“[B]eing productive in a low-level manner,” or, thoughts on Taipei

I’ve never had a very long list of living authors I liked well enough to reliably read their books on publication. Even Haruki Murakami, faithful as I was to him since high school, has fallen by the wayside, an unread copy of 1Q84 on my shelf. These days, it seems, Tao Lin is the only such writer left.

I never expected to like Lin’s work; when Shoplifting from American Apparel first came to my attention I assumed it was all annoying hipster gimmick that might be fun to make fun of. I believe I was wrong about that, but two novels later, the Lin-hate can seem almost reflexive.

Lydia Kiesling’s review of Taipei in The Millions, for example, makes clear her total revulsion at Lin’s writing right in the lede:

When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?

This was Kiesling’s first experience with Lin, and she did not like it. After a brief summary of some of the hipster-annoyingness in the novel, she gets down to business: she hates Lin’s style. Which is good for me, because it’s what I love.

I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting words as possible. Tao Lin seems to aspire to a prose I can only describe as “affectless.” When an adjective is required, and sometimes when it is not, Lin often adds a “y” to a noun (see: “soil-y”). Some traditionally formed adjectives and adverbs are enclosed in quotation marks; I believe to communicate the overarching theme of the book, which is that the majority of Paul’s powers of observation are absorbed in the business, not of something so studied as introspection, but of prolonged self-gazing from an external vantage. His quotation mark tactic achieves this effect, but it also communicates an embarrassment about words and what they can represent or mean.

The idea of a novelist writing under “strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest” is hardly a bad one to me—or the members of Oulipo. Admittedly, not everyone appreciates formalism, but we realize it is a thing to appreciate, if you want to, and not a sign that you “hate words.” (It seems to me there’s a good chance formalists would argue they do what they do because they love words.)

Kiesling correctly identifies these strict parameters as affectlessness—something past readers of Lin will find familiar. But it’s far more than just the affectless words and phrases that Kiesling objects to: it’s the ideology that style represents, affectlessness itself. The review becomes a clash of ideologies. Kiesling believes that “really great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Her reaction to the bleakness of Taipei is to be made

to want to hug your lover, have a baby, go to work, call your mom. But maybe you’ll rethink that novel, that personal essay. In the cold ruthless scheme of things, that might not be such a bad thing. But it makes me look upon this novel as dangerous and threatening to life, like as the anti-choicer looks upon the abortionist.

It’s hard for me to imagine a surer sign of Lin’s success than the existence of a review like this. As Kiesling states, in summary, she is “aesthetically or philosophically opposed to” the novel, which means she should hate it if it’s done well. If it’s done poorly, she might not even know how thoroughly they disagreed, after all.

tao lin taipeiIn a way, I think, Kiesling’s review takes the novel more seriously than the more positive (though not exactly positive) piece in the LA Review of Books, “The Drugs Don’t Work: Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’ and the Literature of Pharmacology.” Audrea Lim presents an engrossing history of the treatment of drugs in literature and popular culture, and where exactly Taipei fits into this (though she also notes that “[i]n fact, Taipei is only incidentally about drugs”). Lin’s novel neither condemns nor glorifies drug use; it is “conspicuously blasé” on this point. But this focus on whether the drugs “work,” on whether Paul (Taipei‘s narrator) and his friends are hedonists, presupposes that it would mean something for them to work. To call Paul’s lifestyle hedonism is to reduce hedonism to something just above oblomovshchina, Bartlebyism, anhedonia even. When Sam and his friends in Shoplifting from American Apparel Gchat to each other, “We are fucked,” they’re talking about everyone, about pure existential bleakness—and what Amateur Reader describes in Oblomov as “a protest against existence.”

This condition of Lin’s narrators makes life into an activity they are aware of doing—they don’t simply live. Deciding what to do with your life is no different from deciding what to do with your afternoon. Taipei‘s Paul

gradually began to view the months until September, when his second novel would be published and he would go on a two-month book tour, as an “interim period,” during which he would mostly be alone, “calmly organizing things”….Until then he would calmly focus on being productive in a low-level manner, finding to-do lists and unfinished projects in his Gmail account and further organizing, working on, or deleting them, for example.

