He's been called the heir of Douglas Coupland, because of his passive, disillusioned and existentialist characters, but he's hardly read anything by Coupland. It's one of the many confessions by novelist Tao Lin, one of the sensations of recent years.
Compared to the first Douglas Coupland, the first (and generational) Bret Easton Ellis, and with, yes, even more surprisingly, the master of existential angst, Samuel Beckett, Tao Lin (New York, 1983) is something like the next-to-latest New York literary hype. As controversial as he is brilliant, Lin builds his novels from Gmail chats: in “Richard Yates”, they are between an impossible couple, Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment (not the real ones, but a girl from New Jersey and a boy from New York who seem doomed to misunderstand each other), and boys who steal some T-shirts and end up in jail for one night, where they discover that it's not all that bad, because, after all, it's just another experience. That's what happens in “Shoplifting From American Apparel”.
The main character is Sam, an aspiring writer who has just broken up with his girl, Sheila (who clearly is the Dakota Fanning from his other novel), and who's thinking about turning his own story into a book (which will eventually become “Richard Yates”). He has terrible jobs (in fast food and, most importantly, vegan restaurants), and he has a habit of stealing things he doesn't really need, or stuff he can sell on eBay. So he actually does need them, in order to make some extra money. Of course, given his passion for all things virtual (his characters hardly ever talk, but they send hundreds of emails to each other), we talk to him on Google chat. Tao Lin is in New York, he says he's lying on his bed in his room somewhere on 29th Street. It's almost two in the afternoon. He's only wearing boxer shorts and he's writing (we suppose, with some difficulty, given his position) on his Macbook. St. V
"I don't really know what the Generation X was. But I have the feeling that both Generation X and Y have been around us for too long"
When did you start writing? Do you remember what your first story was about?
I started when I was about three or four years old. I wrote things with titles like “The Biggest Dinosaur In The World”. They were between two and six pages long, and each page had a couple of words and a drawing. I remember I used to put a price on them, like 25 cents, and sell them to my mother.
Your characters seem the perfect evolution of the lost, nostalgic and deeply desperate people from Douglas Coupland's first novel. Are you a fan?
I think I've read about four pages of everything Douglas Coupland has written. I don't know much about him. I remember seeing a photo of him on the flap of one of his books, and I found it funny that he was wearing shorts, I found that interesting. You know, writer’s photos aren't usually like that. He seemed handsome. I think he's Canadian, right?
Yes. So you don't think your characters, and today's generation, are a sort of evolution of Coupland's Generation X? Even though we may have changed ecological ideals for vegan food.
I have no idea. I don't really know what the Generation X was. But I have the feeling that both Generation X and Y have been around us for too long. I think the latest is called “The Millenials”. But I'm not sure. I never think in terms of “we”, I only focus on a kind of people. Each person is a world of their own. Furthermore, last year I was living like a hermit. I spent all my time in my room, working on my third novel. I didn't have a lot of social contact, so I don't know what people are thinking or doing these days, except for what I see on the Internet. But on Internet you can never know how old the person you're reading is.
You've been compared to Samuel Beckett, no less, because of the existential doubts your characters live with. Have you read anything by him?
I have, but not that much, really. I don't think I've ever finished reading any of his books. I must have read from one to thirty pages of several of his stories. I might like it in the future.
Your characters chat more than they talk in person. In what way does Google chat help your stories?
The most obvious way has to do with the saved conversations. When you use Google chat, your conversation remains recorded, and you can go back to it whenever you like. I've had thousands of conversations in real life that I’ve forgotten and can never use in my stories.
Both Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment, the main characters of your second novel “Richard Yates”, don't hesitate to say how they feel at all times. It's as if they feel the need to feel understood continuously. When something makes them sad, they say it, which stops their relationship from growing. Do you think it's good to be that honest all the time?
I think that what's actually happening is that Haley Joel Osment is complaining all the time. I don't know if that's good or bad. I don't know if they're saying how they feel more than usual. For instance, they might say once a day that something made them sad, but doesn't it often happen that people complain that others aren't happy all the time? Also, when Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment say they're sad, often they're joking, they're only trying to have a good time and entertain each other. I don't know if that's good or bad for a relationship. I suppose that depends on the kind of relationship.
"My characters are extremely non-consumerist. They have no TV, they h ardly buy any clothes, they haven't got good beds, they have so few things that they can move from New York to Florida, and from there to Connecticut, without a problem"
But there are a lot of things they don't care about, they do them just to do something, without it really mattering to them. Like in “Shoplifting From American Apparel”, when Sam says: “I'm going to eat cereal even though I'm not hungry”. Does that have anything to do with what consumerism has done to us? Always living wanting something, or having to do something, even though that something might not even interest us?
I think they actually do care about what they're doing. Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning are super-focused on trying to do things they care about. They're not wasting time. They're aware of what they eat, say and do. And about “Shoplifting From American Apparel”, I think Sam also does things he really cares about. That cereal thing was just a joke. He only wants to eat some because he knows they're good, even though he isn't hungry. It's like his brain is telling him to taste some because they're good and stop thinking about whether he's hungry or not. That's why it's funny.
