Behind Front Lines: Tao Lin at Barnes and Noble Tribeca

Posted by Nick Curley

Too early by forty-five minutes for the reading, I did what anyone with time to kill in a shopping center does: I browsed through the nearest Barnes and Noble.  A lucky break then that the reading itself was to take place in one!  Inside, helpful embossed signage charted our perusable options.  From the Non-Fiction section (smaller that Fiction despite what we’re told about books on real stuff being better sellers), many enticing categories spring forth.  “Crocheting”.  “Entrepreneurship”.  “Art”.  Fiction is equally well-diced, with departments that titillate the imagination.  From “Stephenie Meyer”, to “If You Liked the Hunger Games Trilogy”, to “Bibles”, B&N offers a fantasy for every kid, kid-at-heart, obligated relative, or obligated relative-at-heart.

Cloistered, innocuous chains are easy to mock: it rolls off their back.  But I have nothing against Barnes and Noble.  It may be an ugly cartel, and something of a mausoleum for the publishing house back catalogues that brought you Freemasonry for Dummies.  It may be naïve to sell fake mahogany as cozy.  And there’s no excusing its soundtrack: crying babies and wretched soft rock in heavy rotation.  First come two tracks from a singer-songwriter who sounds like Jewel drowning in a vat of kombucha.  Then an infant’s piercing wail.  Then not one cut, but all twelve from Sting’s new album Symphonicities, an acoustic mercy killing of his greatest hits recorded at the Winspear Opera House.  Then the faint aroma of feces passes through the air.  We can’t pin it on the kid: that odor is simply Symphonicities at work.

Yet it seems spiteful to brandish torches at this joint.  For all the talk that these blimps of media destroyed the independent bookseller, New York streets overflow with such quality storefronts, specializing in titles and genres rare.  The same can be said of virtually any city in the country.  Even if you do live in East Buttthrust, a burg with no option but B&N, it’s tough to harp on a store that offers small town kids a pretty solid selection of art.  They carry novels by Hamsen, Kawabata, and Gaitskill.  Children’s picture books by Roald Dahl and George Saunders.  They stock both White Albums: Didion’s and McCarthy’s, plus brimming tomes of Manet, Brueghel, Arbus, and Lange.  They’ve even got Hard Boiled on DVD, which seemingly no one had for ages.  There are worse places to get an education than Barnes and Noble.  Most American public schools, for example.  What’s more, it’s a behemoth that no one wants to buy, in danger of becoming the bankrupt, orphaned redhead that purists thought B&N would make of our beloved Strand and Spoonbill.

At 6:30, a half hour before showtime, no one has sat in the rows of chairs set up for Tao Lin’s reading from his new novel, entitled Richard Yates.  This is Lin’s first stop on a tour of twenty-four.  Perhaps I have the wrong date (I don’t.)  Perhaps, like me, the audience are all wusses milling around the room, unwilling to be the first to arrive at the party.  At 6:42 a brave, slightly damp Moby lookalike takes a load off in the third row.  I pan to the Movies and Audio section, encompassing one-fifth of the store.  The Special Features of four separate Disney DVDs plays on a pastiche of screens.  I leer at the in-house Starbucks, desire a latte, remember that I’m too broke for one, remember that Lin is semi-notorious for shoplifting and then writing about it, wonder how it might be possible to successfully shoplift a latte, realize it isn’t and feel defeated, then continue skimming through forty dollar Blu-Rays.  In the time it takes to fawn over each individual Criterion DVD, a crowd of fashionable latecomers has nearly filled the seats.  I take one of the last before a churlish store employee, no younger than fifty-two, begins setting up an additional row.

When Lin begins to speak, his voice proves to not be monotone, as I’d presumed it would be.  It is simply flat, but of a flatness that can wax and wane, like Stephen Hawking’s bike horn.  In a recent interview with Kelley Hoffman for Interview, Lin was quoted as saying,

“I actually don’t have…opinions. I’m not being secretive about anything. I just actually don’t have opinions about society. I can discern that certain things have an effect on certain other things but I don’t view those effects as good or bad. If a context and a goal is defined I could say if it’s good or bad. But overall I don’t view things as good or bad. So I’m like a robot or computer in that sense.”

Aside from being a curious way to live life, this alleged lack of viewpoint also modulates within Tao’s speech: he emphasizes words in sentences in a manner that can seem arbitrary.  Every other “gonna” was pronounced like “gonad”, inviting the idea that Lin may be a secret Canadian.  His breaths are hushed and insular as a furness’.  Certain sentences were much louder than others, particularly at their stark beginnings: not so much startling, but rising like a module rebooting or processing with a punctuated beep.  I mean this not to characterize Lin as alien or droll: rather, I was surprised by the pleasant lull that his sputtering produced.

He took questions.  The romantic leads are named Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning because this is an autobiographical novel, and while many who write such works (Lin cited Philip Roth) name the character after themselves or something like them, he wanted the names to be distinct and separate from him as the writer.  The girl upon whom Dakota is based read much of the book in its first drafts: the primary feedback she gave early on “was that the characters seemed flat”.  The book’s front jacket is a stock photo selected by Lin’s editor.  Asked how he would define his style, Tao casually replies, “I have a lot of different styles: but for this book it’s about trying to be as concrete and literal as possible… one where you don’t notice any of the sentences, they just kind of take hold.”  Questioned about those dubbed “Tao Lin imitators”, he says “They’re my friends… they’re not imitators.  I imitate a lot of writers in this book, and if [Lin’s colleagues] were imitators, I would think that’s good.  We have a lot of the same goals.”  Probed for what those goals are, Lin cracked something close to a smile and replied, “Read the book.  They’re in the book.”

This engagement if nothing else was in tune with Lin’s writing: autobiographical fiction whose protagonists are self-distancing boys distancing themselves and others with tech-escapes and passive synopses of emotion.  In witnessing Lin’s reading, one cannot help but wonder to where this soft-spoken, intensely calm persona coalesces with Lin the self-promoter, both beloved and reviled for his much-blogged about publicity stunts and self-promotion.  Yet when it’s just him, the book, and the microphone, with no Gawker or Tumblr to hide behind or run from, his murmuring recitations could be the gestative cooing of some robo-mammal hybrid.  A pacified Mechwarrior in a Choking Victim sweatshirt, who fell to Earth and landed in our welcoming, informative atheneum of human culture: the biggest little shop in Tribeca.