Tao Lin is a world-class perpetrator of gimmickry. His first novel is called Eeeee Eee Eeee, which is the sound anthropomorphic dolphins make when they appear in the book, out of nowhere, to lead otherwise realistic characters down secret tunnels to a world of talking bears, moose, aliens, and hamsters. He once wrote a short poem that ends with an infinite repetition of its final line, “The next night we ate whale,” which he likes to repeat for long stretches at public readings (his record is seven minutes). He sells the detritus of his work—manuscripts, doodles, page proofs, notebooks—on eBay, and last summer he generated international attention by selling, on his blog, six “shares” of an unfinished novel for $2,000 each. He recently launched a tiny press that publishes, among other things, Gmail chats.
Lin, in other words, seems to have planted his aesthetic flag on the treacherous Miranda July fault line between art and cutesiness. (July has prominently blurbed his books.) He writes in a showy outsider style—deadpan realism garnished casually with absurdity—that seems designed to make you think, These thoughts are more interesting than my thoughts. It’s tempting, from a distance, to dismiss him. As Lin puts it, “I think most people just think I’m a gimmicky asshole.”
Dismissing Lin, however, ignores the fact that he is deeply smart, funny, and head-over-heels dedicated in exactly the way we like our young artists to be. When I visit him in person, in his Bushwick apartment, he is almost catatonically shy—he looks like he might actually die, just wither and expire, under the force of direct human attention. (His publicity hounding tends to be entirely virtual.) His room is pure Young Artist Garret—bare walls, a few loaded bookshelves, a tiny radiator heaped with drying socks—and he keeps a monkish writing regimen: Every day, he writes for roughly eight hours on the public computers at the library at NYU (his alma mater).
This is the paradox of Tao Lin—the (it seems pretty much obligatory to say) Tao of Tao: He’s a hermit who also happens to be a savant of self-promotion, a skill set that dovetails perfectly with the cultural moment he grew up in. Lin belongs to the first generation of writers to come of age entirely under the backlit glow of the Internet—for whom it wasn’t a novelty but a fully developed system, a lifestyle. He’s fluent in all its self-promotional tools: eBay, You Tube, MySpace, Blogspot. He views popularity as “a video game,” he says, in which the aim is to have maximum fun while racking up points.
Before Lin started publishing books, he supported himself by working in restaurants, libraries, as a personal assistant, and, for a while, by shoplifting, for which he saw himself as a kind of organic Robin Hood: “If I shoplifted from corporations and sold it on eBay and then spent all my money on the best venues possible, like independent organic vegan grocery stores or restaurants, then that would be, like, improving the world.” (He stopped after getting caught twice.) His goal, as of now, is never to work a regular job again—and in the midst of publishing’s slow-motion collapse, Lin’s stunty, DIY approach to fund-raising seems like a possible glimpse into the industry’s future. His next book, a novella, is called Shoplifting from American Apparel.