September 5th, 2008


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.