Paul may be an artist, a real one, but the planning, the approach is that of one to dead-end nine-to-five drudgery.

That’s not to say Paul actually keeps such promises to himself. If you’re making plans for something that doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter if you break them. So when Paul does go to parties, or doesn’t work, or does or doesn’t do anything else he initially intended, it’s just the way things go. How glamorize or moralize about drug use in such a world?

As to whether the drugs “work,” Lim comes closest to what I see in Lin’s work when she describes Michel Foucault’s outlook on the matter. For him, drugs are

“technologies of the self” — techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves. Drugs can help us to adapt, to be more productive, and even to excel within our circumstances, to make our lives more bearable, and in some cases, to radically reconfigure our subjectivity, if not the world.

After a conversation with a man who “had sounded ‘really drunk’ on the phone but had sent witty, insightful, elaborate texts of mostly long, elegant sentences,” Paul describes the event to the man’s girlfriend. She explains simply that “Daniel was like that when on Klonopin.” Cause, effect, simple. Later in the novel, Paul is on another such technology—several, I’m sure—and as he freaks out, even inhabits the cause and effect at once: “‘I think I am where you were twenty minutes ago, so you need to console me,’ he said while thinking ‘that’s exactly what I would tell a projection to do if I were dead’”—simulataneously realizing he is freaking out on drugs and also thinking it further proof that he is dead. Earlier, the narrator made Paul’s thoughts on it all pretty explicit:

Paul tried, with Erin, who agreed with him, he felt, to convey (mostly by slowly saying variations of “no” and “I can’t think right now”) that there was no such thing as a “drug problem” or even “drugs”—unless anything anyone ever did or thought or felt was considered both a drug and a problem—in that each thought or feeling or object, seen or touched or absorbed or remembered, at whatever coordinate of space-time, would have a unique effect, which each person, at each moment of their life, could view as a problem, or not.

That last paragraph is radical. The average person believes that the hard drugs Paul does should be prohibited, and Paul thinks there is absolutely nothing materially different between such substances and every single thought or feeling that same average person has throughout the day. And as Lim points out, that’s not because Lin comes out on the hippie-dippy side, saying life is a beautiful bacchanal—that would be sympathetic, if countercultural. Taipei is, instead, “haunting,” just as Lim admits.

While Lim ends on a note more sympathetic to Lin’s style, calling Taipei “undoubtedly beautiful,” she believes the novel suffers a “failure of imagination”—basically, Kiesling’s ideological rejection in other terms. Calling it that, though, seems to be a failure of imagination itself, and a failure to see the style of the novel as more than superficial.

Richard Yates by Tao Lin

Richard Yates, Tao Lin’s latest novel, has been described as better and more mature than his last, Shoplifting from American Apparel. More mature, that could well be, but it’s also more claustrophobic. Where Shoplifting followed Sam—its Lin-like narrator—around among a relatively large group of friends and acquaintances, Richard Yates rarely leaves the confines of a single relationship: that between Haley Joel Osment, 22, a vegan, shoplifting graduate of New York University who vaguely writes and sells stolen goods on eBay for a living, and Dakota Fanning, a 16-year-old New Jersey high school student with depression and issues with her mom.

The two met online, of course, and of course have no connection whatever to their famous namesakes. Their names are the kind of gimmick that makes people hate Lin (the consumption partner said we had to stop talking about the novel when I mentioned that part), but it was strangely effective. With character names that mean nothing, there is a blank slate at the beginning of a book. But when the character names do have a meaning, the reader must actively blanken that slate.

