The Surface of Things: The Rumpus Long Interview with Tao Lin

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Tao Lin has published two books of poetry, the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee, the short story collection Bed and most recently the autobiographical novella Shoplifting From American Apparel. His style is spare, governed by omission and slick transitions that startle and engage the reader from sentence to sentence. The characters in Tao Lin’s work drink smoothies, use g-chat and steal, all with equal gravity, or lack thereof. His prose also reveals a preference for surface detail over interior exploration of character with the surprising effect of illuminating emotion.

Given his inclination for these stylistic elements, Tao Lin’s stated reverence for certain authors such as Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Joy Williams seems natural. He even stated in a 2008 blog post for This Recording that he thinks his writing is “most influenced by “K-Mart Realism,”” (a name given to those writers who adopt some of these stylistic elements and includes the writers just named). However, he’s aware that the term “K-Mart Realism” is not exactly used as a compliment. In that same blog post, he stated, “K-Mart Realism” is a term a New York Times journalist or I think probably Tom Wolfe made up to group a lot of writers together in a shit-talking way.”

One of the earlier moments of “shit-talking” with respect to the K-Mart Realists, before there was even any name for the group, occurred in a 1986 essay for Harper’s Magazine called “Less is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story,” by Madison Smartt Bell in which Bell maligned the new “school” of writers and identified some of its common traits: “a trim “minimal” style, an obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” Tom Wolfe followed up with an essay in 1989, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which he scoffed at K-Mart Realists for ignoring expansive social issues in favor of “tiny domestic ones.”

In gamesome defense of those who he might call his literary antecedents, Tao Lin posted a piece in 2005 entitled “k-mart, k-mart realism; the rise, struggle, decline of.” In the post, he provided such benchmarks for “K-Mart Realism” as “Raymond Carver publishes Cathedral” (in rise), “k-mart buys stake in OfficeMax” (in struggle), and about Ann Beattie, “complaining about how now at readings people just ask her “specious questions to elicit amusing answers” (in decline). While he’s been called out for being spare, no one’s ever blamed Tao Lin for not having a sense of humor.

I wanted to engage Tao Lin on the subject of “K-Mart Realism,” the territory purportedly defined by the term and where he stands in relation to this territory. This interview was conducted in many places including, but not limited to, a university library in New York, an airplane flying from New York to Los Angeles, an apartment in Santa Monica, a cafe in Santa Monica, a bus going from Santa Monica to Los Angeles, a theater in New York, and a Whole Foods in Pasadena. Tao Lin and I were never in the same place at the same time.

“I don’t really enjoy grouping any two writers together except sarcastically, or to say something about journalism or the media.”

The Rumpus: Are there any writers whose work has influenced your writing? And if so, who and in what way?

Tao Lin: My first book of fiction, BED, a collection of stories, was very influenced by Lorrie Moore’s short stories, from LIKE LIFE mostly, her prose style and tone and also a lot by the structure of her stories, how she would start stories, how exactly she would change scenes or “place” the reader in a new scene. I also studied how she ordered the stories in LIKE LIFE and thought about that when organizing BED. I was also influenced, in some of the stories in BED, by Jean Rhys’ tone in GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT and Joy Williams’ sense of humor.

My first novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE, was very influenced by Ann Beattie’s CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER. I liked what she focused on with her characters, the way she would repeat single words or phrases to reference something earlier, in a manner like it was the character “idly remembering” or “being reminded suddenly” of something earlier, and do that using the same things throughout the entire novel almost. I liked that her characters were familiar enough with each other to be joking or sarcastic most of the time in a friendly manner. I liked that there were many scenes of the characters sitting around talking or eating food. I liked the frequent lack of transitional or self-referencing words like “again” or “but” or “so” or “then.” I liked the non-sequitur style of description or narration and lack of pressure, it seemed to me, to have sentence variety. I liked how the prose, I thought, was styled in a way to represent how people think. I was conscious of liking all those things, and wanting to reproduce them, in forms that were more artistically satisfying to me (I liked all those things but they weren’t completely ideal, to me), in the realistic sections of EEEEE EEE EEEE. The “Ellen” sections in EEEEE EEE EEEE are influenced by Joy Williams’ THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. The “animal” sections in EEEEE EEE EEEE are influenced, in prose style and pacing, by Noah Cicero’s THE HUMAN WAR.

