Tao Lin is visiting Powell's tonight to promote his new novel Taipei which I reviewed this week. (Full disclosure, I work for Powell's, though this review was a freelance assignment and not part of some clandestine marketing job which in my imagination pays really great but in actuality comes under a Craigslist description like: Do you enjoy ethical dilemmas and getting paid 15K/year for part time ingenuity and full time flexibility?...) I enjoyed the book and think Tao Lin is growing as a writer.
But there's always the other side. Over at The Millions, Lydia Kiesling loathed the book, and in a very personal way that Lin's work seems to inspire. She assures us that her "loathing was pure," being unaware of Lin's social media presence that has been integral to his persona since the beginning, though that does come into play later.
It's the writing itself that offends Kiesling. "I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row." More to the point, "the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting words as possible."
I understand her objections. When I reviewed Lin's last novel Richard Yates, I had also never heard of him. I viscerally hated the first twenty pages, endured the next hundred, and then accepted the rest of it. My loathing was also pure, but I found a purpose to the pain of his prose, even if in the end I didn't like the book that much.
Kiesling's review gets there, offering a grudging respect for Lin's ability to capture the mundane, but she still really doesn't like the book. The entire critical response is highly varied. The New York Observer gives Taipei excessive praise. The New York Times is positive about it but hesitant, as if not sure what to make of the book but afraid if they blast they'll seem out of touch.
This isn't to say that I have some secret key to understanding his work, but rather that such an array of varied and visceral reactions is in itself a good thing. I'd rather hate a book (or a movie or a tv show) than forget about it the week after I read it. While being bland and laconic, Tao Lin's writing is still provocative enough to bring out the most vituperative reactions people can offer. For me that's an amazing feat for a writer to pull off in 2013.
Tao Line reads tonight at Powell's City of Books at 7:30 p.m.