Anyway, the names are a side issue. Since Haley Joel Osment and Shoplifting‘s Sam (and Lin) are effectively the same person, and they were both written by the same person, the novels share many qualities. Lots of Gmail chats where the conversation revolves around how fucked everyone is, banal descriptions of how young people without real jobs fill their time, emails, text messages, people reading depressing books and listening to depressing music and being “severely depressed” or “autistic,” and Haley going to do publishing stuff when his book comes out. But the focus on a single relationship seems to make the action even more sluggish, the emotions even harder to understand and more depressing (in Shoplifting, the girls Sam has trouble connecting with are strangers; here, things don’t get any easier after months of dating), and Haley’s personality seem much more frustrating. His “autism,” whatever it may be, turns out to be more than just trouble dealing with normal social interaction, but a deep selfishness that leaves Haley expecting others to be like him or at least extremely deferent to him if they are going to play any real part in his life.

Which leaves things between him and Dakota Fanning a bit tense. Haley Joel Osment demands, after he’s pretty clearly turned her bulimic with his organic vegan obsessions and calling her “obese,” that she account for her time obsessively and provide detail in the appropriate places. She tells him that “[s]he put on clothes and made lunch and walked to the bus stop” and he stops her to ask what she made for lunch. After she lists the food, he asks how she made it. After her answer, he scolds, “Why didn’t you say that the first time instead of saying you just made lunch.” She apologizes, admitting she “should have been more specific.”

On one level, this is an unhealthily obsessed boyfriend demanding his younger, emotionally vulnerable girlfriend explain every minute she spends in his absence (although the creepiness of this is mitigated, slightly, by the fact that she did spend the first four months of their relationship lying to him about exactly the things he’s now asking to know). But it’s also a writer demanding that his girlfriend’s stories have the proper level of novelistic detail and adhere to his own, as far as Haley Joel Osment is a proxy for Tao Lin, beliefs about what is important in narrative: a list of actions accounting for the passage of time, and unusually detailed descriptions of food and drink. Dakota Fanning is recounting her daily activities to a creative writing workshop of one.

And those who seem to want to talk much more about Lin and his public persona than about his writing should take note. Dakota Fanning is forced, essentially, to share with Haley Joel Osment in private the exact kinds of information Lin does in public. The great indictment against Twitter is that it’s little more than a venue for letting all one’s friends know what one had for lunch that day, is it not? Joshua Cohen complains in Bookforum that “[t]o Lin’s generation, which is to say to mine as well, transparency is the new sincerity. …Today, only utter exposure can set one free, while the only thing proscribed is regret.” But where oh where in Richard Yates does transparency and exposure set Haley and Dakota free; where do their attempts to be transparent do anything but leave them full of regret at their inability to be sincere or free?

On the last day of the novel, struggling to account for the full amount of time between the end of the school day and meeting up with Haley, Dakota insists she is not lying or leaving anything out:

“I must have bullshitted around for a long time then. I told you everything.”

“Don’t say ‘bullshitted.’ That doesn’t mean anything. You should tell me exactly what you did, not just say ‘bullshitted.'”

In light of Haley’s own life and how it’s narrated, this is a great joke. Lin painstaking tells us exactly what Haley does (and eats), which pretty much amounts, for the entirety of the novel, to bullshitting around for a long time. That is to say, that is all any of his details and exactitude amount to: bullshitting around, doing nothing, being fucked. The lists of actions and facial expressions (neutral, confused, strange, nervous; see index for full list) don’t get Haley any closer to trusting Dakota or get the two of them any closer emotionally. It should be an argument for the purposelessness of Richard Yates itself, which according to Cohen’s excerpt of Lin’s blog would be okay by him. Of course, for me it also works as a reason for reading, but there is no denying there is a lot of bleakness here.

Sympathizing with people cooler than you, multigenerational edition

Check out the following passage from Shoplifting from American Apparel‘s opening Gmail chat conversation between Sam and Luis:

“When Marissa and I fight we lay on our sides for an hour in different rooms and wait for the person that was mean to come into the room and say they are sorry, then we existentially attack each other in very quiet voices,” said Luis.

