete/literal” style, in which physical objects and activities take almost total precedence over thoughts, corresponds exactly to Haley’s concentration, quiet and almost violent in its intensity, on modifying Dakota’s personality by driving her to take clearly defined actions instead of merely making resolutions. Yet as Dakota’s lies reveal themselves, the mode’s apparent integrity, as well as that of Haley’s behavior-oriented regimen of self-improvement, is contaminated and to some extent reversed. Even in this language purged of artifice, the truth cannot be known—to take the most glaring case, is Dakota lying when she says that as a child she was knocked unconscious and raped by a friend’s father? The confluence of the flayed form and the grisly content—the former carefully calculated, the latter the product of intensive data mining of a much larger body of memories, online chats, emails, poems, and text messages—renders the experience of reading Richard Yates forceful and excruciatingly bitter.
While maintaining total order and indifference, the book seems designed to inflict the maximum amount of punishment on author, characters, and reader alike. In this context, the names Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning seem less an arbitrary stunt than simply the most degrading labels imaginable. There’s something subtly yet unmistakably nauseating about forcing the reader to re-read so many cacophonous syllables; not to mention evoking the unmistakable aura of violation that hangs around “child stars” and their names, especially in cases where the names have already been established and a simple “he” or “she” would suffice.
Through such choices of diction and others like them—a local supermarket consistently referred to not as a supermarket but as a Price Chopper, two characters called not proper names but “tape man” and “headbutt girl”—the masochism and the nausea, to say nothing of the depression, of Ellen Kennedy/Dakota Fanning are not just reproduced, but amplified. To speak metaphorically (something prohibited in the book), they stain the otherwise transparent form. As a pure exercise in style or bare description of a hopelessly flawed relationship, Richard Yates is, in my opinion, a total aesthetic success. Whether this success is worth so much irremediable suffering and revulsion—and whether someone clearly weaker than the author, even assuming her consent, should be exploited and exposed so mercilessly for the sake of art—that’s something I’m far less sure of, and saying otherwise would be a lie.
As if to show, not merely tell, that the dense, violating, miserable emotional signature of Richard Yates was the result of conscious aesthetic decisions, Lin’s novella Shoplifting from American Apparel deploys the same “concrete/literal” style toward entirely different ends. Though published one year before Richard Yates, in July 2009, Shoplifting was based on and written during a subsequent period of time; it begins where Yates leaves off, in November 2006, and ends two years later, around Election Day 2008. The nouns of Shoplifting have been selected and set out so as to render it—the book, the world—enormously, almost uncannily, cheerful. Its leitmotifs are music and sunlight; no major themes can be discerned beyond the passage of time and, maybe, chance.
Lin’s surrogate character, named simply Sam, drifts through ninety pages: out of his relationship with Sheila, the Kennedy surrogate; through relaxed yet diligent labor at an organic vegan restaurant in Brooklyn; past two shoplifting arrests, two stints in jail, and community service; toward Atlantic City to try his luck at games of chance; to concerts, parties, readings at the University of Florida; in and out of relationships with females sporting healthy-sounding names like Kaitlyn, Paula, Hester, and Audrey. In short, he enjoys time with people. Any moments of discomfort and friction have been smoothed out or elided, much as the pleasures were in Richard Yates. Unlike in Yates, situations of unease can be presented as a source of mild humor (“‘Why don’t you want to have sex with me?’ said Hester. ‘What do you mean,’ said Sam. ‘I don’t know,’ said Hester quickly. ‘I don’t . . . not don’t want to have sex with you,’ said Sam”) or, near the end of the book, as a source of wistful reminiscence, as Sam chats online with his friend Robert:
It was getting dark out, or the sun had moved, and Sam’s room was less bright. Sam looked around. His cup of iced coffee was empty. “I felt emotional today thinking about the past, like a year and a half ago, at Sheila’s house,” he said. “I think because I haven’t been awake in the daytime for an extended period in so long and was reminded of the last time I was in a sunny room on a computer after having been up four to five hours, which was at Sheila’s house, I think.”
“Wow,” said Robert.
“But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really,” said Sam. “It just went away after a while.”
Sheila, as Robert has informed Sam earlier in the conversation, is currently in a mental hospital (by her own will, according to her); Sam is concerned, but most of their conversation about Sheila is summed up by a single-sentence paragraph: “They talked about Sheila for a few minutes.” She’s no longer exposed, but she’s also no longer speaking. Her last direct words came fifty-three pages ago, again online:
“I know,” said Sheila. “I’m sorry. I thought I could change that. You always told me I could change that. Now I don’t understand. I feel a lot of sympathy for everyone. Out-of-control sympathy. An out-of-control sympathy for everything.”
“If you do that’s good,” said Sam with a worried facial expression.
“I will just do things until I am ready to accept that we will never get back together,” said Sheila. “And when I have accepted that I will talk to you again.”
A little prior to the midpoint of the book, Sam recounts to Kaitlyn how he ran into Sheila on the street; she walked away without a word. Robert, having spoken with Sheila from the mental hospital, has given her Sam’s number and told her to call him; she hasn’t. She is finally doing exactly what she said she would. Tonally, Shoplifting from American Apparel is the calmest of Lin’s books. Here, for once, desires are treated as a pleasant interlude: though doomed, they’re hardly torturous—or even sad, really. The book depicts a life composed of brief relationships in which no one tries to change the other, a world where everything is “fine.” Yet however much the novella glows with health and peace, one can’t help but see, reading through these sequences involving Sheila, how its ineffable, almost Elysian, good cheer has been haunted by, and predicated on, its author and main character having been, slightly but indelibly—and intentionally, always intentionally—heartless.