About consumerism, I think it's just the opposite. My characters are extremely non-consumerist. I mean, they flee from consumerism. They have no TV, they hardly buy any clothes, they haven't got good beds, they have so few things (in the case, for example, of Haley Joel Osment) that they can move from New York to Florida, and from there to Connecticut, without a problem. They have no money, so they're not thinking about the possibility of buying anything, no jewellery, no clothes, no shoes. They don't suffer from that desire. Because they're really not consumerist at all.
Sam, the protagonist of “Shoplifting From American Apparel”, has a lot in common with Haley Joel Osment, the main character of “Richard Yates”. Is it you?
Yes, almost everything I write is autobiographical.
Why did you chose the name of Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning as fake names for the characters of “Richard Yates”?
Because I thought it could be funny. I have no other explanation, just that I thought it was funny. There was a moment when I thought that to some people, the names thing could become more important than the subjects I actually deal with in the book, but the next minute I thought that it could also make other people like the book even more. I don't think either of the two represents this generation. The truth is I don't even know what they're doing right now. The last time I saw Haley Joel Osment was on Wikipedia, and Dakota Fanning probably in a film called “Cherry Bomb”. Or that could be the title of the song they were playing. I think I’ve forgotten the name of the movie.
Though you don't seem to feel too comfortable with the concept of a generation, if you could choose a name for your generation, what would it be? Generation Double X?
The ‘Or Something’ Generation. Because a lot of people I know and like, have the habit of ending their sentences like that, to make it clear they're not sure of what they're saying. Sometimes we become so tolerant of it that we feel obligated to say it twice: “or something, or something”.
I get it. Let's leave the generational theme and talk about theft. It seems your characters only value what they steal. What meaning does shoplifting have in your stories and in the lives of your characters?
Just getting something for free, and using whatever they gain from it to try to reduce the suffering in the world, and their own suffering, helping them to survive. There’s no other meaning.
Okay. And what about lying? Why does Haley Joel Osment hate for Dakota Fanning to tell him lies? With all that overexposure, can we not hide anything?
No, I think it's something that only happens in that book, in “Richard Yates”. People in general are hiding things all the time. Some people are even scared of telling other people their real name. When I was studying journalism at NYU, and I would interview someone on the street, they wouldn't even tell me their name, because they didn’t trust me. But I'm not like that. I don't like having secrets or hiding things. I like transparency.
"It's tough for many people I know to interact socially without taking drugs, they get anxious"
One more about “Richard Yates”. Do you think the kind of relationship Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment have has anything to do with the passionate relationships (often of extreme hate) in Richard Yates' novels? Or is that sort of thing almost impossible today, in the virtual age?
No. I think it is possible. Especially when the characters are between 16 and 22 years olf. At that age, any kind of relationship is very passionate.
And what do you say about Dakota Fanning's chaotic food situation? Does that have something to do with wanting to control something in a world where you can't control anything.
I don't know. I suppose it's too obvious, and anyone can see it. Imagine that you want to eat a giant cake because you know it’s going to taste great, but you don't want to feel bad about it afterwards, or for your complexion to be a little bit worse the next day, or to feel so tired that you only want to sleep. What do you do? I suppose you make a decision. You eat it, and you risk all of the above. Or you don't. But Dakota Fanning has found a third option; she eats it and then throws it up. So I suppose it only has something to do with the decisions we make each day, we take a look at our options, we see the pros and cons, and then we choose.
Regarding how and when you write, are you one of those people who write in coffee shops?
No. I don't like writing in coffee shops, because there are too many distractions. I have the feeling that if I go to a coffee shop, it's not really to write, but because I want to meet someone. So I write in my room. Last year I was in my room all the time. In my studio, I mean. I have my own studio. Normally, I write in bed. Usually I drink tea and fruit juice I make at night when I take a break. I also drink coconut water. Oh, and sometimes I go to the NYU library to write. But mostly I write in my room.
Your last three favourite books are...
“Leaving the Atocha Station”, by Ben Lerner, and two by Sam Pink, “Hurt Others”, and “Person”.
Your all-time favourite video games are...
“Final Fantasy III” on the Super Nintendo, “Super Smash Brothers”, on the Nintendo 64, “ Gemstone III”, “Diablo II” and “Civilization”.
The band you listened to the most as a teenager is...
The most expensive thing you've ever shoplifted is...
[Laughs]. Some Lens Crafters frames that cost about 200 dollars.
If you could choose a novel character to spend an afternoon with, who would it be?
Patrick Bateman, from “American Psycho”. I think I would record it. I would have a great time watching how he interacts with everybody. I would tweet about it live.
And lastly, would you say there's something like a literary environment in New York for writers of your age?
Possibly, but I've only been to about fifteen social events last year, and they were all in tiny places, and everyone was doped up, and it was pretty distressing. It's tough for many people I know to interact socially without taking drugs, they get anxious. And we hardly ever talk about what we're writing. At least, I don't. We think about our books on our own, we write them on our own and we publish them without listening to anyone's advice. I believe almost everyone I know prefers it that way, not to talk ever about what they're doing.