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
Continue reading “[B]eing productive in a low-level manner,” or, thoughts on Taipei
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
Continue reading Richard Yates by Tao Lin
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.
From 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
Continue reading Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin