The Literature of Resolution


Self-proclaimed writer and blogger, Tao Lin enjoys listmaking. Admittedly, it’s an addictive habit. The list form is usually meant to give readers and writers a sensation of “organization.” Tao Lin’s lists also tend to consist of resolutions. Resolutions are about how consumerism impacts on self-improvement. Resolve is for goal-oriented people. Though there are a lot of people with goals, not everyone meets his own goals, or ever seriously intends to meet them. Still, I suppose the first step is actually articulating them. I have a friend who announces things like, “I’m going to adopt a parrot,” and she goes ahead and does it [the parrot is Murray, and I aesthetically appreciate that she gave him an old-man name]. She says, “I am buying a dish-washer so that I can throw dinner parties.” Lo and behold, I find myself loading up her dish-washer after a dinner party. Whether or not Tao Lin meets his self-imposed goals, I’m not sure. All I know is that he shows a disdain for people whose resolve isn’t as adamant as his own:

in my life i stopped talking to people who didn’t do things for me they said they would

they will regret not doing what they said

the absence of me in their life will make them feel the ‘payback time’

the goal of my life is to make ‘payback time’ for people

everyone will be careful how they treat tao lin

This reader is quaking in his boots. In any case, the effect that addiction to the list-form gives his prose, poetry and blogging, can sometimes be annoying. It leads to an over-use of the declarative first-person. The declarative first-person used in a series leads to a robotic style (an example of a famous literary To-Do list is Robinson Crusoe). Reading his commenters as well as the blogs of others to whom he links, and vice-versa, it’s obvious that the effect is contagious. Eh! At least the guy has a style.

Tao Lin’s style belies the emotional content beneath it. While he aspires to a robotic form, the content is often about his depression or the new (higher than ever!) levels of boredom/narcissism he’s achieved. I don’t think it’s any accident that he’s decided to write in the context of boredom. Boredom is very hot nowadays (seriously, there’s a guy down the block writing his dissertation on boredom, though I can’t imagine it will be interesting). Personally, I have often said that I find boredom very sexy. I think this confluence of boredom and sex has two factors at work. One, there are a lot of sexy, stupid-boring, people to have sex with out there. From an evolutionary perspective, I realize I am attracted to the boring as they require less effort/energy/fuel consumption. Two, this is a period of internet connection and the internet is all about boredom. For example, I am writing in this blog to stave off boredom. In the past, I often used to find myself bored, and would log onto my email or instant messaging, and arrange sex with people. I think culturally, we’re predisposed to channel our boredom and depression into old fashioned forms of communicating, using new instantaneous mediums. In our boredom, we find sexiness in trying to “eventalize… the episodic nature of existence.”

I was of two minds when I decided to read Tao Lin’s book. This ambivalence comes from the fact that, while he’s his own promotional machine constantly trying to get on Gawker (sadly, he has deleted the brilliant post where he seeks a literary feud with someone so that they can get publicity on Gawker, though I think the full text is still available in my Google-Reader Shared Items), his stunts are fairly hilarious, especially the way in which he harasses the staff of Gakwer (before granting him a “pardon,” they write “The reason you’ve never heard of him is that we have been doing our utmost to protect you from his spammy, retarded, deceptive, always on the verge of interesting but never actually interesting Internet stunts.”) . Also, his essay in The Stranger, “The Levels of Greatness A Fiction Writer Can Achieve in America” is one of the best things I’ve read recently (this is what earned him his pardon). Obviously, the guy can stomach critique. He’ll even publish negative responses to his novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE, on his blog, including bald requests that he “stop writing.” I chose his book of stories, Bed, figuring that if I had harsh things to say, he could handle it.

And I really did think I was going to have harsh things to say if he kept up with the t-shirt slogans for 278 pages. A lot of the time, one of the ways I gauge what I think about a book is to try and figure out which of the people I know would like the book. Then I either ask them what they think or imagine what they would think, and try to decide if I agree or disagree, and from there the details of my opinions get fleshed out. That wasn’t so easy with Bed given I couldn’t imagine one person I knew who would like it. Since he was visiting for New Year’s, I read the first paragraph of the first story, “Love is a Thing on Sale For More Money than Exists” to Ali:

This was the month that people began to suspect that terrorists had infiltrated Middle America, set up underground tunnels in the rural areas, like gophers. During any moment, it was feared, a terrorist might tunnel up into your house and replace your dog with something that resembled a dog but was actually a bomb. This was a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound. They would whisper into the wind something mordant and culturally damning about McDonald’s, Jesus, and America — and then, if they wanted to, if the situation eschatologically called for it, they would slice your face off with a KFC Spork.

The problem with reading it to Ali, however, was that I kept trying to stifle giggles. The introductory story goes on in this vein for some time before it becomes an actual story with young, college-age, people; the type in whom I have no emotional investment. Nevertheless, they struggle with the new age of paranoia Tao Lin describes, wherein any animated object/pet can feel dangerous. That line about dogs looking like dogs but being bombs reminded me of The Driver’s Seat, in which Elizabeth Taylor announces, “This may look like a purse, but it’s actually a bomb!” One great moment takes place at an anti-war rally where liberal-minded New Yorkers try to deconstruct the hatred of the Other:

At the anti-war meeting, they wanted to abolish the words “We,” “Us,” and “Them.” Some others wanted to abolish the word “I.” They were frustrated. “We this, we that; us this; them that; us vs. them, no wonder things are the way they are.” They wanted semantic unity. They were going to make friends with the terrorists….

That passage leads to a graduate student standing up at the rally announcing that the terrorists don’t want friendship; rather, they’re looking for romantic love (a couple of years back, I heard Susan Buck-Morss make a similar claim in all seriousness. Since her first book, her brain must have melted. When I criticized her, she accused me of being a racist and anti-Arab. I was wearing a hoodie and sunglasses that day, so she didn’t realize I actually am an Arab). I decided to see what DW thought of it. In bed, he read me the first few paragraphs and started to giggle himself, saying, “hey, this is pretty good.” “I know,” I growled. I didn’t want to like this book. We talked about the book for a while, and I took some notes on the inside back cover of the book, but I can’t read my handwriting. The only thing I can make out is something about “the abyss of language.”

For some reason, a lot of the stories in Bed involve couples in their college years struggling through dysfunctional relationships and having to visit one another’s parents and eating dinner at places like Red Lobster or Olive Garden (Incidentally, a friend of mine was once ditched on a date to the Olive Garden when she laughed at their slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family.” Her date, a witless boob, disliked “cynicism”). While several of these relationships seemed one-sided, there were a couple of stories where both parties in the relationship knew they were role-playing, and as both of them knew the score, a higher level of maturity was achieved while they consciously fuck with one another instead of the bullshit unfairly coming from just one of them.

My favorite couple is Aaron and Alicia from the story, “Sincerity.” Aaron says to Alicia, when he worries he’s losing her, “I like you more each day, and a lot, overall.” In the story, Aaron has decided to switch to Alicia’s creative writing seminar (a passive aggressive gesture, I think). They score upon one another in the critiques of Alicia’s stories which are autobiographical. Tao Lin makes a great point here about the politics of creative writing seminars when he points out the double-bind in critiquing someone else’s autobiographical story (I wonder if he’s seen the “Fuck me, Nigger” scene in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling?) ; “who in the class knew how to live their own life?” Aaron and Alicia use this fakely-impersonal forum to theorize their relationship, “”Why does Aaron stay with Alicia if he doesn’t love her really,” Aaron said.” In a wistful moment, Aaron “could see them getting MFAs together.”

These too highly self-aware couples are so successful at undermining one another that goals cannot be achieved. Alicia and Aaron are probably not going to get MFAs together. Alicia regrets even majoring in English instead of something useful (join the club, baby). The lists on the blog are meant to structure depression, force it into shape. Tao Lin the blogger’s ambition, his stunts (like the current 400 interns project), might bug the casual reader, however, I wonder if the lists, the resolution, and the emo robot persona are an attempt to transcend the youthful immaturity portrayed in Bed‘s characters? Is he attempting to become the “successful person” that the vaguely autobiographical characters he depicts cannot become? Come to think of it, I think the answer is more along the lines of something like … his performance of what a successful person is like gives him so much amusement that he’s able to cultivate enough of a sense of humor to transcend boredom, depression, paranoia, generalized anxiety, what have you, so that he can actually go ahead and also achieve some measure of success. Success is a side-effect of the style, though. I wish him luck. I might write more, know more, when I’ve read EEEEEE EEE EEEE.

Buy this book so that Tao Lin can treat himself to an organic apple or something.

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4 Responses to “The Literature of Resolution”

  1. Ameer Says:

    I’ll read Bed, I suppose. Let us know how EEEEEE EEE EEEE is.

  2. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    Several months ago, I was the department representative at an incoming freshman event at which students and their parents got to talk to a real live professor. (Even though it was early morning and I was feeling rather moribund.) One overly enthused father came up to me and said, “My son is so excited about starting in your program. Do you know that we searched for programs that allowed undergraduates to major in creative writing, and ******* University is one of the few that does?!?” I bit my tongue–very hard–to keep from saying, “Yes–and there’s a good reason for it.” Aside from the painful economic fact that very few of our creative writing majors will ever find jobs for which their education has prepared them, their is the strong possibility that they will then start to clutter the universe with novels about themselves leading aimless lives and trying to find meaning in the most trivial things. Perhaps I’ve grown too old–I certainly lead a meaningless life when I was in my twenties–but it sounds to me as if allowing undergraduates to major in creative writing is just multiplying the number of Tao Lins in our culture. In which case, he will quickly lose his “uniqueness” rapidly, but not before ten thousand books with titles like EEEEEE EEE EEEE cause the death of whole forests of trees who gave their lives to become pages upon which tales of meaninglessness are inscribed. (Hopefully recyclable.)

  3. darknessatnoon Says:

    I don’t know whether or not he majored in Creative Writing, but that reminds me. When that whole Virgina Tech shooting happened, I could sense a collective intake of breath in every creative writing seminar in the country.

  4. ryan manning Says:

    the next night we ate whale

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