My first novella, SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL, is not, I think, influenced by one book or author enough for me to name an influence. At this point I’ve been influenced to different degrees by a large enough amount of writers and books, I feel, that one could read my writing and not find an apparent influence, except maybe a larger thing like “minimalism” or “Kmart Realism” or “realism” or something.

Rumpus: Would you call yourself a “K-Mart Realist”?

Tao Lin: In certain situations, for extraliterary reasons and in a to-some-degree ironic tone, I might. But in terms of my writing I don’t think I would, because I don’t really enjoy grouping writers together except sarcastically or to say something about journalism or the media. I honestly view the works of Frederick Barthelme and Joy Williams and Ann Beattie and Mary Robison and Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver as distinct and separate from one another. I honestly feel that if you showed me a new short story by each of those writers I would be able to tell you which writer wrote it (except maybe Carver, though still I would be able to deduce the answer by canceling out the other writers probably).

“Sam talks about how he feels like his face is going to float away from his skull (to emo music).”

Rumpus: There is a lack of affect to the characters in Shoplifting From American Apparel (“SFAA“). They are rendered no more or less valuable than the objects alongside which they are described. Is this flattening of value something that is intentional on your part?

Tao Lin: To me the characters in SFAA experience emotions the same as other humans and maybe even more intensely than other humans. Luis talks about how he feels like his chest is going to explode. Sam talks about how he feels like his face is going to float away from his skull (to emo music). But I decided not to include sentences about the characters’ emotions or thoughts. In part because I wanted to write in a certain prose style’s most extreme form. One “by-product” or “side-effect” of the prose style is that the characters’ thoughts/feelings aren’t available to the reader. I talk about the prose style’s function more below, I think.

Rumpus: Unlike the writers you mention, like Ann Beattie and Lorrie Moore, your writing doesn’t seem to explore the inner life of the characters. Would you say that your stories, and SFAA, insist on a lack of depth?

Tao Lin: I think the stories in BED are almost entirely about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Their thoughts and feelings are described in detail, and constantly, I feel. SFAA however does not have sentences describing what a character is thinking/feeling. I don’t think this conveys a lack of depth on the part of the characters. The characters have as much depth, I assume, as those in other books. I just chose, for many reasons, to write in a style that focuses only on “surface” details.

The main reason might be because in my earlier writing I expressed, to some degree, a consistent philosophy (characterized by wanting to reduce abstract suffering by learning to accept undesirable situations; by learning to view life as a book already written rather than a book to be written, so as to better experience each moment’s pleasures and to experience despair less intensely by being detached from it to some degree, as one can read about “despair” without “feeling” it; and by learning to view things from more perspectives, or “every” perspective, ideally from the perspective of the universe, a perspective which perceives “no depth” or “no consciousness”) and SFAA could be said to be the actualization, in terms of prose style, of that philosophy.

Another reason SFAA’s prose style focuses on concrete reality, or the “surface” of things, is because I want to induce in myself, and the reader, certain feelings that are “pre-language,” certain feelings I’ve felt because of certain memories of concrete reality being in my head at certain times while a certain thing in concrete reality presently happens. I feel certain things sometimes not because of having analyzed something and not because of having thought up connections between certain things, but “simply” because concrete reality has displayed certain things to me.

For example the end of the novella causes me to feel something that if conveyed using abstract language would not, in my view, be as effective or accurate as it is conveyed through “surface” details. It is possible to convey the feeling of the end of the novella using abstract language, or a simile. or something, but I chose to convey it through an organized accumulation (throughout the entire novella, ideally) of “surface” details, in part because that’s what I think made me feel it.

Additionally, I’m interested in Buddhist thinking, and wanted to write a book where the focus is only on concrete reality, on the direct and “pre-language” experience of concrete reality, in a context of “time passing.” An unmediated experience of reality seems desirable to me sometimes. None of these reasons, in my view, have anything to do with “numbness,” “ennui,” “apathy,” “condemning my generation,” “saying [anything] about my generation,” “saying [anything] about society,” “saying [anything] about the state of the world,” or “saying [anything] about technology’s effect on people.”

“Therefore people who claim they have no control over their actions will still be affected by their actions.”

