A generation of American writers will soon be runner-up Tao Lins
I've fallen under the odd spell of 25 year-old Chinese-American writer Tao Lin. I'd love to say it's because I've read his books, but at the moment all I've seen is a few video clips showing readings, book launches, and eBay auctions. But they're enough to convince me that the New York poet and novelist is an interesting and original voice, a man whose tone -- slightly twee in an absurdist / emo comic book way, depressive yet funny, existentialist -- brings to mind the weirdness of Kafka, David Byrne and Toog. (I wonder if, like Toog, he's lefthanded? It strikes me as a "lefthanded" imagination.)
There's more than a little of the "Martian sends a postcard home" school (the phrase is originally Craig Raine's) about Lin's work, which uses Ivor Cutler-esque absurdities (many involving hamsters and other animals) to estrange banal and boring everyday realities. Another good reference point might be Miranda July. Or even David Shrigley. Insert pretentious references to ostranenie and the Russian formalists here, if you like. Or maybe just embed a video of Tao sifting through stuff he's offering on an eBay auction (now closed).
Lin's approach to self-promotion is as original as his authorial voice. The commercial worlds of Hollywood and of book promotion alienate him (Elijah Wood and The Da Vinci Code pain him particularly, and sustain terrible revenges -- at the hands of dolphins! -- in his first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee), but he's developed an alternative marketing strategy as original as his prose.
Not only does he sell his literary papers randomly on eBay (something trad writers do in deals with university research libraries just before they die), he's been selling shares in his second novel via an IPO of sorts -- a financing scheme as original, in the publishing world, as my Stars Forever project was in pop music. Like me, he managed to raise enough this way to avoid having to go down the salt mines -- $12,000, in fact, enough to buy three months of freedom to finish the book and pay rent on his East 29th Street apartment.
"Eeeee Eee Eeee concerns the travails of Andrew, a twentysomething pizza delivery guy with a penchant for intellectual contemplation and zero career ambition," reports Time Out New York. "Andrew spends a good deal of his time pining after a girl named Sara, but he also finds himself in a series of bizarre situations, discussing the meaning of life with President Bush and watching a poker game played by Salman Rushdie."
Here's a poem -- I'm tempted to call it "vexatious" and invoke Erik Satie -- called "When I Was Five I Went Fishing With My Family". It's funny, and then it isn't, and then it is again, and then it isn't, but by the end it is again.
And here's a poem Tao Lin just wrote with Ellen Kennedy. It's called Japanese Children with Digital Cameras in a Field, and Gary Glitter fans will be delighted to learn that it features child orgies. Something about it reminds me of the work that won Elfriede Jelinek the Nobel Prize, and enraged some traditionalists. Jelinek is more explicitly political, though.
I'd say Tao Lin is a dangerous writer, not just because there's something of the high school shooter about him, and not just because his writing gives you the strong impression that anything is possible to say, but because a brief exposure to his authorial voice makes you want to write like him, immediately. He's the kind of figure new schools are formed around, a head figure, a figure head. And while that's important for the future of literature, it tends to make a bunch of people runners-up at being Tao Lin, rather than winners at being themselves.
There's something quintessentially Click Opera about this post - about an author whose works you haven't bothered to read. You like his look, his attitude, but I have a feeling you'd actually be bored by Eeeee Eee Eeee (which I have read).
I guess I'm beginning to tire of your schtick, but that's not really your fault, is it?
I'm actually fascinated by the moment an interest in someone or something is kindled -- by appetite, by desire. That's why I write about the moment I become aware of an artist like Tao Lin. It's not an analytical or a judgemental moment -- those can come later -- but a moment of desire, a "blink" moment, a coup de foudre.
That is indeed what Click Opera is all about, and what I'm all about, as a person who loves to listen to music in languages I don't understand and imagine what's being said, or visit cultures I don't ever expect to enter, or read reviews of books and records and construct fantasic, baroque ideas of what they're like -- often much better than what they turn out to be.
