Tao Lin: American Dork

By Caleb Powell | October 24, 2010



Richard Yates, by Tao Lin. Melville House, September 2010, 202 Pages, Trade Paperback Original.



Tao Lin has arguably become one of the most controversial, interesting, and potentially influential writers in the United States. His characters and style suggest the epitome of weird.  The Guardian, The New York Times, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, and The Atlantic have reviewed his books, and “Taolicophants”, those who vapidly imitate his prose online and elsewhere, form a cult following. Tao Lin’s collections of poetry, and two novels Eeeee Eee Eeee and Shoplifting From American Apparel, play with quirky protagonists, all young and quasi-lost, as they shoplift, drop titles of books and authors, toy with veganism, and contemplate megamouth sharks, dolphins, and hamsters.

His career took off with a blog called Reader of Depressing Books, and his marketing genius steals from Andy Warhol’s repertoire of self-promotion. He sold advances of future royalties for two thousand dollars, repeated one line for up to ten minutes at poetry readings, and reviewed himself while parodying Time Magazine’s article on “The Great American Novelist” as seen at The Stranger, and thus has been touted as a “literary prankster”. Like Warhol, who replicated pop icons and pulled stunts such as producing the anti-films Sleep (a man sleeping for over five hours) and Empire (eight hours of footage of the Empire State Building at dusk), Tao Lin creates anti-literature. And in his latest, Richard Yates, Tao Lin pens a damned boring book. And that, my friends, is the point.

The real-world Richard Yates was known for the 1962 novel about the futility of suburbia in the 1950s, Revolutionary Road, and led a writer’s life filled with alcoholism and tragedy. Richard Yates, the Tao Lin novel, refers to the author a couple times, but any connection is left to the reader’s imagination. Publicized by Melville House as asking, “what constitutes illicit sex for a generation with no rules?”, Richard Yates steals the name and ages of two celebrities from The Sixth Sense and Twilight movie fame, twenty-two year-old Haley Joel Osment (born 4/10/1988), and sixteen-year-old Dakota Fanning (born 2/23/1994). In the novel, the male 22-year-old Tao Lin alter-ego, Haley Joel Osment (names appear in their entirety), meets online the 16-year-old depressed and masochistic Dakota Fanning. They exchange Gmail chat and eventually fornicate:

“My mom is going to think you’re going to rape me or something.”

“Your mom,” said Haley Joel Osment.

“I told her you were an autistic vegan and she said ‘autistic vegans can still rape people.’ I told her I felt insulted by that comment.”

…“Why does she think I’ll rape you?” said Haley Joel Osment.

“She thinks everyone on the internet is out to rape everybody.”

“What should I do,” said Haley Joel Osment.

“You should rape me out of spite,” said Dakota Fanning.

Oddly punctuated quotidian Gmail chat supports the occasional interesting sentence or exchange: “Dakota Fanning tried then said, ‘I’m going to rape you’ and sat on him and began to rape him and they had sex.” Hidden underneath dwells Dakota Fanning’s desperate obsession to please Haley Joel Osment, who plays the typical “American dork”, mildly curious, indifferent, and a narcissist, as seen when Haley Joel Osment berates Dakota Fanning about her weight: “He said it seemed like she just thought about things like getting chocolate and eating it…‘you say you don’t want to be obese. But eat more obesely than I do.”” Is this a great American novelist? Let’s take a look at the prose:

“…(Osment) thought about Dakota Fanning and other people. He orgasmed into toilet paper. He carried the toilet paper to the bathroom and put it in the toilet. He peed into the toilet. He flushed the toilet. He washed his hands. He washed his face. He went to his room and read a few sentences from different books. He ate dark chocolate.”

Dakota Fanning, raised by her often-absent mother, pleads with Haley Joel Osment: “‘I feel so tired,’ she said or writes on Gmail chat, ‘I want to press a tea kettle of boiling water to my clit.’” “She said she was probably going to kill herself within the next few days.” “‘I cut myself to use the blood for drawings or because I thought it was pretty and would cut my breasts or stomach and then masturbate.’” If Tao Lin had done some research on statutory rape, the activities of sexual predators, or consulted any of the relevant literature—say…The Rape Crisis Intervention Handbook Series, perhaps this novel would be different. But typical young Americans wouldn’t bother, so, being true to his demographic cohorts, why would Tao Lin?

