The Observer was sitting at his desk. It was Friday at 1:03 p.m. His Gmail was open, and the inbox showed a new message from Tao Lin. The subject of the message was “just confirming, 630pm five leaves.”
The Observer replied, “Yes, and the assignment is fully confirmed. The profile of you will run in the Observer issue of August 18.”
Tao Lin replied, “Sweet. Thank you.”
A few minutes later, The Observer decided to write his profile of Tao Lin in Tao Lin’s style. An editor came up to The Observer‘s desk to check on his work. The Observer told him there was no problem with his work. The editor seemed relieved.
The Observer said, “Tonight I am having dinner with Tao Lin, and I am going to write a profile of him in his style. He writes in a flat style. One thing just happens after another. There is no figurative language, and every time a character thinks something he uses the verb ‘think.’”
The editor picked up Tao Lin’s first book of poems, you are a little bit happier than I am, from The Observer‘s desk and started reading it. “This is really bad,” he said.
The Observer said, “Martin Amis once said that his father told him his books should have more sentences like, ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room.’ In Tao Lin almost all the sentences are like that, except the dialogue.”
The editor was still looking through the book of poems. He said, “This is a good line: ‘at work i wonder / if i should take anti-depressant medicine / finally, i decide, no, i shouldn’t.’”
The Observer said, “Nobody who writes about Tao Lin really understands him. My piece will be definitive.”
The editor walked away, and The Observer thought, “Tao named the couple in Richard Yates after Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. The book is really about Tao and a 16-year-old he met over the Internet when he was 22. It’s full of their emails and Gchats, their fights with her mother, her binge-eating and her bulimia. It’s like what Robert Lowell did with his wife’s letters in ‘The Dolphin,’ except with email. Maybe I could coin a new term for it-Gmail Realism.”
On his lunch break, The Observer visited a friend of his at another office. He told his friend, “I am going to interview Tao Lin tonight.”
She said, “I don’t know who that is.”
The Observer said, “He’s a hipster fiction writer. He pulls a lot of stunts on the Internet too. A couple years ago he sold shares in the book he has coming out now, Richard Yates. Naming a novel after another novelist is sort of a stunt in itself too, I guess.”
The Observer‘s friend said, “Sounds like fun. I’m sure you’ll do a good job.”
One of her colleagues said, “Is he the guy who wrote about getting arrested at N.Y.U.? I hated that. The writing was so bad. It was like I had to keep reading it just to see how bad the writing would get.”
The Observer said, “I’m going to write a profile of him in a parody of his style.”
The colleague said, “That’s awesome. You’ll nail him. His writing is so terrible.”
The Observer thought, “He thinks of Tao Lin the way I used to think of him, that Tao Lin is a fraud, but now I think Tao legitimate. His earlier stuff is juvenile, but now his style works to heighten a sense of alienation. Profiling Tao is important to me. I’m doing a service to literature.”
The Observer returned to his office and edited an article for several hours. Before he left to meet Tao Lin, he thought, “Since this is for the ‘Dirty Issue,’ I should quote something about sex, like this: ‘Haley Joel Osment held her and thought “She lost interest in me, it’s over, I’ll go back to doing things alone in the library every day” but when she woke they kissed and she loosened his belt and did something to his penis with her mouth and about ten minutes later walking to the train he thought ‘She wouldn’t have done that if she didn’t want to see me again.’”
At 6:35 The Observer approached the restaurant Five Leaves in Greenpoint. “Thank God,” he thought. “I’ve been here before. It’s not vegan.”
Tao Lin was sitting by a tree. He got up and shook The Observer‘s hand. The Observer thought, “His handshake is really limp.”
A hostess asked the two men whether they would like to be seated.
“I have to go to an ATM first,” The Observer said.
“I’m going to pee,” Tao Lin said.
Ten minutes later Tao Lin ordered a frisée salad and The Observer ordered a cheeseburger, medium rare with blue cheese. They were sitting at a table outside, and their waiter seemed to be Australian.
The Observer asked Tao Lin how old he was. Tao Lin said he was 27. The Observer asked Tao Lin if he had submitted fiction to The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40.” Tao Lin said, “No.” McSweeney’s, he said, always rejects him, but he was considering submitting a story to Electric Literature.
The Observer said, “A lot of young writers want to represent themselves as good people. Are you worried that readers might think you’re a bad person?”
Tao Lin said, “No. If anything, I focus on the bad. I don’t want people interested in me who think I’m different than I am.”
The Observer thought, “If Michiko Kakutani were reviewing Richard Yates for The Times, she might write, ‘Tao Lin limns, in an almost skeletal prose, the brittle emotional geometry of a couple as a young woman spirals into bulimia and a young man, who may be doing her more harm than good, tries to pull her back from the abyss.’”
The Observer said, “Holocaust novels are also very popular. Maybe you should write one.”
Tao Lin said, “It could be a sequel to Richard Yates. Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning travel back in time to World War II and get put in a concentration camp. They need to find a missing part for their time machine to time-travel back to New Jersey. A science-fiction Holocaust thriller.”
The Observer said, “That would sell.”
Tao Lin said, “It seems too good to not do it. Seems like I have to do it. Richard Yates II.”
The Observer asked Tao Lin if he had ever had one of his books optioned for film. Tao Lin said Eeeee Eee Eeee, his first novel, and his novella Shoplifting from American Apparel had both been optioned for a few thousand dollars each by random people, not serious movie people. The Observer asked Tao Lin if he could support himself with his writing. Tao Lin said he quit his restaurant job in the summer of 2008 after selling shares in Richard Yates, for which his advance from Melville House was $1,000. After that, he said, he sold essays and art and then recently received a $12,800 grant from a donor who wished to remain anonymous.
Tao Lin showed The Observer his three tattoos, a kangaroo, a trio of fish and the phrase “fuck america” in small, sans-serif type, possibly Helvetica.
After the food arrived, Tao Lin stuck his fork in the egg on top of his salad and swirled it around. Then he ordered scallops.
Tao Lin said, “A lot of people think I’m a vegan. I’m not.”
The Observer said, “Scallops are good. I always seem to eat them at weddings.”
Tao Lin said that he had three writing styles. His Concrete/Literal Style did not allow figurative language. His Lorrie Moore style did. His Style for Essays was like the Concrete/Literal Style but with nonliteral words in quotes.
The Observer asked Tao Lin when he started writing. Tao Lin said second semester of his freshman year at N.Y.U., after his writing teacher, “a graduate student named Kristen something,” encouraged him and he read Lorrie Moore and White Noise.
The Observer said, “You look bored.”
Tao Lin said, “My face always looks bored or depressed. It’s not an accurate impression.”
The Observer asked Tao Lin if he knew what free indirect discourse was. Tao Lin said he didn’t know. The Observer asked Tao Lin if he had ever read How Fiction Works, Madame Bovary or The Red and the Black. Tao Lin said he had not read any of them, except for 10 pages of Madame Bovary.
The Observer said, “Your Concrete/Literal Style rolls back all the advances Flaubert made in the representation of consciousness. But by rolling back modernity, you’ve also advanced the novel by exposing its distortions.”
Tao Lin went to the bathroom.
The Observer thought, “This guy pees a lot.”
Five minutes later The Observer said, “I am going to write a profile of you in your style.”
Tao Lin said, “You should end it with a sentence like the one I’m saying now.”