Great American Novelist
He's not the richest or most famous. His characters don't solve mysteries, have magical powers, or live in the future. But in his new novel, Richard Yates, Tao Lin shows us the way we live now.
A mound of hamsters are asleep in a 20-gallon fish tank at Petco in Manhattan's Union Square. There are seven of them, says a nonexistent woman in a baseball cap. She counted. They lie in an age-/gender-/relation-indiscriminate mass, purling and naked, that would seem troubling to nightmarish if they were humans. But the humans perceiving them seem unperturbed, even meditative—influenced, perhaps, by the deduction- resistant, congenitally paradoxical nature of hamsters: cute yet vaguely unsympathetic, robotlike yet almost defaultedly anthropomorphized, named and loved and fed daily yet disposable and easily replaced. One considers a hamster's future idly, without self-consciousness or emotion, calmed by one's apparent disinterest in abstracting, interpreting, or distorting what it means to be a creature utilized existentially in the appeasement of small children before being flushed down a heavily scented toilet or accidentally vacuumed alive, leaving in the cleaning maid only an indistinct sensation of disquiet.
One of the humans perceiving the hamster pile is Tao Lin, a member of another species likely to manifest mysterious discomfort in a person who is vacuuming: the American literary novelist.
"Just kidding," as Lin might say. He will never be vacuumed alive, and he prefers to view himself not as a "novelist" or a "serious novelist" or a "great American novelist" but as a "human"—or, in his stricter moments, "organism" or "thing." He's a physically tenebrous guy, 5 ft., 7 in., with straight posture and a slightly zombielike expression one imagines to be the result of an imperceptibly rapid deviation, like a wave-particle model, between "almost crying" and "almost asleep." At 27 (he turns 28 on July 2), he is unnaturally socially anxious, with permanently self-cut hair. About which someone once asked, on Gmail chat, "is your mullet on purpose, or did it just happen that way," to which Lin responded, "i think it just happened... do I really have a mullet though, i don't think i do," even though a quick search of Lin's Flickr account reveals that he does have a mullet and that he's aware of it (one photo is titled "reduced mullet" and two others are titled simply "mullet").
Lin isn't the richest or most famous living American human, but you could argue—I would argue—that he is one of the most nonjudgmental (for years he has repeatedly stated, "There is no good or bad in art" and "Everyone's actions and beliefs are based on equally arbitrary assumptions") and also one of the best. His first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, about an alienated Domino's Pizza employee who navigates a secret underground colony of suicidal dolphins and depressed bears, was arguably the literary phenomenon of the "fiction reviews" section of Bookslut.com's May 2007 issue. His second novel, Richard Yates, arrives this month; like his first novel, it has a richly weird title, crafted with his signature blend of austere eccentricity and powerful atonality.
I'm in Petco to talk to Lin about this second novel, previously titled Werner Herzog, Second Novel, and, briefly, Freedom in Capital Letters with 19 Exclamation Points After It, before Lin chose the "low-level non sequitur" Richard Yates. We are here because Lin "thought it would be funny" to be profiled in a pet store; his books, at the risk of near-automatic exclusion from most canons and literary considerations, repeatedly feature or mention hamsters. Eeeee Eee Eeee contains a hamster that says, "Are we friends?" to the protagonist before an owl flies away with it. Lin's 2008 poetry collection cognitive- behavioral therapy has a hamster on its cover and references them as a species whose unangry specimens appear exactly the same as their angry specimens "because the anger is within" (a description that elicits from Lin the word "Jesus," a pause, and then, again, while looking away nervously, "Jesus," when I read it verbatim from my notes). And, in a surprising, early-career culmination—or statement of long-term intent, perhaps—of hamster referencing, the first sentence of Richard Yates, whose index lists seven instances of "hamster" in its 202 pages, is: "'I've only had the opportunity to hold a hamster once,' said Dakota Fanning."
Additionally, Lin has drawn perhaps 5,000 hamsters with Photoshop, Microsoft Paint, and pen/marker since graduating from New York University in May 2005 with a degree in journalism.
When asked, "Why hamsters?" at a reading last September, Lin reportedly mumbled something like "I don't care about hamsters" before qualifying incoherently and then saying, "I don't own any hamsters" both defensively and wistfully. But a few months later, during a presentation titled "Tao Lin's Drawing Style" at Kansas City Art Institute, Lin reportedly orated at length and fluidly about how he likes hamsters "a lot" because "they're the most minimal animal, their heads are also their bodies," adding that he also likes megamouth sharks and toy poodles and, somewhat jarringly, that "ocean sunfish are like hamsters but fish and a lot bigger."
