Tao Lin is a shoplifter, drug taker and the re­luc­tant poster boy for a new breed of writ­ers, bring­ing us genre-bust­ing fic­tion for the Face­book gen­er­a­tion. Just don’t call him the next big thing, he tells Richard God­win

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Evening Stan­dard

ABOUT two hours be­fore I’m due to meet Tao Lin he tweets some­thing that makes my heart sink: ‘‘ An au­thor who only does in­per­son in­ter­views while in bed in foetal po­si­tion fully cov­ered by blan­kets.’’ I have read enough of Lin’s out­put to know that this is not a great sign. The 30-year-old au­thor, born in Vir­ginia to Tai­wanese par­ents, has earned hip­ster no­to­ri­ety as the lead­ing light of the Amer­i­can alt-lit scene — young po­ets, nov­el­ists and tweet­ers who write on and about the in­ter­net.

Early on in his ca­reer, Lin ap­peared ready to do any­thing for pub­lic­ity, in­clud­ing spam­ming web­sites un­til they agreed to write about him (the me­dia gos­sip site Gawker called him ‘‘ per­haps the sin­gle most ir­ri­tat­ing per­son we’ve ever had to deal with’’) and sell­ing $US12,000 ($13,500) worth of shares in a novel be­fore he’d even writ­ten it. He has since found a re­spectable publisher, but he re­cently de­clared him­self avail­able to live-tweet your wed­ding, for $400 an hour. The self-por­trait he of­fers in his lat­est novel, Taipei, sug­gests a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cally numbed, enig­matic young man, more com­fort­able online than in per­son.

We meet in a photo stu­dio in Lon­don’s Kens­ing­ton. Within min­utes, he has asked whether I have any drugs on me — and I’m not sure he’s jok­ing. He has the mes­sage ‘‘ I’m go­ing to die’’ tat­tooed on his arm, along with a lot of car­toon ham­sters. Still, it is worth per­sist­ing with Tao Lin. Zadie Smith rec­om­mended him to me in a re­cent in­ter­view, and it took only a sin­gle sen­tence of his sec­ond novel, Richard Yates, to hyp­no­tise me.

Lin ad­mits he is not good at talk­ing, which is not to say he is bad com­pany. His con­ver­sa­tion is very funny, in a Wait­ing for Godot sort of way. Sam­ple: Are you a ro­man­tic? ‘‘ Oh ... no.’’ Do you be­lieve in love? [Bored noise.] Are you dat­ing any­one at the mo­ment? ‘‘ No.’’ Do you ever see your­self hav­ing chil­dren? ‘‘ Maybe . . . Maybe . . . Maybe.’’

We head to Hyde Park, via Whole Foods, where we choose Pure­los­o­phy ‘‘ health’’ drinks. He goes for ‘‘ Re­lax’’ flavour. I go for ‘‘ Power’’. This is the sort of de­tail I feel Lin would def­i­nitely in­clude if he were writ­ing this scene, though his char­ac­ters would prob­a­bly steal the drinks. One of his novel­las is called Shoplift­ing from Amer­i­can Ap­parel and he sees the ac­tiv­ity as a sort of be­nign anti-cor­po­rate re­dis­tri­bu­tion. ‘‘ You feel very pro­duc­tive be­cause you think you’re do­ing some­thing good for the world and you’re get­ting some­thing at the same time.’’

Once we set­tle on the grass, he con­tin­ues: ‘‘ In Amer­ica I think I have a rep­u­ta­tion of just be­ing a gim­mick and do­ing any­thing to get at­ten­tion. Most peo­ple who ap­proach the book af­ter read­ing things that have been writ­ten about me, they just . . . hate me.’’

He is hung up on a par­tic­u­lar re­view that ap­peared on a cul­ture site called The Mil­lions: ‘‘ I won­dered if I had been lobotomised in the night . . . I won­dered why does he hate me?’’ moaned the re­viewer. Surely it’s bet­ter to in­spire a reader to ha­tred than in­dif­fer­ence?

‘‘ I don’t know,’’ says Lin. ‘‘ If you read the com­ments, they’re all say­ing ‘ thank you’ and ‘ this sounds like an aw­ful book’.’’

There have been some very pos­i­tive re­views, I say, point­ing to the praise in The New York Times and the Lon­don Re­view of Books — or in­deed Bret Eas­ton El­lis, who called Lin ‘‘ the most in­ter­est­ing prose stylist of his gen­er­a­tion’’. ‘‘ None of them were as pos­i­tive as that one was neg­a­tive,’’ says Lin. ‘‘ The re­viewer said my book made her want to die. No one said, ‘ This book has saved my life’.’’

His di­a­logue of­ten takes place on Twit­ter and Face­book. And in a wider sense, he cap­tures the melan­choly of in­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tion, where peo­ple be­come dis­tracted by their iPhones, find their sin­cer­ity mis­taken for irony, LOL in­stead of laugh.

