BY JAY GABLER
"Is this 'Eat Street'?" Tao Lin asked me as we stood at 33rd and Nicollet in Minneapolis, not a restaurant in sight.
No, I explained, that was actually still several blocks north—and I'd been a bit optimistic to think we'd have time to walk there, eat, and walk back by the time his reading at the Paper Darts Pop-Up was due to start.
"Well," he suggested, "let's just go back to that place"—Pat's Tap—"and we can sit in a corner or something."
I'd initially been unsure of whether we should go to Pat's, given that it was immediately adjacent to the reading venue and I had no idea how many of Lin's tens of thousands of fervent fans would possibly show up and possibly want to ask him for autographs, photos, or Sharpie tattoos while we were trying to talk about...whatever it was we were going to be talking about.
As it happened, the attention Lin and I got while sitting at Pat's was limited to a wave across the room from a mutual acquaintance. My uncertainty as to whether the reading would be a sparse crowd or a mob scene (answer: somewhere in between) was just one of the uncertainties attending my role as facilitator/interlocutor at the Minnesota stop on Lin's tour promoting his new novel Taipei—a semi-autobiographical novel that includes much discussion of the protagonist's general anxiety and discomfort regarding book tours.
I'd been selected for the gig in part, I surmised, because I spend a lot of time involved in that sector of the Internet where Lin is not just "this man who's getting all kinds of media attention" but a deity-like figure who's inspired countless writers—most younger than his own age of 29, most self-published on Tumblr, PDF, and Twitter—with his precise, deadpan prose.
There's more information online about Lin, much of it written by the author himself, than about almost anyone else you'd care to mention, and still, no one knew exactly what to expect at Lin's Minneapolis appearance. As has often been said about Bob Dylan, Lin is hidden in plain sight.
One of the things I, and everyone at the Paper Darts reading (co-presented by Common Good Books), learned is that Lin's frustrated by the negative portrayals of him and his work that have been propagated by the likes of publishing insider Sarah Weinman, whose recent tweet suggesting that Lin's career is a "long con" was mentioned by an attendee at the Minneapolis reading. Lin has taken strong exception to that tweet, and is generally seeking to dispel the notion that his writing is a sort of game or put-on.
Another thing I learned is that Lin, unlike many authors, not only reads all his reviews but is unafraid to publicly talk about them. We spent a few minutes of our time at Pat's on our iPhones—me reading the L.A. Times review of Taipei ("reading this text is not unlike staring fixedly at a blank wall") and Lin reading my quasi-review of the new book by Marie Calloway, a writer he's championed.
We talked about Marie Calloway, and about Megan Boyle (a writer whose relationship with Lin was among the inspirations for Taipei), and about why the writing of authors like Lin and Calloway rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
Part of that is to do with the substance of each writer's work (questions of gender and power, for example, come into play), but part of it is—I suggested—a disconnect between people who regard tweets as "writing" and those who don't. One reason Lin is so beloved by the online creative writing community is that he's both demonstrated and argued for the legitimacy of online writing, including private writing like chat messages, as a compelling means of literary expression and human connection.
Consider this excerpt from Boyle's "poetry" book selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee, published by Lin's press Muumuu House:
sometimes being with people is fun but other times it feels like i'm operating myself from a distance, telling myself i'm having a good time
i am an introverted person but i like approval
john stamos probably thinks he will be the new george clooney someday
In contrast, consider Jennifer Egan's "Black Box," a short story written to be tweeted (by The New Yorker, no less).
"Shall we swim together towards those rocks?" may or may not be a question.
"All that way?" will, if spoken correctly, sound ingenuous.
"We'll have privacy there" may sound unexpectedly ominous.
That rang false to me, and was largely ignored by fans of writers like Lin, because it felt forced: conventional literature shoehorned onto Twitter, rather than literature written in the manner that tweets are written. If you find it hard to explain or care about the difference between those two types of writing (or if you think the difference is largely a matter of spelling and punctuation), you're especially apt to be confused or put off by Lin's style—even the relatively conventional style of a book like Taipei, which Lin told me felt to him like the "complete opposite" of the more plainly descriptive, less interior style he used for his previous novel Richard Yates (2010).
As we finished our meal and got ready to head over to the reading—at Lin's encouragement, I chased my PBR with a shot of tequila—Lin asked whether there was any particular section of the book I wanted him to read so we could talk about. I was at a loss, since after hearing reports that Lin didn't particularly love being asked about his prose style or his relationship to the idea of autobiography, I'd prepared a set of questions that didn't make direct reference to the text. He'd asked earlier, though, what I thought of the book's idea of "singularity"; since I hadn't immediately been clear about what he meant by that, I suggested he read a passage that spoke to that idea.
The brief passage he chose had the character Paul arriving in Taipei and musing on the digitizing cosmos.
From the perspective of the computer at the end of everything, which he would be a part of and which would synthetically resemble an undifferentiated oneness, it didn't matter if he had never kissed a girl, was too anxious to communicate with his peers, had no friends, etc.
There's bleakness there, but also freedom; alienation, but also connection. Which side of the Tao Lin coin you see may depend on which side of the Internet you woke up on.