Jonathan Franzen, hip but unhip enough that he was forced to reveal to the handlers of the State of New York that he did not live in Brooklyn, wrote in his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone:

We reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgment of our pain.

Actually, re-reading this passage in the Franzen book, which I remembered only imperfectly, brings up more similarities. Franzen and his wife are losing it after spending too much time isolated together; Sam and Luis talk about how they “go inside ourselves, and play around inside our own mental illness.” And both are really hard to read, and that sure isn’t because I’m not sympathizing.

Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin

Shoplifting from American ApparelFrom the beginning I equivocated about whether to read Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, both intrigued and turned off by the idea of reading anything with “American Apparel” in the title. Too current—and yet, isn’t American Apparel already dated? But I am all about novellas, and awesome book design.* But then again I am often turned off by the Melville House blog. This profile of Tao Lin from The Daily Beast put an end to it in my mind (“shoplifting from publicly traded companies and spending the money I gained at independent stores that were socially conscious, such as organic vegan restaurants” was more than I could handle), but then John Self’s review of the novella at The Asylum reopened the issue (he wisely notes in a comment that the quote is another bit of “expert self-promotion” designed to do exactly what it has done to me—what a sucker, oh well). The Gmail chat conversation excerpt in his second blockquote sold me; less than 36 hours later the book had arrived, been read, and, somewhat surprisingly, been enjoyed.

I would say I only liked it because I am a member of the target demographic, only apparently I am not (except that I am at least somewhat detached from reality). Actually it made for a strange sort of enjoyment, something you see a former self in that is still part of your self but not really part of your life anymore. For all my aversion to over-currency in books, the Gmail chats at the beginning of the novella were my favorite bits, and the bits that made me stop reading at the realization that I had had these conversations before, or ones very like them, in a hazy previous existence.

“I’m alone,” said Sam. “What would happen if I started sniffing coke.”
“You would kill yourself in a panic attack.”

“I woke at 10:30 then said ‘this is fucked’ and went back to sleep,” said Sam. “I forced myself back to sleep.”

“Luis. What are we.”
“Fucked,” said Luis. “Was that like a cheer. What are we! Fucked.”

John Self says, “The spirit of Shoplifting from American Apparel is that the minutiae of our lives are rarely dealt with in fiction – that the things which take up most of our time are deemed unworthy of writing about.” Lin—for me, at least—successfully subverts that idea. Self is right, though, that the result is “maddening” and “saddening.” I might be old and stuffy now but no less alienated or fucked, you know.

“This is fucked,” said Sam.
“You know those people that get up every day, and do things,” said Luis.
“I’m going to eat cereal even though I’m not hungry,” said Sam.
“And are real proactive,” said Luis. “And like are getting things done, and never quit their jobs. Those people suck.”
“We get shit done too,” said Sam. “Look at our books.”
“I know, but that brings in no money,” said Luis. “Are we, like, that word ‘bohemians.’ Or something. Our bios: ‘They lived in poverty writing their masterpieces.'”
“We are the fucked generation,” said Sam.

On just the second page, this should close me out: I suck. But fortunately it doesn’t, for whatever reason. Because then I can go on to enjoy Lin’s style, prose so affectless it can only be affected, but very even and very right for the project. At times it felt like a tightrope of reading about people and things that would normally bug me, but generally didn’t here. You don’t think you can sympathize with hipsters, but it turns out when it comes to the minutiae you can, because the things that take up most of our time aren’t that different, are just as mind-numbing, maddening, and saddening, even if we don’t all discharge that through pure liquid irony. And hell, even Sam craves a Wendy’s chicken sandwich at one point, despite his usual thoughts of “Raweos,” energy drinks, and organic grapes.

So yeah, I’m putting Tao Lin’s earlier work on the list, even if the gonzo personality still turns me off in a lot of ways.

*But, on the back, it says, “The inmate with a mop held back the inmate without a mop.” But in the novella it’s the reverse. Feature, or bug?