Lin’s latest book, Taipei, his first published by Vintage, was released in June 2013. The title carries implications of, if not exactly homecoming, at least an attempt to come home: capital of the Republic of China (“Taiwan”), Taipei has been, since the summer of 2008, where Lin’s parents live, and the novel, based factually and mentally (albeit with excursions into an earlier personal history) on Lin’s life between November 2009 and July 2011, encompasses, among other things (a book tour, the rise and fall of a relationship, drug-taking), two of his visits there to see them.
The motif of recursion is not at all limited to a geographic or familial sense. In his first three books, Lin demonstrated an ability to trace the contours of an isolated consciousness, to score its alternating rhythms of dilation and compression with fidelity and care. Reverie in solitude, whether gentle or violent, was his original gift; only under the stress of companionship was he driven, through study and labor, to conform to the tenets of a radical behaviorism of his own design. Taipei is not without relation to his previous prose works: like Richard Yates, it prominently features the demise of a love relationship; like Shoplifting from American Apparel, it features bouts of semi-random social activity dispersed over, and depicted by, irregular lapses in time and space. Yet these continuities are at the level of material; though the perspective of Taipei’s third-person narration remains limited to its protagonist, Paul, his perceptions can be as detailed and expansive as those of the characters in Bed.
It occurred to him that, in the past, in college, he would later have analyzed this, in bed, with eyes closed, studying the chronology of images—memories, he’d realized at some point, were images, which one could crudely arrange into slideshows or, with effort, sort of GIFs, maybe—but now, unless he wrote about it, storing the information where his brain couldn’t erase it, place it behind a toll, or inadvertently scramble its organization, or change it gradually, by increments smaller than he could discern, without his knowledge, so it became both lost and unrecognizable, he probably wouldn’t remember most of this in a few days and, after weeks or months, he wouldn’t know it had been forgotten, like a barn seen from inside a moving train that is later torn down, its wood carried elsewhere on trucks.
The renewed devotion to the complexities and pulse of subjectivity is clear, yet no less evident are the differences that have evolved since Bed. The passage, one single sentence, which I think is fractally and fairly representative of the book, deals primarily in concepts. The experience it seeks to transmit, cerebral discontinuity, requires corresponding shifts in syntax, punctuation: what few conjunctions can be made out in the dense, swarming clauses (but, unless, or) tend to bend the sense more than they sustain its flow. The sentence is complex, confusing, and—once a certain care and effort is applied—coherent; too large to be usefully diagrammed from without, it compels the reader to experience it from within. The closing, drastically disjointed image of the barn, or the train, or the trucks, twisting over multiple vectors of time and space, suggests, with its wry and baffling precision, the kind of consciousness Taipei requires and attempts to foster.
It’s not that emotion has ceased exerting influence on the style; it’s still as present as ever. But there’s a countervailing emphasis on an ever-larger “structure,” a relentless system that ends up modifying, filtering, and framing feeling in a vertiginous fashion. Characters, abstractions, themes, strands of narrative: all are treated as interchangeable components in this system as it continually shifts into new, self-similar configurations. The swarming density that this process evokes (reflected by the book’s many images of clouds, haze, nebulosity) can be so much that even the most perceptive reader is left disoriented after first reading; I’m being a bit abstract here myself, but fortunately the book is sufficiently beautiful and humorous on the surface—even a few book reviewers managed to notice—to merit a dedicated rereading, time in which its mystery can prove a revelation.
The scene that occupies the center of Taipei is based on events that took place in a Toronto apartment in the early morning of October 20, 2010. Paul is being interviewed by a young Canadian reporter of the opposite sex; he has, with her knowledge, ingested major quantities of MDMA—a substance she has, in spite of his entreaties, refused to “do.” The original interview with Tao Lin lasted about 150 minutes; after being recorded and transcribed by the reporter, Chandler Levack, into a 11,810-word-long document, it was published on the website Thought Catalog on November 2, 2010.
The novelized version is nowhere near as long; though it reproduces some of the interview, these passages have been reduced to certain lines—dealing with drugs, death, forgetfulness, and isolation—thematically relevant to the rest of the book. The novelized interview also details some of Paul’s unvoiced thoughts and bodily gestures, as well as other information unknown to the interviewer, such as that Paul, while the interviewer was in the bathroom, searched for his name in her email account. None of these choices in presentation are themselves particularly clarifying. Yet in the light of another minor detail they take on a blinding presence.
Up to this point, Taipei’s cast of characters has been nominally nondescript: Paul, Paul’s mother, father, and brother; Daniel, Fran, Mitch, Robert, Charles, Rodrigo, Michelle, Laura, Walter, Taryn, Erin, Calvin, Maggie, none with last names, most with age-explicit numerals attached. From the first sentence of the book—“It began raining a little from a hazy, cloudless seeming sky as Paul, 26, and Michelle, 21, walked toward Chelsea to attend a magazine-release party at an art gallery”—one’s been trained to read names as mere placeholders. So it’s likely that, on being introduced to “Alethia, 22, who had published around six hundred articles since leaving college two years ago to write for Toronto’s leading alt weekly,” one absorbs the novel data with no questions asked.
Aletheia can be translated from the Greek as “truth.” Yet a more etymologically oriented translation would be “unconcealment of being,” or “unforgetfulness”: the word lethe (modified here by a-, the particle of negation) is the river of the underworld from which the newly dead must drink, and whose water erases memories. I don’t know whether Lin has any interest in Greek philosophy or myth. I’ve found no evidence online to indicate he does. If this naming is intentional—and given its association with the book’s themes, it’s an extremely fortunate coincidence if it isn’t—it most likely derives, given Lin’s oft-stated fondness for both German and existential philosophy, from a reading of Martin Heidegger, who appropriated aletheia from its native context to employ it, in German, as the poetic antithesis or dismantling of what he deemed to be a modern worldview, anthropocentric and utilitarian, that reduced the experience of reality, or being, through industry, technology, and science, to an unholy, savage, and disorienting agglomeration of power. Still, with his gift for conflation and impulse toward power-worship, Heidegger could, at times, “in various contexts,” submit that technology might have some vital role to play in aletheia, in revealing the world to itself, and in Taipei Paul seems amenable to a similar belief or possibility.