Lin's position on hamsters seems conflicted, inconsistent, ever-changing—possibly a source of long-term despair. So I wasn't surprised when, upon arriving at Petco, Lin seemed vaguely worried (murmuring words like "why," "um," and, once, the rhetorical question "Why is this my life?" enunciated in the slightly segmented manner of a person attempting to plant a quote) and later became visibly uncomfortable, at one point seeming catatonic, completely ignoring me as I related, twice, the humorous observation that we'd actually been looking at gerbils for the past 30 minutes. Gerbils. A creature referenced once in Lin's six print books and hundreds of online stories, poems, essays, blog posts, and tweets. Lin seemed to be backpedaling from "the Petco idea," perhaps fearing—or confused by—the implications of being irreversibly branded with hamsters.
Eventually, we leave Petco and walk south in the gentle early-September breeze, passing the Whole Foods where, in Richard Yates, Dakota Fanning is apprehended for shoplifting, toward NYU's Bobst Library, ostensibly so Lin can show me where he "works on things" 4 to 12 hours a day 96 to 99 percent of days. Crossing 12th Street, I look over at him and he's grinning nervously for "no concrete reason," as he might say.
It's hard to say exactly what makes Lin so uncomfortable. It could be me, or it could be the prospect of being on the cover of The Stranger (a legitimately unsettling prospect that puts him in the company of three-eyed kittens, promotional photos of breakfast sandwiches, a woman in a bikini holding a river bass, and, twice each, scaffolding and Dumpsters). It could be the much fretted-over standing of hamsters in America's cultural-entertainment complex, or it could be the temporarily unsettling nature of The Human Centipede, a movie that made Lin feel scared for around two days, including today. I e-mail Lin later, asking what it could be, and he says it's probably that I'm only focusing on certain aspects of him because otherwise this profile would be "500,000 to 10,000,000,000 words."
At Bobst Library, in a room of 24 Macintosh computers, I observe Lin's style of navigating the internet to be vastly inefficient, centered around the nearly indiscriminate and seemingly purposeless refreshing of websites. When I tell him he is rapidly clicking things in an arbitrary manner, he says, "I'm in control; I'm definitely in control, I think," in a way that seems both machinelike and uncertain.
I ride an elevator to the eighth floor, where Lin discovered Jean Rhys by Googling variations of "depressing lonely novel" and read her first four novels, and then other books, in cubicle-like wooden seats, sometimes on Friday and Saturday nights, lonely and friendless but mutedly excited about autobiographical narratives featuring characters with low serotonin. "I stayed until 3:00 a.m. many nights," Lin says by e-mail. "I would leave around midnight to go home but then think that I could buy coffee and work more instead." It was during these nights, as a junior and senior, 2003 to 2005, that Lin wrote eight of the nine stories in Bed, which was published in 2007 to zero coverage from most mainstream venues, despite featuring two 9/11 stories, an ethnic story, and a character named Mattie who sometimes believes that she lives five minutes ahead of herself, in the future.
Besides reading and writing at Bobst Library, Lin was also employed there beginning in his first semester at NYU, 20 to 35 hours a week in the reserve department, where many days he searched LexisNexis for authors he liked and read nearly every archived article about Lorrie Moore, Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Lydia Davis, and Bobbie Ann Mason. But employment was officially only for students, and six months after graduation, Lin had no job. He searched Craigslist and found a "personal assistant" listing, responded, and was hired by an actor who'd founded a luxury charter-jet company called Paramount Business Jets.
The executive assistant job was not the kind of great American job that Lin's literary predecessors had—not the kind Rhys and Beattie and Barthelme had. For 8 to 10 hours a day, Lin and the actor sat in the actor's bedroom, where they listened to the soundtrack to Troy on repeat while the actor, who had a bit part in Spike Lee's Inside Man, stared at the company's website, making small changes, and Lin typed hundreds of elegantly generic descriptions of jets ("Featuring a spacious baggage area with more than enough space for each passenger to carry on golf clubs, skis, and several large bags, the Israel Aircraft Westwind I is also notable for its surprisingly long range—able to fly nonstop to and from almost anywhere in the continental U.S., including New York to Miami and Seattle to Austin") and occasionally updated the actor's IMDb page, between long hours of color balancing and resizing jet- relevant photos in Photoshop.