One char­ac­ter in Taipei shows ap­pre­ci­a­tion for a gift in ‘‘ an af­fect­edly sin­cere man­ner — the gen­uine sin­cer­ity of a per­son who doesn’t trust her nat­u­ral be­hav­iour to ap­pear sin­cere’’. And this seems a good way of read­ing Lin. His pre­vi­ous novel, Richard Yates, has very lit­tle to do with the au­thor of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road. He says he gave it that ti­tle in the same way you might put a ran­dom word in the sub­ject header of an email to a friend. Its two pro­tag­o­nists are con­fus­ingly called Ha­ley Joel Os­ment and Dakota Fan­ning, though they bear no re­sem­blance to the child ac­tors.

How­ever, look be­yond th­ese dis­tanc­ing ef­fects and you’re left with a very painful love story about two peo­ple who can’t quite con­nect. As Lin says: ‘‘ They’re aware of how close you can get with a per­son from be­ing on the in­ter­net and then when they meet each other in real life, they’re just aware of how much less they’re able to com­mu­ni­cate.’’

Lin says he is alive to the melan­choly of a lot of in­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tion as he is part of a unique mi­cro-gen­er­a­tion, born in the 1980s, which is at home on the in­ter­net but can also re­mem­ber the world with­out it. ‘‘ No other gen­er­a­tion is go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence that ever again.’’ How­ever, he sees his themes as more uni­ver­sal than that. ‘‘ The sad­ness part is not re­lated to the in­ter­net at all,’’ he main­tains. ‘‘ Look at Kafka. Plenty of peo­ple were re­ally de­pressed be­fore the in­ter­net.’’

His influences are sur­pris­ingly tra­di­tional — he cites Amer­i­can writ­ers Richard Yates, Lor­rie Moore and Ann Beat­tie. He squirms when I use the term alt-lit (‘‘I don’t like that term. I don’t like any terms’’) and says he is part of the main­stream literary tra­di­tion.

He cur­rently lives in his brother’s apart­ment in mid­town Man­hat­tan (his par­ents, whom he de­scribes as very sup­port­ive, have now moved back to Tai­wan). Still, he ap­pears boredly sur­prised when I say that the New York literary scene seems lively at the mo­ment. ‘‘ Re­ally?’’

He also main­tains that he doesn’t care how many peo­ple read his books. ‘‘ Only fi­nan­cially.’’ He is merely writ­ing to ‘‘ fig­ure it out’’.

The nar­ra­tive of Taipei seems art­less at first: a Lin-es­que writer mooches around New York, in and out of re­la­tion­ships, and then goes to visit his par­ents in Taipei. How­ever, Lin main­tains that it took him a ‘‘ looooong time’’ to get it right, re­vis­ing re­peat­edly to get the right ef­fect. ‘‘ Most of the time, I’m sit­ting there think­ing.’’

Since the pro­tag­o­nist spends a lot of the time on Ad­der­all, Xanax and Klonopin, as well as co­caine, MDMA and mush­rooms, I won­der if Lin matched him drug-for-drug as he wrote? ‘‘ I prob­a­bly used way more drugs,’’ he says, laugh­ing. He reached the stage where he was de­pen­dent on them to write. ‘‘ So I did what­ever it took to fin­ish the book and then af­ter­wards, I started us­ing less.’’

While his in­take of pre­scrip­tion drugs has gone down, he is tak­ing a lot more magic mush­rooms. ‘‘ Hal­lu­cino­gens are good, I think. They’re com­pletely dif­fer­ent from all other drugs. It’s bad how all th­ese things are il­le­gal.’’

He de­scribes a rev­e­la­tory ex­pe­ri­ence on a re­cent mush­room trip. ‘‘ I felt like I could leave my body — and if I could do that, it proves that if you die, there’s still some­thing there.’’

He ended up delet­ing all of his so­cial me­dia ac­counts, in­clud­ing those of his web­site Muumuu House. ‘‘ I needed to fig­ure out what to do about that — all this shit that was tak­ing up so much of my time.’’

He says his next book is likely to be con­cerned with fur­ther ‘‘ psychedelic’’ ex­plo­ration. He is par­tic­u­larly trou­bled by the feel­ing that, when he could leave his body, he sim­ply felt bored. ‘‘ I was like, ‘ Now what do I do?’ It felt re­ally bad. Have you had any ex­pe­ri­ences like that?’’

He has since re­stored his so­cial me­dia pres­ence, for prac­ti­cal rea­sons mostly, though he now fig­ures that out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ences and Tum­blr ac­counts are not so very far re­moved. ‘‘ If the en­tire world is put into the in­ter­net, then there won’t be phys­i­cal laws any more. There will just be imag­i­na­tion. That’s closer to the psychedelic ex­pe­ri­ence than life is.’’

Does that prospect ex­cite him? ‘‘ Yeah. I think it would ex­cite any­one who doesn’t want to die, who is afraid of dy­ing and who wants to con­nect with other peo­ple. If you put two peo­ple in that realm, then you have per­fect com­mu­ni­ca­tion.’’

And this is the fu­ture as Tao Lin sees it — a bliss­ful com­mu­nion of souls. It sounds al­most . . . happy?

‘‘ Yeah. But the thing about that is,’’ he says, ‘‘ if ev­ery­thing is put on the in­ter­net, then there will just be one mind. And then it will be alone. And that feels baaaaad.’’ We both laugh for a bit and then lapse into si­lence. ‘‘ So some­one’s go­ing to have to fig­ure that out.’’

Tao Lin says of alt-lit: I don’t like that term’

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