Paul asked if Alethia, whom he felt attracted to and curious about, wanted to interview him while, as a journalistic angle, he was “on MDMA.”
Paul searched his name in Alethia’s email account.
Paul said he felt “nothing” and swallowed another and, when it began taking effect, repeatedly encouraged Alethia to also ingest MDMA, “for the interview.”
Paul and Alethia sat on beanbags on the floor and talked for two and a half hours, during which Paul sometimes wanted to hug or kiss Alethia, whose default expression, it seemed, was “worried.”
Alethia said “you were saying you’ve been doing readings on drugs because it makes you feel more comfortable” and asked why.
Alethia asked if Paul was worried he’d be “the next to die.”
“No. I don’t care if I die.”
“Um,” said Alethia laughing.
Alethia said she took Ritalin almost every day, from ages 8 to 12, for “attention deficit disorder.” Paul said “that seems horrible” and “that must’ve changed you.”
“Yeah, I think it did,” said Alethia. “I think it did.”
“People who take the most drugs by far are the kids—”
“It’s so true,” said Alethia.
“—who get prescribed them,” said Paul.
“I feel like I have close friends but we stop talking. Right now, I guess, what person do I feel closest to?”
“Yeah,” said Alethia.
“Um, I can’t remember right now.”
Alethia left around 4:30 a.m., easily declining Paul’s suggestions, bordering on “pleas,” he felt, that she stay. Rodrigo and his girlfriend seemed asleep. Sitting on a sofa, in the common room, Paul texted Alethia: “This is Paul. Good night, glad we met.” Alethia responded: “Me too. You are wonderful.” Paul lay on the sofa, bristling with wakefulness, for around forty minutes, then put his MacBook in his backpack and wrote a two-sentence note to Rodrigo and walked outside into a silvery, wintry light.
On a Megabus to New York City—for around fifteen hours, due to a two-hour delay in Buffalo—he read all he could find by Alethia on the internet, becoming more “obsessed,” he felt, after each article, lying on his back across two seats with knees bent, twice dropping his iPhone onto his face. His interest in Alethia naturally decreased, the next few days, then they texted a few times and he felt renewed obsession, but he didn’t like her impersonal tone in their emails discussing their interview—which she’d spent eight hours transcribing—and, less than a week after they met, all he felt toward her, to his weak amusement, was an unexamined combination of indifference and vague resentment, which he described in an email to Charles, whose previous knowledge of Alethia was that Paul liked her “a lot,” as “strong aversion,” only half joking. Paul’s next email to Charles said “I feel like I ‘hate’ her” and that it seemed, by the bureaucratic language and curtness of Alethia’s emails, like she also “hated” him, that they “hated” each other.
Manifesting through a shroud, or veil, of digital and drug-related “content,” which becomes her, “Alethia” seems more a personified encounter with technology, a conceptual state of absolute transparency of self, than another human; the web journalist has been conflated with the complete exposure, internal and external, toward which her work tends. Yet identifying totally with her, however imaginable, is impossible—skittish, anxious, and restrained at best, recessive, cold, and vaguely exploitative at worst, Alethia, the character, at least, leaves the narrative as quickly as she entered, never to return.
As a theme, though, she lingers, and more than lingers—retrospectively, she’s been there from the start. A few pages earlier, Lin describes sleep as a “reachable mirage,” but that image could just as well be applied to most, maybe all, of Paul’s interpersonal encounters—as well as to his relation to his self, which he tends to view as a kind of digitally (or novelistically) abstracted third person, hopelessly entangled in a ramifying virtual network of oppressive, defunct, and/or missed connections. Human beings become accessible only insofar as they are experienced through the mediation of drugs (all of Paul’s extra-familial relationships are based on sharing drugs), and meaningful only insofar as registered as electronic data; technology, in turn, becomes a metaphor for everything it does not encompass. Paul envisions his spatial memory as a ZIP file, Taipei’s blinking electronic signboards as repeating GIFs, a nocturnal building bordering the Vegas desert as a frozen cursor in a word-processing document. The precision and relentlessness of such references alone might suffice to render Taipei to the internet what White Noise (also a drugged and death-haunted novel, and one of Lin’s formative influences) was to television: the first novel to successfully assimilate to literary art the mutant sensibility of a new mass medium.
Yet what’s most powerful, and troubling, about Taipei’s relation to digital content is how it seems to invite the reader to witness as its style absorbs, dismantles, and repurposes all content into its own image—a process it repeatedly, successfully analogizes to the drive of digital technology to take over, or overwrite, matter: “an abstraction, undetectable in concrete reality, was accomplishing its concrete task.” The all-pervading Will once again is Lin’s subject, but in Taipei it’s envisioned as electric power, silicon, and metal, a central processor driven by inscrutable imperatives toward some infinite expansion. Shortly before the Alethia interview, Paul imagines the life of an owner of a small publishing company to whom he has just, while on MDMA, submitted an unsolicited and wildly inappropriate pitch:
He remembered, or thought he remembered, seeing disappointment inside the owner’s eyes—a faint off-coloring, like a woundless scar, a millimeter behind the cornea—which had seemed sad in a manner like his life (operating his publishing company, living in the same apartment for twenty years, accumulating obligations in the bleak world of graphic novels) was a pure, omnipresent, concrete reminder, Paul vaguely imagined while standing in a stall staring at his iPhone, that he was the only entity building and embellishing and imperialistically expanding his own unhappiness.
I can’t imagine any publisher, small or large, envisioning their life this way, any more than I can imagine everyone on Sixth Avenue walking with the word motherfucker in their heads, or without feeling. The only person I could possibly imagine thinking that way is the person who has just transposed, eloquently, his mentality over another consciousness—Paul, or rather the author into whom Paul is likely, soon and through tremendous labor, to be transformed.
