Terminal Boredom: Reading Tao Lin

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Two weekends ago, Tao Lin, a writer/poet/artist whose knack for self promotion is fairly staggering, published a lengthy account of being arrested for trespassing. The piece gives you a good sense of Lin's writerly persona—his prose is placid, spare, vaguely hypnotic, "possibly" "ironic," and he's faintly self-obsessed but in a harmless, almost banal way. The backstory (it helps to know that his last novella (which I'd recommend) was titled Shoplifting from American Apparel...):

March 2008 I was banned from NYU stores when I was arrested for unsuccessfully shoplifting [something like "Sony 'in-ear' earphones"] from NYU's computer store. June 2010 NYU's bookstore moved to a space on Broadway & Waverly that included a Think Coffee. One night I said "I'm banned from all NYU stores, I think, but I'm banned from Whole Foods and American Apparel and I've been in those places like 500 times" to someone.

Lin's account was published on Gawker, which is a funny about-face given the site's contentious relationship with him. He's sticker-bombed their front door and irritated them silly by cramming their inbox "full" of random gags and musings—he's possibly the least-famous person ever to earn so much scorn from the scornful/oft-scorned site. Was he seeking fame or just playing Gawker's ironic fame/trend-watching game in the most literal, committed way possible? Eventually, he received a Gawker pardon, which feels like an admission that even they cant stop him, whatever it is he's trying to do (similar, in a way, to this).

Why is Lin so polarizing?  The comments that follow the Gawker "piece" are generally annoyed or sarcastically dismissive, which is expected given how long and gossip/link-free it is. But is Lin's writing, as the detractors say, truly narcissistic or selfish? What does it mean to be narcissistic enough to be branded a narcissist, when we are all in the business of cultivating online followers and friends, issuing steady streams of news releases about our wavering moods? There's something refreshing to me about Lin's writing, the way it manages to be wholly about him, but deny our craving for interiority or motive.

For me, the photograph of his personal effects pretty much sum it all up: a pen, some paper, an iPhone, some flyers for his upcoming novel, Richard Yates. There's nothing there, no assets beyond the possible dollar or two he'll make off the fact that you've read this far--and why? At a moment when we are able to give so much of our identities over to public view, Lin seems to overexpose himself, as a way of distracting from the fact that he's revealing nothing. Maybe it's all "ironic." Maybe it's an appreciation for how we communicate nowadays—his writing is often compared to gchat-speak. But there's something unusual about a writer being so transparent, so ready to tell you every insignificant detail of a seemingly eventful day, so aware of his next novel's word count, yet also remaining so opaque, mysterious, "inscrutable." You can read his blog or study his novels, and you'll learn very little about the name attached to them, and that seems to contradict this seeming addiction for bumrushing the spotlight. It's like a marvelous joke with no punch line.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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