On Facebook Tao Lin updated his status, reminding people he was reading at BookPeople in Austin at 7pm. I have read/reviewed some Tao Lin, starting with Richard Yates, then Shoplifting from American Apparel. I’ve also read Eeeee Eee Eeee, and I’m about 1/3 of the way through Taipei. Because I live in Austin it made sense for me to be at BookPeople around 7pm for Tao Lin’s reading even though the mold count in the air was high.
It happened on the second floor. There were three phalanxes of chairs in front of a podium with a microphone and bottled water. The water looked chilled, with condensation moisturizing the outside. Bridget and I were thirsty, the Austin summer heat leaving us constantly parched, but we decided to wait rather than risk going downstairs to purchase a refreshment at the in-store cafe and miss the beginning of the reading.
There were ~60 people I could count waiting silently like us. If you took into account the people I couldn’t count, there were probably ~75 people in attendance. Anxiety levels, like the mold in the air, ran high. Most people held a copy of Taipei. Very few people spoke to the person sitting next to them.
I overheard a girl tell a boy whom she had just met that she was a ‘water activist,’ and she was ashamed of being a ‘water activist,’ and the boy assured her it was nothing to be ashamed of, “Water is scarce in Central Texas.” She nodded while pressing her palm against her mouth to suppress the sound of her laughter.
The Austin writer, Timothy Willis Sanders, appeared with a beverage.
Since she had already been, I asked Bridget if the water was cold out of the water fountain by the bathrooms. She nodded. I got up and headed in the general direction of the water fountain. I turned right through an opening between bookshelves and saw Tao Lin standing alone. Without thinking I whispered the two syllables of his name in a way that probably would make a person like Tao Lin paranoid. I whispered his name as if we knew each other our entire lives and we were friends who happened to find each other in BookPeople and neither of us were surprised at the encounter because we always knew we would meet throughout life in random places and nothing would be special about it. It would just be fact.
He was staring down at his iPhone, using his thumb to scroll. In his other arm he held a recycled paper bag from Whole Foods across the street. I knew that he sometimes stole from Whole Foods, which is cool.
I whispered, “Tao Lin,” kind of dragging out his last name in a way that immediately communicated I knew more about him than he knew about me. I felt like a person comfortable with social interactions. I didn’t know I had it in me. To act chummy in a creepy/comical kind of way. To manufacture ease.
He looked up from his iPhone with a blank facial expression. Maybe he didn’t want me to compromise his hiding place. This whole time I thought he was waiting on the third floor, above us, but he had been here all along, slightly mischievous. We were about the same height/weight. We wore eyeglasses with black frames. His blank facial expression broke sharply into a wry smile. Then the smile sunk back into his skin.
I said, “We’ve emailed a few times. I’m Michael Davidson.”
He said, “I recognize the name.”
I said, “I’m looking forward to your reading.”
And we both calmly smiled, charisma bridging the gap between us. In that, the briefest of moments, I felt like we became healthier.
With Eeeee Eee Eeee, especially the first 1/3, I felt like Tao Lin was using his sentences to build piano keys that he then played, i.e. made music with. The book drifted away from this jazzy structure, as did my level of intensity while reading it, but, nonetheless, he did something in the first 1/3 that felt a little like the way you learn a new language in A Clockwork Orange, only using words we already know. Had he been able to maintain this level of improvisation this book, I am sure, would be a tour de force. Only he wasn’t able to, and the book became, for me, pretty decent.
With Taipei, which I haven’t finished, I’m reading a style that Tao Lin hasn’t previously used, at least not in his books (his essays/online writing is a different story). The sentences in ‘Taipei’ are long, often hyphenated into convoluted fragments, and heavy with adverbs. The writing isn’t minimal or declarative. It’s more developed and takes chances. It’s almost over-massaged into a shapeless mass of muscle, but it’s not, it’s painfully precise, which is the kind of prose I respect. While sometimes clunky, with patience my reading experience of ‘Taipei’ has paid off. I’m enjoying it. I’m learning about how online networking happens via in-real-life socializing. I’m learning how rich-in-content parties are. I sympathize with the anxiety and stifling thoughts of Paul.
But getting back to the reading, a girl introduced Tao Lin, describing him as the ‘king’ of the alt lit world. He walked to the podium in his sweatshirt and jeans. He spoke into the microphone but quickly pushed the foamy thing away and asked if everyone could hear him when he spoke without it. He explained how he doesn’t like reading into microphones. He was going to read 7 pages from his book and then have a Q/A. He suggested people read along with him because the sentences are sometimes long and hard to follow.
He started reading on page 36 and ended on page 43. The passage he selected, in my opinion, revealed a lot about how Tao Lin became Tao Lin. It described critical episodes in his formative years, including his relationship with his mother. I had already read the passage at home and made notes in the margins. The beginning reads like the opening sequence of Amelie.
Tao Lin makes an earnest attempt to pin down the psychology of Paul. It’s not that people don’t understand Paul, it’s that Paul doesn’t understand people. Parts of this passage made Bridget wonder if Tao Lin has Asperger’s. Maybe he does. Regardless, for me, the gist of these 7 pages, I think, is this:
In middle school Paul (Tao) attended band camp where, via an encounter with an older section leader, he became self-conscious of his efforts to be ‘cool.’ Paul then realized that because he was suddenly acutely aware of his existence he could, therefore, no longer be ‘cool’ no matter how hard he tried not to try. This catch-22 depressed him and resulted in him not knowing how to act in public, so he resorted to remaining quiet and phlegmatic.
The Q/A session was fun. Tao Lin responded earnestly to every question, taking each word thrown his way to its literal extreme. I don’t think anyone tried to be mean or put him on the spot. Someone said he saw Tao Lin in Whole Foods before the reading and wanted to know what he bought. Tao Lin said, “Mango, grapes, and a juice.”
With my heart racing because I don’t take Beta Blockers I asked, “If your first and last name had a different amount of letters, would you have named the book Taipei?”
People in the audience laughed/snickered, including Tao Lin, who put his head down to look at the cover.
Tao Lin answered, “Yes. But the cover would look different. My editor actually had the idea for the cover to look like this.” Then he said, “Yes. But it would look different.”