Near the end of the book the feel of falling water from a faucet is described as “cold, grasping, meticulous, aware,” and though Paul has admittedly overdosed on psilocybin mushrooms, and his perceptions are correspondingly distended, the phrase is still so strange, and corresponds so perfectly with the style of the entire book, that it seems a sort of self-directed, valedictory farewell.
There’s more that could be said about Taipei in its relation to Lin’s prior work, such as that the emphasis on mental self-modification of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Richard Yates finds a parallel in the ingestion of mind-altering drugs of Taipei, or that in Taipei, once again, a young woman, carefully selected for her lack of vanity, possessing significantly less will and emotional stamina than the author, has been “subjected,” in art and maybe life, to the author’s invasive experimentation with his own consciousness; or that there are passages in you are a little bit happier than I am (“i try not to think of myself as a person / but as a metal object, built suddenly by machines in complete darkness”) and Eeeee Eee Eeee (“We fill the universe with microprocessors and match the expansion of the universe with the expansion of our microprocessors”) that stand in relation to the technological expansionism of Taipei as blueprints would to the building itself; or that, echoing Eeeee Eee Eeee, Paul spends long stretches of later chapters of Taipei with his face covered by a blanket—in short, that Taipei stands in relation to the other books as a prism stands in relation to its faces. It may or may not make sense to call it his best book, but it is, without a doubt, his most complete.
Yet from the present all the way back to his first published book, the critical discourse surrounding Lin—his motives, his value, even his mental health—has been extraordinarily contentious and disorienting. Signed to a small press, Lin could count on all the mainstream publicity a small press could command, namely none. He would have to make himself accountable for promoting his own work. As Eeeee Eee Eeee was being released, he crammed the inbox of the New York media-gossip website Gawker with so many emails—regarding his existence, his daily activities, his plans to mobilize an alleged “army of interns” to cover New York Starbucks outlets with flyers to promote his book—that the website finally devoted a post to him, though only to describe him as someone “who we absolutely despise” and his stunts as “retarded.” A year later, to support the release of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Lin plastered New York, with a special emphasis on the front door of the Gawker office, with black-and-white stickers reading BRITNEY SPEARS. These garnered some degree of curious attention from smaller “new media” outlets—the urban-culture blogs Gothamist and Psychopedia conducted decent interviews with him—but they did little to alter the reputation for infamy and “fame-seeking” with which Gawker, with a far greater and more influential audience, had already framed him.
Meanwhile Lin’s books, online and by word of mouth, were starting to acquire a small but dedicated audience. The trajectory of Megan Boyle, who later became Lin’s wife (she is the basis for Erin in Taipei), is not atypical: while a college student in Baltimore, she read her boyfriend’s copy of Bed, learned more about Lin by reading his blog, started a blog of her own, and was eventually noticed online by Lin when she commented on his. Boyle entered a community, which primarily existed online, of fans of Lin’s work, many of whom aped, with his approval, his “concrete/literal” style in their own, all-lowercase, online writing, placing, as he did, scare quotes around any phrase considered to lack a physical referent as a way of recognizing and minimizing their indulgence in what Lin variously described as “hierarchical thinking,” “qualitative-abstractive thinking,” and “terms and received ideas.” Lin founded a small press, Muumuu House, in order to publish and promote such work online and in print: the first Muumuu book was sometimes my heart pushes my ribs by Ellen Kennedy. By 2010, three years after Lin’s first book, the community around Lin had reached the point where it became known as a movement: “alt lit.” Alt lit varies drastically in terms of quality (or resonance, if you like), but its content is almost always visceral and simple, its perspective close-range: it could be described as a digital, minimalist confessionalism, one drained of most of old-school print confessionalism’s excess and “drama”—emotions, apparently or really artlessly depicted, operating in a void.
By auctioning his drawings to these followers and selling them books, selling personal essays to various publications, auctioning stolen goods to strangers online, and selling shares of the future profits of Richard Yates, Lin was just barely able, from 2008 to 2012, to make a living as a young writer without going into debt. At the same time, his online presence and publicity efforts, though successful in attracting notoriety and a cult following, did not significantly improve his position in the hierarchies of taste that govern publishing; Lin remained despised by many in the New York media world as a shameless self-promoter and a talentless fraud.
On the publication of his sixth book, Richard Yates, Lin, due in large part to his extra-literary activities, was deemed worthy of the notice of prestigious book reviews. These evaluations, by Charles Bock in theNew York Times Book Review and Joshua Cohen in Bookforum, merely confirmed, with a slight increase in eloquence, what online commentators had expressed for years: Tao Lin’s books had the capacity to be, viscerally and personally, offensive. Though Bock’s review gamely attempted to maintain a level tone, praising Lin’s “obvious creative abilities” and admitting that certain parts of the book “resonate,” the review as a whole is dismissive. Half-considered denigrations (“ironic distance,” “blasé cynicism,” “twaddle”) build up to a final line in which Bock claims: “By the time I reached the last 50 pages, each time the characters said they wanted to kill themselves, I knew exactly how they felt.” Cohen, incapable of restricting his resentment and contempt to literary matters, thought it wise to also insult Lin’s drawings, his attempts to gain publicity for his books, his attempts to stay financially solvent, his internet presence, the “kids” and “kiddies” of the internet generation, and the internet in general. In both reviews, the unease the book was designed to evoke, which, like all affect in art, is essentially nonqualitative in itself, was projected onto the author’s skill with language as a pejorative judgment: an uncomfortable and rigorous novel, because of its extreme discomfort, was derided, somewhat lazily and ineptly, as lazy and inept.
