We can and will stipulate first of all that Tao Lin is an overbearing self-publicist with a literary career attached, and that he is given to extremely irritating poses. This, however, tells us nothing about whether or not Tao Lin, as a novelist, has any artistic merit; there have been, historically, plenty of serious and important writers among the ranks of overbearing self-publicists, and plenty of frivolous and unimportant ones. If famewhoring ruined Truman Capote, it is probably an equal and opposite truth that a lack of famewhoring prevented some meritorious writer of the same era from ever coming to the public's notice enough for him or her to be ruined. So although publicity has been generally understood to be the defining feature of Tao Lin, we will set it aside.
Instead, let's look at this review by Lydia Kiesling, for the Millions, of Tao Lin's new novel, Taipei. I discovered the review through Stephen Marche's creepy and unpersuasive Esquire article in praise of Marie Calloway, and then I found that lots of other people had been reading it, too, with fascination. It is a literary event in its own right.
Marche endorsed Kiesling's piece as a "perfect" dismissal of Tao Lin and Taipei, which underscores why Stephen Marche is dim and not to be trusted. The review does call the novel "awful" and a "cumulative monotonous assault on the senses" and maybe worse things, but it is the opposite of dismissive. Rather than committing a vivisection in the classic Dale Peck mode, a critic pinning down and lethally disassembling an unworthy author's work, Kiesling shows herself struggling to gain the upper hand against Taipei—and, despite her efforts, not gaining it.
So here's Kiesling on the aftereffects of reading Lin's prose:
I suddenly began hearing my own voice when I spoke within earshot of others, particularly people older than I. On the BART platform, I heard myself say “It was, like, not what I was planning to have happen,” and my voice trailed off as I became conscious of the poverty of my spoken expression, how much I must sometimes sound like the people in Taipei....I was born the year after Tao Lin; hearing our shared idiom come out of my own mouth, I realized that some of my loathing for this book is very personal. There is a fearful recognition of those things I want most to cleanse from my self-presentation, and self.
This honest confession undoes Kiesling's complaints earlier in the piece about the novel's style—that it "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." Strict oddity of tone is not, in and of itself, a sustainable charge against a literary novel; it's a thing novelists do, for literary reasons. And Tao Lin is apparently a rigorous enough stylist to have gotten into the reviewer's head.
And this is how the review goes. Sometimes Kiesling grants Lin credit for an effect; sometimes Kiesling grants the effect but denies Lin credit for it; sometimes Kiesling steps back and quotes a generous block of text in the belief that the reader will appreciate its self-evident badness. But the passages in the blockquotes often enough seem to be sound, or even interesting. The monster is winning the fight.
It's not clear that Tao Lin could have asked for a better review. Kiesling hypothesizes, and rejects the hypotheses, that Taipei might be a "sad novel," or a novel about the capital-P Problem of drug abuse, or an act of mockery. So it avoids all of these banal possibilities—that is, it achieves something unexpected and baffling. Taipei, Kiesling writes, is "dangerous and threatening to life."
That could be the cover blurb on the paperback. Where, in all the strenuous and collegial praise of Chad Harbach, did anyone summon such genuine passion about The Art of Fielding? Which of the pleadings on behalf of Jonathan Franzen's campaign to be the Novelist of Our Age ever conveyed that the stakes were so high? Lit-fic reviews tend to sound like model-railroad newsletters celebrating the fidelity of an enthusiast's HO layout. This one reads like a debriefing after an encounter with something meaningful and scary. Possibly with an actual work of art.
Tao Lin may well be cold and vacuous and perhaps evil, but it's hard to get through the review and keep believing he's a dilettante. When I started reading it, I was sure I had no interest in reading Taipei. When I finished, I was no longer sure at all.