Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Things Which Will On Occasion Elicit Nothing

Tao Lin. He's a fascinating figure/fixture in the world of contemporary indie lit. He's definitely hitting on something -- he has the ardent following to prove it. Gawker, even if sardonically, posts about his exploits often -- even going so far as to offer him a forum for posting of his exploits himself at least once. I consider myself neither a fan nor a hater. I'm an interested bystander. I was interested when discussion of Marie Calloway and Lin's role in publishing "Adrien Brody" and corresponding with its author broke a week or two ago. Then, despite its circular tendencies and refusal to take a specific position without contradicting that position, I quite enjoyed Janey Smith's reaction on Big Other.

Tao Lin is a curiosity, and as Janey Smtih notes in greater depth than I plan to go in here, he seems to deftly understand the importance of being great at getting attention. Everything else can be viewed as subjective in the marketplace, other than the plan fact of what sells. Tao Lin and Muumuu House sell, and much as I'm loath to admit it, Jordan Castro and the rest of the young Muumuuvian disciples are wise to get on board with this promotional machine. I'm sure it could be counted on one hand those people who know who Amelia Gray is or who Michael Kimball is or Blake Butler, even, but don't know of Tao Lin. If it's a shame that this is the case the best you'll be able to argue is for something subjective.

Of course it's crass to say because Lin has followers he also has merit. Fine, it's crass. So what? It's no less true. And even though I didn't much care for the substance of "Shoplifting From American Apparel," the first of Lin's books I've been able to get a copy of and read. It is fairly straightforward. It follows characters who are undoubtedly stand-ins for Tao and his gang, a fact all but revealed expressly in his Gawker piece cited above. He's simultaneously aware of the kind of "movement oriented" nature of his position in this place in history, having characters remark to one another that they'll be no doubt referred to as the "blogniks," or some such media-driven expression to place them in the popular imagination of whatever discrete realm of pop culture they fit into. In so saying, he also has a hand in sort of positioning himself in this categorization, while also removing himself from it somewhat, by having his characters play aloof and dismissive of the idea.

So to the subjective, then, what can I make of "Shoplifting From American Apparel"? It's unlike anything I've ever seen only because of the discussion that surrounds it. But that's kind of fitting, in this day and age. When "reality" is yoked to television shows that are only real to the extent that their characters are marketable it's fitting that a major alt lit hero / pillar would be more worthy of praise for the things he elicits outside of his work and not from the work itself. Besides, he doesn't have time to entertain you with the outmoded medium of reading. I mean, there's just enough in there to keep you in it to the end, but the payoff there is minimal. Satire isn't part of it. Embracing a certain kind of commercialism certainly is, a certain commercialism lifestyle filled with iced coffees and vegan smoothies. All of this is to say Tao Lin knows what he's doing.

I think it's fitting I read Sam Pink just prior to reading Lin. They share many affinities but where Pink seeks if nothing else than to explore through his stories Lin is comfortable leaving the exploration tangential, as a reactionary aside to his life outside of writing or any art form whatsoever. Fair is fair, though, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his literary forebears. No doubt the Beatniks were of a similar mind, Kerouac and Neal Cassady on the road.  The blogniks pun is extremely apt if a little on the nose. Certainly, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. And last, but perhaps most apt of all, the literary Brat Pack of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInierney renown. I can't help feeling, given their tendency to stay put and write about what was around them, the urban jungle of the 1980s, that there is more than a slight connection. Tao Lin's contemporary version of commercial culture is only slightly more terrifying and only because his characters seem to so earnestly and unthinkingly embrace it (and maybe that's the point). Reading about them left me feeling nothing, emoting nothing, empty of feeling, which might be where Lin diverges from all the other literary groups I mention. There's a catatonic quality to everything there, which to his credit freaks me out. If his goal was to freak me out with his emotionless writing he did accomplish that.

That's not to say it didn't have parts I thought were really strong. I liked the lockup scene, after Sam is arrested for shoplifting from American Apparel. I thought that was where some of the most heft of the story was found, in the visceral reaction of the inmates to one another and to their eventual pugnacious lockup partner, a man who was locked up for fighting in a Starbucks. He'd apparently gone there to go to the bathroom after a more verbal altercation with his assailant at the Bar he'd been at. It reeks of something true and honest, even if it's totally made up. Sam seems to understand that this is an important moment for him but he can't seem to understand how or why. The lack of serious introspection is further horrifying.

There's much to be horrified by in the works of Tao Lin.

And maybe it's good or maybe it's bad.

But those are pretty subjective things. after all.


  1. I didn't know why the hell Tao Lin was before reading this and I'm still not too sure what to think after. Sure thing, he got my attention with this title.

    I'm gonna hit Google and Wikipedia now. I want to be a part of that debate

  2. Yeah, he's somewhat niche, but in his niche group he is a pillar, borderline superstar.

    He has his merits too. I don't want to be too dismissive myself.