Tao Lin: They See Me Trolling
Peter Heyneman | Feb 4, 2011 | 9:00AM |

Last year some friends and I read the Tao Lin novel Shoplifting From American Apparel for a book club that was primarily about expressing our feelings. Let’s put aside the fact that this is probably the most pretentious idea for a book club ever (I was really into Freud at the time as a kind of ultimate retro), and say that the reaction to this slim, fashionable-looking novel was universal confusion. Written in a powerfully stripped down and bleak style, the story concerned a character (that one suspects is exactly like the author) G-chatting with girls, working at a restaurant and mostly hanging out feeling weird. The general consensus in the group was that nobody had any idea what it was supposed to be saying, but that it wasn’t much different than the way we spend our time in real life. I loved it intensely and immediately. Many others hated it just as intensely, but they certainly didn’t forget the experience. Reading more of his work (which is  mostly written more traditionally than SFAA but with just as much disaffected hanging out) I’ve decided that Lin has a lot in common with a very modern species at its finest: the Internet Troll.

Since then, Tao Lin has sprung into the mainstream consciousness like a deadpan Athena out of Chuck Palahniuk’s skull. Here are some things that Tao has done recently that have pissed people off:

Like the cleverest mocking comments on a Youtube video though, Lin only makes you mad if you take yourself too seriously. The highest quality trolling isn’t offensive, but instead presents a holistic persona that grates you to your very core usually because it makes you realize how commonplace you really are. Examined closely, many of the world’s greatest writers of the past had similarly iconoclastic and mischievous lives–Shelly, Byron, Whitman, Ginsberg, James Wright…sincerity often blurs into pure trollage when it flies in the face of common sense. More recently, think about how many folks get livid at the idea of Dave Eggers stomping around writing blithely positive books about small epiphanies? Well Lin is performing the same trick, but with archness and cynicism instead of sincerity. I couldn’t hate myself more for using this analogy, but in the same way that recently christened music genre Chillwave buries pop melodies and dance beats under waves of digital effects and faux tape-scratch, Lin’s books have traditional drama and strong emotions underpinning their low energy mumbling about random pop culture. In the same way that, back in the early 00s, Eggers represented young folks rejection of cynicism in favor of sincerity, connectivity and even-handedness, Lin is the disaffection, boredom, and anxiety of today’s overloaded youths. He is the Anonymous to Eggers’ blogger, the Gchat breakup to Eggers’ YouTube, lost druggy despair at a Neon Indian show instead of slightly buzzed Arcade Fire transcendence. That decade was fun, but it’s time for the hangover, and Tao is the right voice to hear right now as we wake up in too-bright sunlight and get back to work.

Tao is reading tonight at the Black Cat in a benefit for 826DC, the charity started by Dave Eggers that provides literary outlets for at-risk youth, and we took the opportunity to chat with him on email (not g-chat because it’s been done and also I find gchat strangles my penchant for long-winded runon sentences). He was a great sport and spoke at length about his resistance to being called Asian, his leet marketing skills, and being a Famous Author.

BYT: Thanks for talking with me Tao Lin! So, according to the internet you were born in Alexandria Virginia. Have you spent any time there or around DC? What if any is your impression of the town you were born in?

TL: I don’t remember anything specific about Virginia. I moved to Florida when I was 2 or 3. I have been to Baltimore maybe 5 times. My main impression of it is that it seems bleak, except Atomic Books, which feels like the opposite of bleak, to me, maybe. My main impression of DC is that Stephen Colbert said it’s black, with a white center (referring to people, I think), like a Mallomar. I also think of the end of the movie Election when I think of DC, when Matthew Broderick is relating his new life, of giving tours in museums.

BYT: Did you see that article on Thought Catalog On G-chat a few weeks back? I thought it was great as it gave me an excuse to go back and look at all the (now often heartbreaking) exchanges I’ve had over the past few years on it. Do you mine your own Gchat logs for ideas?

TL: Yes, I liked that article. Yes, I look at my Gmail chats for ideas. My second novel, “Richard Yates,” is maybe 40% Gmail chats, edited versions of Gmail chats from my Gmail account.

BYT: Are there technical things about Gchat that make it so much more of a fruitful thing to include in books, something that phone conversations, texts, and emails seem to lack?

I think Gmail chats are different than IRL conversations because Gmail chats are saved by Gmail exactly as they occurred. I like texts and emails. Seems like I don’t have anything to say that isn’t obvious about texts, emails, and Gmail chats.

BYT: One subject you do not talk about in your writing (that I have ever seen) is being Asian, or I guess the Asian American Experience. Are identity politics just totally beside the point?

TL: I don’t know what to say about Asians. I think everyone is “racist,” to differing degrees, in that everyone’s brain will automatically associate information with other information, based on the information they are looking at (for example skin color, bone structure), but I think focusing on race in any manner that isn’t neutral or self-aware probably increases racism. If I wrote a book about being Asian, instead of being a person, I would feel like I was openly doing things to increase my own racism and other people’s racism, I think.

It seems like most people will agree that they would like if they were treated by other people based on what they have concretely done in their life, not what other people have done, with their lives. Focusing on being a person instead of an Asian or an [anything] seems to promote a worldview that encourages people to treat others based on what each person has specifically done in their life, which seems like it would reduce such things as war, racism, unfairness, “hate crimes,” [other things most people feel aversion toward].