And yet Lin’s efforts at publicity (even Cohen conceded that Lin had “unstoppable PR”), likely helped him secure a high-profile agent (he signed with Bill Clegg some time after emailing to express his admiration for Clegg’s memoir) and a book deal (a sizable but far from astronomical $50,000) from a major publisher for his latest novel. Taipei, more subjective, more tangibly beautiful, and (last but far from least) protected and promoted by Vintage/Random House, has received a greater share of coverage, and even of praise, in “professional” literary venues, receiving two reviews in the Times (mixed/positive and positive, respectively), being dubbed a masterpiece by the New York Observer, and even meriting three halves of a paragraph from Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books (Lin’s sentences are described as “rather fine,” though the book is also described as “occasionally unbearable” and potentially “confounding”). Still, it’s hard to escape the fact that, for many, maybe most reviewers, Lin remains self-evidently unworthy of being considered as an artist in relation to his own aesthetic standards—unworthy, often, of even being treated with consideration.
I won’t deny that the impulse to condescend to Lin can seem irresistible. His indifference to those modes of discourse in the world and literature that fail to gratify his own inflexible preferences triggers, no doubt, a corresponding revulsion. His language strives toward an annihilation of perspective—not only critical perspective, but any and all conceptual frames as well; he forcibly removes the labels by which human beings orient themselves in an attempt to reveal the ontological confusion that those labels—that language, really—were developed to relieve; he barely notices, let alone cares or apologizes, if anyone gets damaged in this process. His philosophy is totalizing and amoral; its concepts, relative, of pain and ignorance could be used to justify virtually anything. He claims to purge language of abstraction while eliding how all language contains an abstract element—not to mention ignoring how his own writing produces, at times, an effect verging on pure abstraction. He dislikes (or “feels aversion to”) people making unnuanced, implicitly aggressive, universal judgments (such as “it’s good” or “it’s bad”), but his entire philosophy amounts to an unqualified pretension to be universally valid, and with at least as much aggression buried in it. The mystic striving after an undifferentiated oneness that animates his oeuvre depends, by definition, on the breaching of boundaries; for this reason, among others I’ll come to later, his work taken as a whole is—even for a reader unfamiliar with the scorn and hatred heaped on him for his attempts to promote his books—fundamentally transgressive, in a manner that can be difficult not to take as a personal offense.
But as even a cursory review of literary history would prove, flawed philosophy has never been a guarantee of aesthetic failure; Taipei, narrative of an immense defeat though it may be, is—I’ll stake my nonexistent reputation on it—a triumph, a verbal creation of permanent relevance, and now I’m stepping out of this machine to speak.
Under pale, fluorescent lighting, I encountered “Tao Lin” for the first time in the computer lab of Potter Hall, the dormitory I was registered to live in for my senior year of college in Northern California, lasting from September 2008 to June 2009. I can’t be more precise than that about the time: it wasn’t an especially profound engagement, and the lab, unscheduled, open all the time to anyone who had a key, seemed as immemorial as the climate outside, just past the windows, not to mention I was reading an ephemeral source of news.
The Gawker article was half bemused and half dismissive; it was probably the one by Moe Tkacik posted on August 22, 2008, but read sometime later than that date. The point was that I learned of the existence of Tao Lin, a novelist selling shares of his not yet published—Gawker claimed it hadn’t yet been written—novel. I thought something neutrally along the lines of “Asian” and “Andy Warhol,” and didn’t hear or think about him for about the next five years.
It was a strange last year of school, a period of partial disembodiment and general, even multitracked, confusion; I spent most of my time on or near a futon in a graduate housing residence where my friend Ben Wang, pursuing a master’s in chemical engineering, and his girlfriend, Mariko Kotani, occupied a bedroom. I had known them since our freshman year, but they had graduated on time. Helplessly grateful for their hospitality, I failed to say so to them as often as I should have. I just hoped they understood, silently. Ben lent me his old laptop, a Dell, I think; I used it to watch Koreans expend enormous energies playing, live, professionally, and on competing teams, a real-time strategy computer game called Starcraft: Brood War. I also played Civilization III and, when Ben and Mariko were awake and interested, the World Tour version of Guitar Hero. I was in some classes, but none of the reading material, aside from Frankenstein and certain lines by several marginal Victorian poets (“So far between my pleasures are and few”), was especially memorable.
Given my time at college, grad school seemed preposterous. The job market for my kind was laughable. In every way, I was exhausted. New York, perhaps? But media sometimes have overarching messages, and Gawker’s seemed to be, Don’t go to New York, ever; to hold out hope, I creatively misread this as, Don’t go to New York with nothing. I decided to finish my translations into English of a notorious French poet, then go to New York, where I would, “somehow,” I thought, get them published.
And I went home to my family’s countryside estate. It was almost like an old Eurasian novel—except by “countryside estate” I mean the cheapest house in the “estates” section of a subdivision of a white-flight suburb roughly fifteen miles northeast of Louisville, a house whose installments the family had only just paid off, its first one ever in America. Still, why not treat it like a novel, if only, like The Idiot, to skip time without explaining? Three years passed; I flew from Louisville to LaGuardia, with a changeover at Baltimore, in August 2012; if the Baudelaire had been published, don’t you think that I’d be telling you about it?
I met Tao Lin in person this past summer at a spacious Dumbo bookstore called the Powerhouse Arena, where an event to celebrate the launch of his new novel was being held. I hadn’t come because I’d heard more about him. A close friend of a new friend (they had both been interns at the same publishing house) of a friend (they had both attended Yale) had become an editor, edited Taipei: it was his event, his victory as well. I debated buying a copy and decided, curiously, that I would. When I offered Tao a black ballpoint pen to sign, he held up, in a wordless and, I thought, amusing way, the black marker he’d been using.
