Channeling Tao Lin


You might have issues with Tao Lin, and I certainly wouldn't blame you. He's one of those figures about whom many smart, thinking people feel they must have an opinion, kind of like Inception or the Arcade Fire, only with Lin, there is the sense that there is no ultimate "point" and we merely flatter him by wasting our time. Lin's anticipated new novel, Richard Yates, just came out, and any suspicion that this cusp-of-stardom/culmination-of-publicity-stunts moment has transformed him into a "serious artist" is dispelled in the first few paragraphs, as the reader follows an apparent gchat conversation between Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment.

Still, Lin makes a great subject for sharp critics. I enjoyed the open-minded rigor and granular, let's-look-at-this-sentence analysis of Zach Baron's review for the Village Voice—a la Lin's noncommittal way, Baron concludes that it "kind of 'bums' us out." In Bookforum, Joshua Cohen expresses something far beyond mere bummed-out disappointment, pointing to Lin's innate "conservatism" and wondering what it means that Lin and a typically enthused, Lin-boosting blog commenter have essentially interchangeable styles. What's especially cutting, though, is Cohen's aping of Lin's style in the review's first few paragraphs:

I told him that I'd have to write the review in his style, then—submit it for publication and later, when the review came out, claim publicly that Lin wrote it for me. I'd have to write directly but without adverbs, without (illuminating or useful) adjectives. I would have to use regular language, few commas, and no semicolons; when I wrote something particularly hackneyed I'd have to put it between quotation marks. This would all be "work."

Christian Lorentzen beat Cohen to the punch with "Tao Lin Will Have the Scallops," a brilliant, playful and subtle piece for the Observer a few weeks back:

The Observer was sitting at his desk. It was Friday at 1:03 p.m. His Gmail was open, and the inbox showed a new message from Tao Lin. The subject of the message was "just confirming, 630pm five leaves."

The Observer replied, "Yes, and the assignment is fully confirmed. The profile of you will run in the Observer issue of August 18."

Tao Lin replied, "Sweet. Thank you."

A few minutes later, The Observer decided to write his profile of Tao Lin in Tao Lin's style. An editor came up to The Observer's desk to check on his work. The Observer told him there was no problem with his work. The editor seemed relieved.

Or was the "editor" "relieved?"

I like this kind of critical ventriloquism—a couple years back, Sam Anderson channeled Donald Barthelme for his Flying to America review, and in the New Literary History of America, there's a rousing Mary Gaitskill essay about Norman Mailer that exaggerates his brooding, macho, false-weariness of his work. But these examples (I'm sure there are many more...) are essentially homage, or an attempt to reckon with something knotty, difficult, contradictory. It's pretty clear why us critics might have fun scrutinizing Lin's style, and trying to figure out what is there, if anything. But why is it so beloved by his fans? Is it because the books deny the very possibilities of criticism and "deep thought"?

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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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