I think that’s one reason I would avoid writing about “being Asian.” Another is that if I wrote about “being [abstraction]” I would be ignoring existential issues (such as death, limited-time, the arbitrary nature of the universe, the mystery of consciousness) that I feel affect me most in my life and think about most of the time. Another reason is that it doesn’t seem specific or accurate, to me, to write about “being [abstraction].” I think there are some other reasons.

BYT: Jesus, The Indie Band is one of my favorite purposeful memes ever. Any plans to continue the collaboration with Carles (whoever that might be) in other ways?

TL: I think our EP will “drop” in 2012, maybe in Fall 2012.

'Holy Shit'

BYT: You and I were born pretty much around the same time (I was born in 1977 so not really but kinda). Richard Yates and much of your other work is concerned with younger people, now teenagers or in their early 20s. Do you feel more of a connection to younger folks than you do to people born in the 70s, what one might call Generation X?

TL: I don’t feel a connection with younger people or with Generation X, or any generation, I feel. If I felt a connection with people my age I wouldn’t have written six books about feeling depressed, alienated, lonely. If I did I would have many friends and feel connected with them and probably be a happy person who has a real job. Some of my favorite books are Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976) by Ann Beattie (b. 1947), Like Life (1990) by Lorrie Moore (b. 1957), The Book of Disquiet (19??) by Fernando Pessoa (b. 1888). I think I feel connected with people because of their sense of humor, worldview, and what they think and feel about certain existential issues (things not affected, in my view, by if someone rides a horse or drives a car or talks only IRL or only by typing), not how old they are, what they use to convey what they think and feel about certain existential issues, or if we have both watched the same TV shows or looked at the same websites.

BYT: The thing you wrote for the Stranger, the Jonathan Franzen parody– I think people might have interpreted it as rather harsh towards Franzen, but I saw it as more of a spot-on parody of Time magazine than indicting F as a writer. Is that right?

TL: I think I tried to make it not a parody of anything but, if at all, myself. I think it definitely isn’t a parody of Jonathan Franzen, if it is a parody, but of the person who profiled Jonathan Franzen or maybe of Time. I’m glad you felt I wasn’t indicting Franzen. While writing it I didn’t focus on parodying anything. Everything in my “piece” is true. I draw hamsters and people associate me with hamsters. That isn’t a parody of Franzen liking bird-watching.

BYT: But and so what are your thoughts about Franzen and/or the class of famous authors in general?

TL: I don’t think I have specific thoughts about Jonathan Franzen. It seems like I like him. I feel like I “look forward” to reading The Corrections at some point. I was excited to read How to Be Alone, thinking it would be about loneliness, but it seemed to be about other kinds of “alone.”  I don’t have thoughts about “famous authors in general” except maybe “they seem famous” or “seems…seems like they’re famous, they’re famous authors.”

Self-parody or Moneylender Whipping?

BYT: Since we’re gossiping, what are your thoughts on Dave Eggers, whose charity this reading in DC is supporting? Some pretentious sorts of people online (me) have set you and him up in opposition or maybe apposition, as he seems quite interested in characters who are optimistic in bad situations, while your characters seem to find ways to be pessimistic in somewhat neutral situations. Is this poppycock or you feel some Black Sheep kinship with the guy?

TL: I feel 100% positive toward Dave Eggers. I feel excited and sometimes emotional thinking about him, how his existence has concretely affected the world, and how he seems to never shit-talk anyone or speak negatively about anyone, as a result, maybe, of being focused so hard—being focused completely, it seems—on doing what he likes doing and wants to do, which, outside of being a productive and rational way to behave, in the world, is also, I feel, one of the most original and difficult (most people’s internal monologues are probably simply an “unending stream” of shit-talking or other negative thoughts directed at others, including my own), maybe, ways to live a life. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2001 or 2002 and liked it. I remember reading his review of Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America many times and liking that. I’ve read some of his other work and I look forward to reading more of his work and more work that he publishes in the future.

BYT: It makes sense financially for bands and filmmakers (like Kevin Smith) to position themselves as brands or products and offer their fans more direct ways to purchase stuff from them or interact with them. It seems like a different thing for writers to do so, since their work is usually supposed to stand alone without their personality entering into it at all. Your doing stuff like selling shares of RY seem to say you consider marketing as part of being an Author. Is that just what needs to happen now, or is it more positive than that–like it’s actually better than a more closed, Pynchon-esque distance?

TL: I don’t think anything ever “needs” to happen. I don’t think it’s more positive to have a Twitter account, a Tumblr, and a blog. Someone without those things will use their time to do other things, like read books or swim or talk to their children or read websites or listen to music or write books or lie in bed or sit in a chair. I don’t think any of these things are more positive than any other things. I don’t think having an internet presence helps financially. Including the $12,000 I made selling shares of “Richard Yates” I’ve made something like $35,000 in six years, with six books, from writing, which is what a normal writer probably can make from an advance from a novel. If I focused hard on getting a literary agent, and doing things like that, instead of designing my blog’s header, I would have more money, I think. I think I don’t view myself as an author. I view myself as a person. I view [anything] as part of being a person, so I feel okay with “marketing” or other things like that.

BYT: I think you are definitely a person. Thanks for your time sir!

Come see Tao Lin tonight with some other great folks at the Cat’s Literature Party where he may or may not provide a good example for the youth of tomorrow. OH YEAH, we also have a pair of tickets to this to giveaway-holler if you want them.