Five days later I referred to myself, in an email to a friend, as being “absurdly grateful” for the book. I told her that I planned to write about it. I typed that I was absolutely sure that no one could explain Taipei more thoroughly than me. The book possessed a firm and eerie tone, a tone predicated on a lucid knowledge of the difficulty of its own transmission, and there was warmth to it as well, albeit tenuous—warmth engaged in a quiet, violent struggle to emerge from lukewarmth. The book was difficult—not ostentatiously so, but in a necessary manner: it was, unmistakably, I felt, created by a human being not because he could afford to show it off to others, but because, in relation to himself, he couldn’t afford not to comprehend or to express: powerfully, elaborately, and succinctly, without vanity or malice, it said the things he had to, and it left.
The book and author as conjured in negative reviews of Taipei bore scant resemblance to this view, of course. An artist in name only, “Tao Lin” reduced literature to an advertisement for himself. His books were willfully boring, wallowing in meaninglessness to a degree no sane person could withstand. And he was, undoubtedly, a fraud: an unforgettable tweet by Sarah Weinman, the editor of Publishers Marketplace (with more than 190,000 followers), stated that Tao Lin had “been running a long con for years.” Many reviewers seemed to deny him even a basic knowledge of the English language, let alone recognition as a conscious stylist, and those who acknowledged that he had intentions presumed that they were gloatingly malicious. Lydia Kiesling at The Millions: “I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. . . . Why does he take away my joy?” Moze Halperin, at Full Stop: “And wherever he is, shoving kale and meth into a juicer, I’m sure he’s satisfied, but decidedly not satisfied enough to qualify it with anything more than a smirk and a shrug.” Others seemed to believe that, since Taipei was autobiographically based and its protagonist, Paul, had trouble making sense of his world or acting appropriately within it, this constituted an aesthetic failure of the novel and a personal, even physical, defect of the author: Lydia Millet, in the Los Angeles Times, likened Paul, in a resonant image, to “a eunuch trying to commit a rape”; Sarah Nicole Prickett, in the New Inquiry, wrote him off as an “impotent cipher.” The book was churlishly dismissed as the mere unfeeling output of a “narrative mathematics,” a “geometry” that had improved, albeit marginally, on the early work, which read like “a student’s math assignment,” as Jonathon Kyle Sturgeon put it in the American Reader. Several reviewers seemed invested in unfavorably comparing Lin to an existing cultural landmark (Henry James, Seinfeld, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis); unable to engage with the book itself, they settled for convicting its author of failing to be like someone he wasn’t even trying to emulate. I read and read these reviews in a mood of inquisition, wondering, was the novel I read the same as this thing, less a book than the shifting center of a cloud of loathing and resentment? Human frames of reference necessarily differ to some extent, but the disparity between these reviews and my own experience of the book left me puzzling whether “we,” the potential audience for this book, inhabited the same planet—though in the end, I concluded that we did, or at least, unfortunately, lived in the same nation.
I read an essay in a little magazine some seven years ago, a long one, multitracked, but centered on a killing rampage: its origins, its predecessors, and the killer’s; the odd, indelible congruencies and likenesses between the killer’s life experience and the author’s; how, properly examined, it clarified certain unwelcome truths about American standards of love, sociability, and beauty as they related to American hierarchies of art, class, and race. As was typical of early n+1 essays, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” didn’t seem to end so much as taper off, as if later in the issue or in some future one the essay would resume and harmonize the sharp and heavy themes it had so carefully developed in a climactic final set of paragraphs.
That being said, the author, Wesley Yang, had clearly done his share of hard, exacting labor with regard to language. Re-reading the essay in the present, it’s striking how the style—elaborate, tender, but unsparing with regard to all involved, essayist very much included—serves, in lieu of a more definite resolution, as a sort of alternate solution to the dilemmas Seung-Hui Cho, writer of miserable, violent poems, plays, and stories, had himself resolved by killing thirty-two Americans—actually thirty-three, because he killed himself as well. (“Cho’s gunshot wound destroyed his face, frustrating identification of his body for several hours.”) If there were an overarching message in the essay, the message, I suspect now, would be phrased as a self-directed imperative to see clearly and to write with even greater clarity, with an addendum that the only way to do so was to criticize one’s own delusions without self-righteousness and self-love, or with as little as humanly possible. If American society, not so much hateful as implacably indifferent to your experience, was committed to shutting and shitting you out, the best, or least worst, thing available to you would be to rule the language and, through it, yourself; “they” could keep you from “winning” with regard to love, or wealth, or life, the author seemed to say, but they still in some way needed your abject existence, if only to confirm that they deserved to win, and this proof, this abjection manifest in behavior, thought, and words, was a thing you did not have to give. And maybe, eventually, someone would take note of you, and how insanely hard you worked to not become insane with fear and rage and coldness, and love, but until then words, American, controlling them, would be your only consolation—they would “have to do.”
Tao Lin more or less immediately responded to the Virginia Tech killings of April 2007 on his blog. He took a philosophical perspective that should be familiar by this point in the essay: there was no way to know whether Cho’s killings would ultimately result in greater pain and suffering in the universe, and so judgment on the morality or immorality of Cho would have to be suspended. He disapproved of the criticism of Cho’s creative writing (now widely “published”) as objectively horrible and talentless; reading one of Cho’s stories had, in his opinion, helped Lin “accept” whatever misery awaited him in his own life. If Cho had refrained from using “clichés and generalizations” and restricted himself to language that only described specific, concrete reality, the killings, Lin believed, would not have taken place. He resonated with Cho’s emotions of depression and loneliness without attempting to share Cho’s mental perspective, his set of “clichés and generalizations,” his worldview. In his Cho essay, Wesley Yang displayed, I think, the rare capacity to thoroughly inhabit others’ worldviews, their assumptions, without taking the slightest pity on their emotions. He empathized without sympathy; Tao did the opposite, and sympathized without empathy.
