I want to read Tao Lin’s second novel, Richard Yates. I am writing this essay, however, to promote Tao Lin’s work as a whole. This essay won’t be about Tao Lin’s second novel Richard Yates, as I don’t know anything more about the novel than what I’ve read here and here and here, and a few other places. (What I’ve read about Richard Yates makes me want to stop reading about Richard Yates and just read Richard Yates.) This essay will mostly be in the style of a Tao Lin essay about Tao Lin, or, more accurately, Tao Lin’s writing in general, with a concluding note re the controversy surrounding Tao Lin’s writing and self-promotion 'tactics'.
Tao Lin’s Books to Date
I own and have read all of Tao Lin’s books to date: you are a little bit happier than i am, Eeeee Eee Eeee, Bed, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Shoplifting from American Apparel. My favorite Tao Lin books include the books I just listed, which are all of Tao Lin’s books. Here are some of my favorite quotes from each of Tao Lin’s books:
from you are a little bit happier than i am:
it’s probably philosophically sound to kill peoplefrom Eeeee Eee Eeee:
because like is suffering and suffering is the only real evil
and if you want to have meaning then that’s pretty much all you get
to make it your goal to wake up and kill people
not just select kinds of people, like hitler did, but all people, like the universe did in the future (“i am going to kill my literary agent”)
[A]ny unsarcastic thought or action is a horrible distortion. Anything is a horrible distortion. We need to stop breeding. There are assumptions and contexts and we go around pretending and playing games by overlapping our assumptions and contexts with others until there is no more time left. Death is the taking away of assumption and context. Consciousness is being forced to assume and then block out information in order to be conscious. I don’t know how to think about that. (196-97)from Bed:
[A] weightlessness entered into Chelsea’s blood—an inside ventilation, like a bacteria of ghosts—and it was sometime in the fall, before her 23rd birthday, that her heart, her small and weary core, neglected now for years, vanished a little, from the center out, took on the strange and hollowed heaviness of a weakly inflated balloon. (“Sasquatch”)from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy:
from one’s own perspective the brain seems to own itselffrom Shoplifting from American Apparel:
we observe the brain from an abstract distance
we observe each other from a physical distance
the brain observes nothing from no distance
therefore everything is going to be OK (“giant poem, twenty-one of twenty-four”)
It was getting dark out, or the sun had moved, and Sam’s room was less bright. Sam looked around. His cup of iced coffee was empty. “I felt emotional today thinking about the past, like a year and a half ago, at Shiela’s house,” he said. […] But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really,” said Sam. “It just went away after a while.” (80-81)Tao Lin’s Themes and Intentions
What appeals to me most about Tao Lin’s writing is his ability to write confidently about characters who have no confidence. I don’t think what I just wrote is true, re why Tao Lin’s work appeals to me. Not entirely. That may be only one aspect of it. There are many other things going on, and it is evident that, within the context of Tao Lin’s ‘career arc’, his work (I feel I am referring mostly to his fiction right now) is ultimately shifting from an irreverent and playful yet empathetic tone (using ‘descriptive’ language) sensitive to the emotions of his characters (and to himself, as their author, seeking to console himself against loneliness and death), as seen in Eeeee Eee Eeee and Bed, toward a more realistic and intentional absence of emotion from both the narrator and the characters' perspectives, as seen in Shoplifting from American Apparel and what I have read I will find somewhat inverted in Richard Yates. (Rather, according to available reviews of Richard Yates the narrator—and not the characters themselves—adopts this objectivity.)
This shifting aside, his themes and intentions are constant: alienation, the alleviation of boredom and the attempt to map the passage of time toward an inevitable death while reading and writing to console one’s self against loneliness compounded with that inevitability, or simply the loneliness of that inevitability. This feels comforting to read depictions of things I feel but immediately forget because I’m not always ‘sure’ how to ‘articulate’ their ‘essence’. Tao Lin reminds me of how I feel moment to moment, which is different. His use of non-sequitor narrative reads like a blueprint of how the brain wiggles through itself toward meaning which doesn’t necessarily 'exist', which 'means' only that the brain wiggles.