So I'm afraid your disillusionment with Tao Lin and with Click Opera isn't of great concern to me. I'm interested in glamour and imagination, in the construction of future pleasures, and in encouragement, enthusiasm and optimism. Perhaps I'll report back when I actually have read Tao Lin rather than just seen him reading (though there's a possibility that, as a poet with a distinctive voice and mixed feelings about books as printed media, he's best consumed in video anyway), but probably I won't. This -- the moment of seduction and capitulation and appetite -- is the part that interests me.
He certainly appears to be left-handed in the ebay clip (depends on how heavy the camera is, though, I suppose).
I feel more optimistic about the impact of strong, charismatic voices on other writers than you seem to do. People may feel moved to imitate Tao Lin's writing, but pastiche is part of the ability to step outside themselves and try to see the world from others' perspectives that will benefit their writing long term. I feel it's when they only internalise one or a few strong voices that they're in trouble and that's because they don't have enough material to synthesise into something fresh and interesting.
Yes, that's a good point, and it's also important that pastiche always gets key details wrong. The influence of Tao Lin will be to freshen people's perspectives and give them that exciting punk rock sense that you can break the commercial rules and get away with it, and that "if he can do it, so can I!" He stokes up the appetite to write by giving himself license to say anything (he's reportedly cancelled book deals because editors asked him to make changes he didn't want to make), then other people are energized by that license and go off and do something else with it.
The runner-up-ization thing applies much more to the "winner takes it all" world of commercial mainstream publishing, where formula is everything, and there are "formula kings" surrounded by hosts of copycat courtiers.
It may just be seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but disgruntlement continues amongst anon posters today. I outlined some reasons above why I think it's okay -- and interesting -- to blog about the moment you glom onto an artist's style. I'd add that writing about Tao Lin without having read his books is a kind of Tao Lin thing to do: not only is the man asking for people to buy shares in his unwritten second novel, he's written What I Can Tell You About Seattle Based on the People I've Met Who Are From There (I Live in Brooklyn) -- and, inevitably, enraged Seattle-based empiricists, the kind of people who think Calvino should have retraced Marco Polo's steps before writing Invisible Cities, or that Nicholson Baker should have researched U and I a bit better (he made a point of quoting Updike only from memory, because Updike-inside-us is more interesting than Updike-on-the-shelf).
He comes across as very disconnected in that quintessentially post-Believer way; as if he is always wriggling away from wherever you'd like to pin him down. His writing has no emotional import, because it is always already ironised.
He also has another of Miranda July, Dave Eggers et al's annoying qualities: cute specificity, though it's lighter than theirs'.
What intrigues me is visibility. How did you hear about this person? Did someone "turn you on" or was it a link to a link to a link as it often is these days? Lots of people are doing things but how do they even get noticed? Is it still who you know not what you know? The effort to get noticed is sometimes what intrigues me most of all. I get all turned on by the inadvertant promotion. In a way commenting on a popular blog like imomus is an attempt.
I was alerted to Tao Lin by a post on Pulled Up, the blog of Joe Howe's girlfriend Emma. It quoted him talking about how he and his generation can't be bothered to do things for money -- it suggested an anti-commercial, post-materialist attitude to life which I liked the sound of. After that, it was readings on YouTube -- and specifically the sense that here was a new, young Chinese-American incarnation of Franz Kafka -- that reeled me in.
You can probably hear Tao Lin-isms in a hundred Seattle coffee shops already. Surely he is runner-upish, an immigrant trying to charm his way into the legacy culture by mirroring it. 'Asia wears the pants' and 'London really has to get tough to match Beijing' is not a future statement. Maybe he's subverting the east/west cultural cold war by scoffing at 'difference'.
His "art" is the art of the Youtube/blog generation. We were all reared on video games and TV. We reach our 20s and realize we have no skills. We can't play any instruments, can't draw well, and have no poetic voice.
