Tao Lin, Aiming For The Sky

Congratulations to up-and-coming indie novelist Tao Lin for scoring a full-page review — not necessarily a positive review, but a riveting one — in yesterday’s Sunday New York Times Book Review. Nice break!

I’m not workin’ the NYTBR beat anymore, but I will pay attention at moments like these. I’ve been watching Tao’s unusual career from the beginning (when I reviewed his first book and called him “faux naif“), and I’ve appeared at a couple of literary readings with him. His performance style, like his prose, is highly deadpan. The nervous laughter in the audience comes during his awkward silences, just as it does in his novels.

Charles Bock’s review of Lin’s latest work Richard Yates is mostly blistering:

The novel’s voice is deliberately monotonous. Chats, e-mails, text messages, phone and in-person conversations — all are absorbed seamlessly into the body of Lin’s text, a smart way of portraying the world in which he’s come of age, where we’re connected all the time and, regardless of the device or medium, all forms of communication seem alike. But this perspective also betrays a blasé cynicism, one that takes distinctions and details for granted. Descriptions are minimal here, and landscapes stripped down. It’s no accident, one senses, that Lin name-drops Hemingway and Beckett. But as with the Yates reference, it’s worth asking to what end.

But this is the kind of blistering that sells books, especially when Bock says:

This twaddle is easy to mock. But Lin can be genuinely funny — as in the lovers’ absurd riffs about Bruce Lee fighting 20 million driver ants — and he provides accurate, often filthy dispatches on what it is to be young and pushing against the world. When Haley Joel and Dakota find solace in each other through small, intimate gestures, or in descriptions of Dakota’s defeated parents, Lin’s flat style resonates. Similarly, during important scenes, Lin slows time and piles sentences into longer paragraphs, replicating complex thought processes and shifting, nuanced moods, while showing his admiration for the work of Lydia Davis (also cited).

I haven’t read Richard Yates, and may or may not get around to it. Tao Lin is the kind of writer you can enjoy without always reading him; like an Andy Warhol painting, he invites curious gawking (in fact, his Aspergers-ish demeanor resembles that of Mark Zuckerberg, so the coincidence of Richard Yates hitting the street at the same time the film The Social Network opens is interesting).

Lin’s characters are usually young people reaching out for love, and expertly using Internet-based social media to eke out each other’s deepest feelings. I don’t always follow his prolific output, but I always admire the risks he takes, like the latest book’s title. “Richard Yates” names a semi-obscure but legendary dead modern novelist, and appears to be a play on the way the young man and young woman in this novel take the names of movie stars Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning when they communicate online. As they yearn to be these movie stars, I suppose, Tao Lin yearns to be Richard Yates.

He’s got a long career ahead of him — I hope Tao Lin will fulfill his dream.

4 Responses

  1. Hmmm… read the NYT review
    Hmmm… read the NYT review and am now interested in reading Tao Lin (you were right, it is the kind of review that sells books!). Levi, can you recommend an earlier book I should start with… or should I jump in with Richard Yates?

  2. Hi Tara! Well, it seems like
    Hi Tara! Well, it seems like the new one is getting more attention than the others (which had titles like “Eeee Eeeeeee Eeee” and “You Are A Little Bit Happier Than I Am”) so I bet this is the way to go. Please let me know what you think if you try it …

  3. Richard Yates, the actual
    Richard Yates, the actual novelist, is an absolutely magnificent writer. Revolutionary Road is one of the best American novels I’ve ever read. He’s one of those writers that I like to extend by not reading his books too close together. I want to space them out a little.

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