After that, Lin worked at the New York Society Library; then as a shoplifter, selling stolen batteries and Moleskine journals on eBay; and finally at Angelica Kitchen, an organic vegan restaurant, where his position, known colloquially as "phone person," required him not to back down from complexity. Not simply a phone-answering job or a sandwich-making job or a vegetable-juicing job, it also required the chopping of uncut rolls of sushi into eight equal-sized pieces and pears into neat, aesthetically pleasing slices. But Lin doesn't chop pears up that way. His learned and ancestral pear-chopping technique began with his birth in a Virginia hospital, which was the product of a mysteriously convoluted notion of what constitutes a pear that at some point took hold of his parents, causing them to move the Lin family to Orlando, Florida, and one night at Angelica Kitchen, Lin accidentally chopped off a small piece of his forefinger, walked calmly to the back area, put on a "finger condom," and returned to the food station, where he put on gloves, tried again with another pear, and so on.
It was his last "real job." In August 2008, Lin netted $12,000 in a few days by selling 60 percent of the future royalties of Richard Yates—a move that garnered coverage from a New York Times blog, BBC Radio 2, and a Telegraph article syndicated by at least one Indian newspaper, according to a Google alert Lin received—and stopped working.
The next few months, Lin edited Richard Yates 8 to 12 hours a day. He e-mailed a tentative final draft to his publisher in November 2008. Then he completed the novella Shoplifting from American Apparel, which was sold at Urban Outfitters; started a press, Muumuu House, which has since published debut poetry collections by Ellen Kennedy and Brandon Scott Gorrell and 57 works online by writers ranging from James Purdy (deceased) to Megan Boyle (from Baltimore) to Audun Mortensen (Norwegian); and edited Richard Yates four to six more times, each time for 15 to 25 consecutive days of 6 to 12 hours a day, completing the final draft—after four years and roughly 2,500 hours of work—on July 6, 2010.
Early readers of Richard Yates, including this one, have found that the book has a narcotic quality, the kind one usually associates with oxycodone or sleeping hamsters. This isn't by accident. Lin is very conscious that, as carbohydrate intake increases, people are sleepier than ever. In the novel, Haley Joel Osment (22/m) and Dakota Fanning (16/f) repeatedly visit each other, after meeting on the internet, by two-hour train ride, in secret from Dakota Fanning's mother, who eventually discovers Haley Joel Osment and aggressively confronts him by phone, believing him to be a rapist, before inviting him to live with her and Dakota Fanning in rural New Jersey. By the last third of the book, Dakota Fanning is bulimic and chronically lying and Haley Joel Osment is constantly upset and increasingly distrustful and confused; on page 166, Dakota Fanning's mother is seen openly crying while eating an entire pizza in a dark room.
The novel ends, arguably, with the characters firmly in the difficult, bleakly J-curve-like beginnings of long-term change: Dakota Fanning seems to have stopped lying and is eating healthier, exercising regularly, on her way to defeating bulimia, and closer to habitually matching her actions and words; Haley Joel Osment has vowed to himself to help Dakota Fanning recover, perhaps viewing himself as the cause, to some degree, of her bulimia and lies (though also her raised expectations of herself), and is actively training himself, within the goal of a long-term relationship, to not become upset or complain about Dakota Fanning's behavior or the setbacks she faces, which he views as unavoidable within a process of change; even Dakota Fanning's father, previously absent, attends a Thanksgiving dinner with the entire Fanning family (except Dakota Fanning's brother, who seems to be missing, having never arrived home from college).
Conveyed linearly with two main prose styles—the toneless, concrete, literal, idiom-less style of the narrator and the hyperbolic, multitoned, often excruciatingly emotional style of the characters' spoken and typed dialogues—the narrative, which Lin earnestly refers to as a "page turner," contains such socially relevant topics as the aforementioned bulimia and rape and dysfunctional family, as well as mental disorders, psychotherapy, and "cutting," but within a context of characters who are atypically alienated and therefore speak and think largely outside the influence of societal norms, allowing phrases like "hamster ass" and "ass and crotch rape" to echo down the corridors of their lives in a nonchalant, at times lyrical manner.