Two different modes of understanding, then, neither better or worse than the other, and each with the tone and form appropriate to it. The essayist pinpoints cultural differences and tries to force his readers to face up to them; the novelist insists on metaphysical sameness and evades, as best he can, any and all forms of confrontation. Yang was first drawn to Cho as a subject by a similarity in facial structure, with its implicit common “existential knowledge”; Lin, I think, responded to Cho as another writer of stories who seemed to be unfairly marginalized and rejected. And yet, when thinking of Lin and Yang together (I like comparing everything), it’s the similarities that leap out first: a devotion to emotional urgency transmuted, via stubborn and laborious constraints, into a hopelessly distinctive style; an acute awareness of, and staunch resistance to, the countless casual cruelties that compose most to all of American society and culture; an inability to engage in what Yang described as the “manipulative cheeriness” of the New York media environment; a deep and symbiotic bond with one or several major European pessimists (La Rochefoucauld, Schopenhauer, and Pessoa); a punitive tonality somehow in excess of the language actually employed.
When two drastically divergent writers end up developing such a similar approach to language, a kind of question asks itself, the same way one would naturally wonder, traveling through a desert landscape, how two differently shaped plants passed by in different regions both have spines and broad but shallow roots. One might think about the benefits and need implied by those prickly exteriors and, perhaps, of what bearing the conditions of the desert had upon them. Might start to think about the desert, what it means. And then, assuming that you’re willing to pursue your thoughts, you might think about the story that the cacti and the desert tell.
The first Asians of North American1 descent largely ate organic food they hunted down or gathered up. With few readily domesticable plants or animals—two failed experiments with tiny ears of corn in the South and Southwest being the rule—they had next to no chance of achieving enormous, self-sustaining, settled populations, and thus never knew the need for impersonal hierarchies, state religions. They lived, one has to imagine, ephemerally, yet died confident in the existence of a boundless unity in which their finite beings were contained, a will that animated the entirety of being, charging even the tremendous empty spaces of the continent with presence. One has to imagine, of course, not only since they left no written record but because, during the past four centuries, the vast majority of their descendants have been murdered, cheated, raped, infected, and penned in on wastelands: sacrificed on the altar commonly known as a blank slate.
Lasting roughly from 1850 to 1900, the second wave arrived to serve the will of the erasers of the first, or at least the most cunning and deceitful among them, known commonly as capitalists, and especially railroad capitalists, for whom they constructed rail lines in whose enormous profits they, the emigrants, did not partake. These emigrants were soon largely erased themselves. Of these poor males, mute exploited labor from South China, many returned home once their labor was complete; those who stayed faced a drastic shortage of women, which naturally reduced their population further. Meanwhile the less cunning of the erasers, forced to compete with colored folk who worked harder for less, despite a lack of diligence or cunning nonetheless possessed the right to vote, and voted for men who passed laws to exclude and impoverish their competitors and, for good measure, conducted pogroms. Soon, the human remnants of this wave were driven into urban ghettos known commonly as Chinatown. Needless to say, these remnants had no positive relation to the law or to the general culture. The Japanese, arriving slightly later, would aggravate the erasers in a similar fashion (they were better farmers than their eraser neighbors) and in due time receive a similar treatment. Under the cover of war hysteria, their property was stolen and they were forcibly relocated, by the eraser state, to concentration camps.
The third wave, commencing with the Immigration Act of 1965, included, for the first time, large numbers of professional workers: scientists, technicians, engineers. These emigrants, like their predecessors, worked harder on average than their eraser counterparts only to receive less pay and recognition. But by and large immune to the impulse to live beyond their means, they now were paid enough to raise their children comfortably, in suburban middle-class style. And their children, living in the less blatantly racist culture of the post-Sixties era, could fit in with eraser children, kind of, some of them, assuming they were nice, perhaps? But I think I feel differently.
For a child of the American suburbs in the Nineties, three powers, inevitably, informed your being. The first was your parents. The second was the school system: this included your fellow students along with your teachers. And the third was television. But what if they failed to inform you? If television almost never featured anyone who looked like you, let alone provided you with a character, not a sidekick or a foreign object but someone with an attractive and expressive face like yours to impersonate, you would be a bit lost. And if at some point, in high school or in college, the academic accolades you’d readily amassed started to look like so much play money or company scrip, you would feel a bit disoriented too. And there’s more: if your peers in school were learning what to do and want from television just as much as you were, then they were learning, since no one like you was on, to not see you, let alone want you, let alone want you romantically, and regarding (or rather, not regarding) this, you wouldn’t just feel a little lost. Through no fault of your own—though, being human, you’d end up making it your own—you’d be a loser.
Of course, none of this actually mattered, provided power number one had fulfilled its proper task. If your parents offered you, together, hopefully, models of sociability applicable to American life—a readiness to smile, sincere curiosity regarding others’ lives, a willingness to speak one’s mind without fear—then there’s only so much the other powers could do to you, negatively speaking: parents are realities, after all, and put beside them school and television seem but mere abstractions. There have to be hundreds of thousands of reasonably socially appealing Asians of American descent who, in spite of the cultural handicaps they’ve been dealt (you could compare it to playing poker but not being able to receive face cards), are functioning tolerably well, though it’s unlikely you would know if they were not.
But if your parents fuck each other up or over. But if they fight endlessly without resolving anything, or refuse confrontation, or evade real conversation. But if they divorce or cheat on each other. But if your parents don’t know how to act around erasers in a way erasers recognize as human. Then school and television suddenly become the object of greater desperation and desire, and become, for the reasons mentioned above, that much more damaging in their respective frauds. Add, to make it that much worse, that you live in an area without a large Asian community, and so are that much more dependent on erasers (staring at the handsome feet of young Caucasian humans) to confirm your self-image and offer you romantic prospects, and throw in, while you’re at it, that you’re a heterosexual male, with all the stifled tenderness and sadism that that implies, and do you really have a human being left, or just a monster?