We then do the only thing that's left us: resort to faux-naive childish scribbling, plink-plonking on Casios and glockenspiels, and writing free association ramblings.
his writing sucks. If his writing inspires impersonators it's because it's so lazy! Tao is the kind of 'artist' where I just feel they like they're playing a joke on everyone by managing to get away with making things that are complete bullshit.
"If you think someone else's writing is 'shitty,' 'terrible,' or 'bad' and you think this seriously, as if the writing were objectively 'shitty' or 'terrible' (which means you believe if anyone likes the writing they themselves are 'shitty' and 'terrible'), your existence is a distortion of the universe that causes more pain and suffering. Many people like Gary Lutz. Many people like Stephen King. If you type, "I dislike Stephen King," that is a fact. If you type, "Stephen King is horrible," that is not a fact, it isn't anything; it's you saying either, "I am the only person who exists and my opinions are actually facts," or "I am the entire universe and the universe is not indifferent but actually makes value judgments on specific things within itself without defining a context and a goal."
A person's writing comes from their brain. It is who they are. Some people have very sad facial expressions and when they talk their voices tremble and maybe they have a deep voice or respond mostly with one-syllable answers or maybe they don't speak and don't make eye contact. That is who they are, most people would say. If you met that person you wouldn't say, "Your facial expression and voice are horrible, you have no talent. You have no talent for the pitch of your voice. You are talentless and horrible and unoriginal. Your voice and facial expression are very bad. You should stop doing those things and releasing your terrible shit onto the world. Maybe you should try something else, instead of existing. Maybe you would be good at something else, like not existing." Most of you would not say that about a person's idiosyncrasies, a person's 'personality,' etc. But most of you would say those things about a person's writing, if you didn't like it.
A person's effect on the world is their 'art,' that is who they are. How they move, release noises, arrange their room, write their sentences, give their poems line breaks, etc."
I'll have to check out the videos when I'm not at work.
I felt sort of fascinated by the idea fo Tao Lin when I first heard of him, but a little frustrated after reading Eeee Eeeee Eee. It had some interesting ideas, and some beautifully expressed moments, padded out by what I felt was irrelevant bullshit. Didn't stop me rom reading his short story collection, Bed, which I enjoyed a lot more. I think he works best in condensed formats, from what I've seen so far. I'd definitely be interested to know what you think after reading him. And I'm still intrigued enough to check out his next book, whatever that may be.
And for the record, as a Seattle transplant, I loved his piece in the Stranger!
I've honestly always thought of Tao Lin as a product of the McSweeney's school, with some influences from 'flash fiction', but Tao Lin has a more expansive pop repertoire, perhaps. That 'Japanese Children...' title alone has a certain Shunji Iwai feel to it, doesn't it? Maybe not.
the poem about Japanese Children and thought it was hilarious. But I think Ivor Cutler is a little more melancholic (pushed along by social class and the social clash of the 60s). I also think Toog has an interest in broader social differences and problems. That's my take on your take of Tao Lin's take on the world! I guess I'm wondering where the working out of social/political issues is happening.
i have a 'britney spears' sticker on my notebook for school. people ask about it and i tell them it is for britney spears and tao lin. tao lin makes me feel like i can write about boredom in an exciting way, but using real life instead of hyperbole. tao lin makes me feel like dolphins are humans. tao lin is friends with ellen kennedy and i like ellen kennedy's work too. no one will be a 'tao lin runner-up' as long as they stay away from writing about dolphins killing elijah wood.
I had heard of Eeeee Eee Eeee a while ago but aside from thinking it was a great title I didn't look into it any further. After reading your post and a little of Tao Lin's stuff online I will probably order it now. His writing reminds of Genichiro Takahashi's Sayonara Gangsters. I always wanted to read more of Takahashi but nothing else has been translated, so I am delighted to finally find something similar.
I liked this post, and I think it's an example of why your blog is so useful to me. You introduced me to a new author, and you did it with just the right balance of commentary and direct evidence: a few examples, a few artists to relate him to, your connection with his financial strategies, some clever characterizations, and an Amazon link.