Last night, I was at a reading of Tao Lin‘s. He was late, taciturn, monosyllabic, and more or less unpleasant as a performer, except when he was actually reading his novel, when his voice was resistant to the energy of the work itself, which made me want more.
I had read his poetry and found it funny and charming. I had read his earlier prose and found it so boring I couldn’t keep going. Yet when he read the first five pages of Richard Yates and kinda ducked out, I wanted to know more. It was an autobiographical novel, he acknowledged, in which he search-and-replaced the original character names and changed them to “Hayley Joel Osmont” and “Dakota Fanning” – because those celebrities’ ages corresponded with the characters’ ages at the time the book was set, 2006. I thought, “This provides a visual image, which is what we’re addicted to at the moment. The rest is irrelevant to the story.” It’s not stealing more than the personae people have already chosen to give away.
My friend Kyle Buckley was charged with asking him questions, which is obviously a difficult task, and Kyle probably didn’t feel great about how it went. But Kyle asked him one question that he spoke seriously to: “How do you feel about the number of young writers who imitate you?” (The quotation marks are rough and will continue to be.) Tao Lin said, “I like it. I know that most of the time when people talk about this issue, they do it like they are inventors who got a patent on their invention, and if someone steals it, they should sue. I don’t feel like writing is that.” He stopped and laughed nervously, and the laugh was the voice of global capital going, “Wait, as an artist your style is your brand. You have to protect it.”
Lin was coming back and saying, No, artistic style is a cultural moment. He said that the people who choose to work in the voice he does probably just feel the same way. I think of people my age who write in David Wallace/Dave Eggers rhythms. Lin made sure to say that he thinks individuals are unavoidably unique. So his imitators’ style will therefore be different than his even if it emulates the rhythm, even unwillingly.
Writing, unlike almost every art form, is (at least in the past 40 years of extended-lifespan luxury) usually mediocre when it’s made by people under 30. The dues you pay then are irretrievable. So if his work is shallow, fine – it matters more that it is brave. Since last night I’ve read three-quarters of the new Richard Yates and would say that I got absorbed by and attached to its depressive characters. Also I would say that they are depressive in a way that is political in its extreme apolitical apathy.
If you understand it as satire, and commentary, and self-critique, it is more powerful – Lin said last night that he never wants to write a line that isn’t funny “while being other things.” He’s struggling with the barrenness of the landscape, with the emptiness of trying to be heroic as a writer, in an age when heroism is automatically suspect. The people who try to call him out on insincerity are themselves playing a game.
And yet: In his notion of plainness and universalism, he’s not unlike Hemingway, who comes up conspicuously as the “book in the backpack” in his narrative. This idea of plainness reasserts itself again and again in American fiction as an ideal of democracy. There is always this sense that stripping down is the beginning of some more authentic, less evasive encounter.
And I have to say that it’s not my taste: Hemingway irritates me and so does (at least the edited) Raymond Carver, and I prefer the gamble with language made by the stylists whose jokes are not defeatist, whose heroism is not pyrrhic, whose language embraces and spars with existence, and the notion that complication is an opportunity to wrestle rather than a termination of ideals. It seems like the beginning of a life that is more alive.
But if I have to talk honestly, do I think that shoplifting not only goods but language from Whole Foods and American Apparel and Gchat is a less wishful confrontation with the limitations of literary and even emotional life today? I can’t choose between them. Tao Lin’s minimal, depressive narratives ring truer to the ways we don’t aspire but get through days. They seem necessary at least as a foil. The brutality and stupidity – within an urge not to be brutal and stupid, which he and Hemingway share – are not dystopian, just journalistic.
You don’t have to take every writer as saying, This is the last word. Sometimes it can be the first. Then the question is what to do next. If he’s much-imitated, surely it’s not just his thudding rhythm but because starting points seem hard to come by. How do you even survive to 30 without expressing what it’s like to be there? I may never have met a writer less imaginable as a founder of a social network, contrary to his image. And that may not be a writer’s job. If he were a painter, no one would blink at his blankness. He makes me think: Perhaps language now is more like paint. Though I still wish he weren’t clawing at a vagina dentata on the cover of his novel.