I like the idea that “Tao’s writing is not formula, but revision and sabotage at once” (Niedenthal, HTML Giant). Each new Tao Lin book is not merely a recycled version of a previous Tao Lin work, as his efforts do alter in various ways from book to book (as mentioned above), but something independent of his prior work, something newly emancipated and potentially volatile. It’s not only his revision of his own narrative methods to convey his themes and intentions but his revision of how 'literature' itself can be conveyed which is tantamount to sabotage. The existing 'standards of literature' dictate that certain methods, or ‘literary devices’, be used to compose a work of 'literature'. (This is not to say Tao Lin doesn’t use these 'devices'.) He is revising these 'standards' by sabotaging them, showing that, within 'literature', there is life outside of 'literature'.
Things in real life don’t happen metaphorically; we only ‘think’ of them metaphorically. Things in real life aren’t ‘like’ anything else; we only compare things in real life to other things to feel ‘safe’; consciousness seeks similarities between things. Things in real life aren’t paginated, have no chapters or sections; we only impose designations and categories on things in real life to make sense of those things and how they relate to us, how we relate to them. Tao Lin admits they don’t make sense, whereas it seems most people are content to lie to themselves and to each other about what things ‘mean’. Yet, because things maybe don't make sense doesn't 'mean' "life is meaningless" (Lin, 3:AM). Saying something is 'meaningless' doesn't really 'mean' anything.
'Traditional literary standards' dictate that authors must, through 'literary devices', didactically provide meaning to readers, and readers must, in turn, seek meaning in the works of 'literature' they read. Tao Lin’s use of 'literary devices' often seems sarcastic, seeking to prove how ultimately unrealistic they are (I am comparing 'literary devices', ironically, to real life [and Tao Lin’s books to each other, and to 'literature' as a whole, so, by comparing things, it seems I’ve outsmarted myself with contradiction, or fulfilled the brain's purpose, allowing it to compare things to make this essay feel 'safe' to me], as consciousness, for the same purposes as seeking similarities, simultaneously seeks to identify [or manufacture] and enforce differences between things, abstract or concrete: hence capitalism, racism, nationalism, the literary canon, forming cliques, becoming a police officer, running for political office, generally treating other people like shit, etc.). (I feel I’ve gotten off topic.)
Tao’s well-known promotional 'gimmicks' aside, his body of work is 'good' (though a term Tao Lin deems meaningless: “there is no good or bad in art” [Lin, poetryfoundation.org]). That he chooses to promote his work in unorthodox ways is just a way of ensuring his work gets read. I keep thinking about this line by Oscar Levant: “A pun is the lowest form of humor—if you didn’t think of it first.” Much of the controversy surrounding Tao Lin’s work seems to be because Tao Lin thinks of these things first, or at least attempts them and is mostly successful at carrying them out, despite negativity from critics and/or anonymous commenters.
That I am comparing Tao Lin's promotional campaigns to puns seems strange, even in this context, as he seems somewhat 'against' wordplay, or at least exhibitions of 'cleverness' through wordplay or even 'standard' 'literary devices' such as metaphor and simile (I feel I am mostly referring to his poetry right now, in which he uses 'standard' 'literary devices' mostly sarcastically/ironically, though he has used these devices sincerely, particularly in Eeeee Eee Eeee and Bed), yet he likes Lorrie Moore, whose work is densely populated with jokes in the form of puns/wordplay.
Controversy over Tao Lin's attempts to promote his work might also arise because he is one of the few writers who has managed to not only write really 'good' material but also successfully convince others it’s 'good', and to actually read it. His latest contest, having people write essays about Richard Yates and/or Tao Lin (similar [again, I'm comparing...] to one he also ran while promoting Shoplifting from American Apparel), as most of his previous promotional campaigns, is ultimately, yet not merely, designed to benefit Tao Lin, but those of us who participate. Whoever writes an essay or gmail chats or makes a video about Tao Lin and/or Richard Yates also ‘gains’ ‘exposure’ through the promotion of Tao Lin.
Getting people to write essays about him to post on their blogs is a good idea I wish I’d thought of (which wouldn’t matter anyway, as I have not and more than likely will never ‘achieve’ anywhere near Tao Lin’s ‘level’ of ‘success’). This not only ‘gains’ him greater ‘exposure’, but, within the context of that ‘exposure’, those who participate in promotional campaigns such as this also ‘gain’ greater ‘exposure’ for their own blogs/work. (I feel I should also put 'greater' in scarequotes.) Tao Lin wrote an interesting essay on self-promotion a while back, in which he explains that to not promote one’s self is a form of insanity. By writing this essay, therefore, I feel I am selfishly, or ‘sanely’, promoting myself, while simultaneously 'self-promoting' Tao Lin.