As a result, Richard Yates is probably both Lin's most mainstream and least mainstream book. Within the overall bleakness of situation and the brief but earnest moments of nihilism, there is playfulness and intimacy, unself- conscious excitement and gratitude, and, for the last two-thirds of the book, an insistence on not giving up—on remaining focused on long-term, conventionally positive, group-orientated goals, which Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning seem to view as alongside, rather than in opposition to, the goals of everyone: Their superficially derogatory terms ("cheese beast," "party girl") for certain other people seem, in their sympathetic and sometimes self-directed usage, less to promote an "us versus them" mentality than to underscore the idea proposed by Schopenhauer that there would be less suffering in the world if people greeted each other with "fellow sufferer" instead of "sir" or "monsieur."
When I return to the computer lab, I watch Lin from a distance, with binoculars. "Just kidding." I'm 10 feet away, and Lin seems to be staring at his Twitter feed, hands clasped tenderly in his lap—around his iPhone.
He says, "Hi," then waves, though we could hug at this distance. I hesitate, then wave back, careful not to strike him, and ask what he was thinking about before I returned.
Lin stares up and to the left without moving his head: the classic expression of memory access. He maintains this position for perhaps 80 seconds. This is not the kind of great American behavior that his literary predecessors displayed—or maybe it is, one surmises, thinking of Jean Rhys's heavy drinking and Knut Hamsun's psychological inscrutability, though of course Knut Hamsun was not American.
"I used to eat oranges a lot... sometimes... but I still do sometimes," Lin finally says, cryptically, and then proposes a walk to LifeThyme, the organic grocery store he has mentioned in online interviews.
At LifeThyme, we walk toward a refrigerated wall of pies, puddings, and salads. "Here are the raw treats," Lin says.
"Raw treats," he says again. Then he says it a third time, quieter and slower—"Raw treats..."—in what I interpret as a deliberately histrionic manner, while walking sort of away from me. In a convex surveillance mirror, I see him grinning mischievously and salivating, reminding me that since the onset of consciousness, through the stoics and pre-Taoists of B.C.—like Marcus Aurelius and Chuang Zhu—up to the humans of A.D., continuing with Fernando Pessoa and Michael Pollan and Oprah, the trend in human concern for food has remained unchanged.
A few minutes later, we're standing before a structure sheltering dried sea vegetables. I ask Lin if he likes hijiki, wakame, or nori more.
"Um," he says. "I'm... I'm honestly not sure."
I ask a question using the words "generation," "internet," and "disconnection."
"No... yeah... I mean... I... I don't know," Lin says, after silently staring at roasted nori sheets for perhaps 20 seconds. His incoherent, noncommittal answer seems to convey that he is focused—when not worried about his sleeping schedule, next social situation, if he e-mailed something to the wrong person, or if his checking account balance will be drastically lower than expected—on the cross-cultural, nongeographical, nongenerational concerns of human beings. That he doesn't want to ignore, complicate, or simplify the commonalities of all humans and literal uniqueness of each human. Richard Yates, to Lin, is not about a subculture within a culture, a culture within a species, or even a species within a universe; it's about what its 55,500 or so words convey, uniquely, to each human who reads it.
But his brand's main component is indisputably hamsters. And I think at some point he senses this, because he requests, somewhat surprisingly, that we return to Petco. But not even Lin can talk hamsters all the time. "There was a time when I never talked about hamsters," he mumbles in a near- inaudible drone. "In middle school, I think my friends mostly, like, associated me with being an expert on GemStone III... the online text-based MUD, or 'multi-user-dungeon,' I think. They would ask me for tips on where to place their skills or if they should be, like, hunting kobolds at their level. I didn't think about hamsters at all... and in high school, I mostly just played drums and, um, Diablo II."
Hamsters are supposed to be pets for small children and alienated adults, or at least that's why many believe they exist, but when Lin looks at them, that's not what he sees. No one knows what he sees. Perhaps he sees, as he stated in cognitive-behavioral therapy, "heads with little characteristics on the head." Perhaps he sees himself, but himself at his ideal, as a "thing" emanating nonjudgmental energy in front of a computer screen while categorically maintaining a neutral expression and sometimes typing. Hamsters don't have messages or take vacations or believe there is good or bad in art, and neither does Lin.
"Hamsters just seem... funny," Lin says, back in Petco, "and so does locking myself inside a big hamster suit."
Tao Lin reads from Richard Yates on Sun Sept 26 at 5 pm at Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, free).