I’m all for jokes, but in Richard Yates the jokes seem misplaced:


“How do you know he raped you?”

“Because my cunt was bloody.”

“Oh,” said Haley Joel Osment…he thought about the word cunt. “Did anyone notice the blood?”

She said some things about people who explain their entire lives in terms of having been raped. She said she didn’t want that.

He thought…he maybe wouldn’t want to stop his life to talk about it.

What, for the love of snails, is the purpose of raising a serious topic and then evading its ramifications? Richard Yates only sheds light on the obvious existence of psychological trauma in youth, something anyone paying attention to youth culture is well aware of. But what are Tao Lin’s real motives?

If we accuse Tao Lin of self-promotion his response might be, “That’s exactly the point” or “I really don’t understand what you mean.” Does Tao Lin win because, though he diverted and then blew off any possible meaning, we, as readers, circle back to the real problems he raised? I’m not so sure. Rather than read Tao Lin’s books, why not seek substance directly?

For all that, Richard Yates has its moments of insight, and Tao Lin can meld serious thought and humor: “Haley Joel Osment knew that Dakota Fanning’s mother liked books by Nicholas Sparks and that her favorite movies were Shrek and Shrek II and maybe Toy Story. He said some things about literature citing Sartre, Camus, Beckett, the Nobel Prize. He said something about the consolation of art…” Or “Haley Joel Osment sat alone in the car reading The Myth of Neurosis which said psychotherapy was destructive to people’s self-esteem, often confused unhappiness with mental illness, encouraged excuses and dependency while discouraging hard work and will power.” Unfortunately, Tao Lin turns his mind on infrequently, and laziness dominates. As a reading experience, the tome is monumentally boring, and inspires the munching of inner cheeks. For every explosive line the reader must churn through incessant pages of this:

“He walked to the post office. He mailed packages. He walked over the steel bridge. He stood on the train tracks looking in both directions. He walked on a street parallel to the train tracks. He walked behind a grocery store to the train tracks. He stood on the train tracks. He walked on the street. He walked on the train tracks.”

Tao Lin, supposedly, is a minimalist. Sorry, but hiding a ten-page short story within sixty-thousand words bearing überrepetitive passages of pseudo-sadness wrapped in shoplifting and delicious vegan food does not qualify as minimalism:  “Dakota Fanning gave Haley Joel Osment a glass container of organic tempeh, brown rice, onion, hijiki and he put it in his refrigerator.” “In the shower he thought about organic fair-trade vegan chocolate nut bars he had been stealing from Whole Foods every day”, “‘I thought about how I stole blueberries and flaxseed meal to make you vegan cake’…” and “She said she stole underwear and deodorant from Duane Reade…”.

American art has a reputation for going “Hollywood” before thinking globally. Permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize Horace Engdahl’s comment strikes a chord when he says that Americans “…don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” I think the generalization unfair, but Richard Yates exemplifies this, for Tao Lin is a writer who seems to spend ninety-five percent of his time on self-promotion (this includes research on classical and modern authors so he can refer to them in his books), and five percent creating literature or seeking inclusively universal meaning that is the supposed purpose of art. Perhaps to him, self-promotion and the creative impulse are one and the same. Regardless, he is selling out to the lowest common denominator, always moving toward the shallow elements of celebrity that produced Andy Warhol and fleeing from the serious responsibilities that the best novelists confront. Tao Lin might not admit it, but by his indolent prose and the feverish blowing of his own proverbial ox (a Chinese phrase meaning excessive talk), he has, ironically, chosen a path not that much different than that of the ostentatiously-mainstream Nicholas Sparks. Where’s the radical intent? Why bombard the reader with lacunae of thought and repetitions of shoplifting from retail outlets and eating and preparing vegan food? Why cater to his Taolicophants? Great writing consists of conversation between the writer and the reader, not the making and reinforcement of a personal “brand”.

1543 words, October 24, 2010

Caleb Powell was born in Taiwan and now lives in Seattle. He blogs at http://calebpowell.wordpress.com.


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