LOG ON, SIGN IN, FLIP OUT
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
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’