Two stories in Bed discuss marital infidelity:
She talked in a formal mandarin [sic] that Aaron couldn’t understand that well. “He meets his young, stupid wife—a person so stupid that here she is now. He has big plans, moves to America. He realizes his big plans. Meanwhile he has his house slave, his cook and child raiser, his nice little affair on the side, his very successful career. He makes a lot of money; he is known in his field.”
“Yes,” says the mom. “Fair.” She has discovered, going through the trash, envelopes postmarked Nevada, from someone named Scarlet Leysen. The dad had taken a business trip there. Two females per male, the mom thinks. “Life isn’t fair,” she says. “So we should comport extra fair, to compensate.”
And infidelity is implicit as well in a scene in Eeeee Eee Eeee:
One time Andrew’s mom and dad were fighting in a restaurant. Andrew was seven or eight. His mom was angry that his dad had given her a disease, was how Andrew understood it. Andrew thought it was AIDS. He was crying. He wanted his mom to tell what was wrong because he thought she was going to die.
If the parents aren’t all right, and the television has no face to offer you, then school, your peers, are all that’s left. It’s in this cultural context that this memory, from Taipei, makes, I think, the most sense. It’s the summer before freshman year of high school, and Paul is at band camp:
[A] senior percussionist, the section leader, began teasing him from across the room, saying he was “so cool” and something about his baggy jeans, which his skateboarding brother, at college in Philadelphia, had left him. Paul was unable to think anything, except that he didn’t know what to do, at all, so he committed to doing nothing, which the senior incorporated into his teasing by focusing on how Paul was “too cool” to react, continuing for maybe thirty seconds before commenting briefly on Paul’s hair and leaving the room.
Soon after, Paul is overtaken by a crippling sense of self-awareness and social anxiety: it’s true that he wished to be “cool,” but the section leader’s comments have, by imposing that intention on him from without, erased the possibility of Paul, up to then a lively and socially engaging person, committing fully (the only way he knows how is fully), from within, to being cool anymore. He lapses into near-total non-communication for the rest of high school, and then decamps for New York, where, though his experience of being casually excluded by his supposed elders and cultural superiors hardly ceases, he nonetheless transforms himself into a writer. Literature, for him, becomes an “otherworld,” nocturnal and numinous, the sole space in which he can, in spite of the tremendous, wholly justifiable mistrust and pessimism that his experiences have instilled in him, establish some form of free identity, perhaps even a gentle one. Language will simply mean more to him than it does to people fortunate enough to have a social life to fall back on; writing is his social life, or dream of one, and he will not hesitate to create it, and improve his chance of finding an audience who understands it, any more than he would hesitate to breathe.
But before all this, he berates his mother over an extended period, screaming complaints, raging at her, blaming her and her alone for his inability to socialize. The incident is grievous and primal, a site the author clearly feels obliged to revisit: a version of it appears in the Bed story “Insomnia for a Better Tomorrow,” as well as in Taipei. It ends with the son, having reduced his mother to a sobbing heap, suddenly catching himself and resolving not to blame anyone or complain about anything ever again. It’s a resolution bound to fail and backfire spectacularly, but he holds on to it. She is the one good being in his life—it is the least that he can do for her.
The father, through all this, is nowhere to be found; during the pivotal scene, he’s away on a months-long business trip. One might intrude and posit that he (the son) should have set his sights on the being (the father) whose actions, more than any other’s, placed him in a psychological position so precarious that the teasing, half malicious, half innocuous, from an older white adolescent would send him into an endless mental tailspin. But the truth is that some folk, of whatever race or gender, sincerely believe that they have never done anything wrong; they silently exude a sense of being untouchable, and their dependents, their children and spouses, their social and cultural inferiors, are in a terrible position to demonstrate otherwise. There is a kind of dominance, manifest in sexism and racism yet exceeding them, that eschews the weakness of a declaration, but instead silently confirms its authority, material and personal, and proceeds, silently, on its way, and is genuinely surprised when one attempts to stop it.
Tao Lin has, in my opinion, thought extremely hard about this kind of power, and has, though incapable of challenging it directly, worked extremely hard, using the language and experiences available to him, to present this dominance in such a way as to reveal its workings and reduce it to a human scale. If he embodies, to some extent, in his person and his art, this tyranny, he also makes it, through the window of his being in the text, available for criticism and destruction. It’s a punishing form of art, with disturbing and unconscious parallels to human sacrifice, but it is doubtlessly and absolutely literature. As far as taking his miserable remuneration as evidence of some kind of fraud, his neutral tone as a lack of tone, his stylistic consistency as uncreative and robotic, his care as indifference, his power as impotent, his character as dickless, his clarity as inscrutable, his talent for evoking human feeling as mathematically inhuman, his attempts to be accessible as ignorant, his fidelity to detail as autism—well, go ahead. Who can stop you. It’s not as if there aren’t grounds on which to criticize Lin’s work, but before I leave this place, it really must be said that to recycle, when reviewing the first great male Asian author of American descent, relentlessly and without even the slightest consideration, the same slurs typically aimed at Asian males by white Americans to deface and devalue them socially—this comes off as a desperate and disorganized, even downright illiterate attempt to erase not just his greatness as an artist, but all the struggle to be human he’s invested in his art—invested there and only there, because there was nowhere in this culture he could take it but the art of words, as faceless as he is. Abstractions though you are, you still hold all the power, and so I’m asking anyway: Tell me, if you know, you white American reviewers, section leaders, incurious overseers—how the fuck can you do so much to create a monster, then try to take away all he has left—his status as unique?
I am using “North America” here in the sense that specifies not the geographic continent but the cultural space. Some of the Asian migrants who grew indigenous to the southernmost regions of the continent did establish sustainable state societies. Their stories, though fascinating and complex, remain beyond the ambit of this essay ↩