Rumpus: I’m intrigued by this statement, “by learning to view life as a book already written rather than a book to be written.” This philosophy would seem to obviate people of responsibility for their actions. If everything that is going to happen is fixed, people can claim they have no control over their actions. For example, a person who steals. It’s a deterministic view. This has important implications I  think. What are your thoughts on that? (According to the definition of determinism as used by the Oxford English Dictionary Online (“OED Online“): 1) The philosophical doctrine that human action is not free but necessarily determined by motives, which are regarded as external forces acting upon the will. 2) The doctrine that everything that happens is determined by a necessary chain of causation.)

Tao Lin: My “overarching” thought about this is that I want to view things, firstly, existentially and not morally: to me, ideally, everything is equally important, therefore the word “important” doesn’t mean anything to me. On a moral level, though, basing morality on concrete reality, as that is where pain and suffering exists (in that someone can’t hurt another person by only thinking things or only feeling things, and someone can’t kill someone else unless they do it in concrete reality), it doesn’t seem relevant to me whether or not a person “feels” responsible for their actions. If five people “feel responsible” and cause a certain amount of pain to other people in concrete reality, and ten people don’t feel responsible but have refrained from causing pain in concrete reality, the “ten people” situation seems morally preferable to me.

Anyone who exists in concrete reality will experience “cause and effect” (which is maybe the concrete version of “responsibility”). No person in concrete reality is exempt from “cause and effect” (or “gravity”). Therefore people who claim they have no control over their actions will still be affected by their actions.

On a moral level, additionally, I think I have always acknowledged that I’m unsure how to satisfactorily refute a “determinist” view of the world (that the first thing caused the second thing, causing the third thing, in a kind of inescapable and impenetrable closed system of cause-and-effect, where there seems to be no “choice” except the “choice” of the first thing existing or not existing) and I don’t think it has affected my morals at all. I currently “know” that I don’t have free will, but this doesn’t affect how I act or think in terms of my effect on others. I think this is because morals is on a different spectrum than whatever spectrum “determinism thoughts” is on. A “determinist” view of the world can cause a person to act where they might previously not act (by making them feel less nervous or afraid, maybe), but the content of the act itself, I think, is more influenced by other things. I’m not sure what exactly. Probably a combination of societal pressure, evolution (that humans have evolved to want to avoid “pain,” and so will avoid doing something that might cause them to feel “pain” whether vicariously or directly), what one has learned is right or wrong, and how accurately one knows the effects of their actions.

Schopenhauer said something like that life should be viewed as a book already written, instead of a book one writes, so as to gain some kind of detachment and reduce one’s suffering. I don’t remember if he elaborated on that. But he was thinking about it as a personal philosophy to reduce one’s suffering, not a philosophy to hurt people without feeling responsible.

“I think in order to view a work of art as nihilistic one would need to view the work of art as existing not in this world, but in its own world.

Rumpus: Your work has been called nihilistic–see the review of SFAA by The Village Voice. This reminds me of Madison Smartt Bell’s comments in his 1986 essay “Less is Less” in which he described as nihilistic the writing of the new wave of writers in the mid-eighties–writers who would later sometimes be grouped together and called “K-Mart Realists.” The OED Online defines nihilism as: “Total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws, etc., often from a sense of despair and the belief that life is devoid of meaning.” What do you think about having your work called nihilistic?

Tao Lin: I’m not sure what I think. According to that definition I don’t think my work is nihilistic, but that definition seems vague and almost more like a feeling, so maybe I would agree with someone if they said that my work “seems” nihilistic. I don’t think I would agree if someone said that my work “is” nihilistic. I don’t think my work rejects anything. As a person I can say that I don’t reject anything, or don’t want to reject anything. I would like to have the abililty to calmly acknowledge that all things are equally legitimate, from their own perspectives, or from certain perspectives. If my work rejects anything it rejects “feeling bad,” or it wants to in that it functions, in part, as a way for me to convince myself to not feel bad.

On a literal or “obvious” level the writers who Madison Smartt Bell called nihilist are not nihilists, I think. Those writers follow laws, to some degree, probably, because they aren’t in jail right now (people who totally reject laws are probably in jail), and some of them are religious, or talk about religion a lot. Joy Williams has many essays that reference religion in a non-rejecting manner. Those writers’ characters also follow laws and moral principles. They aren’t in jail. They sometimes have jobs. They function in small communities or families. Some are religious, I think. Even if religion or morality are not written about in a book it doesn’t mean the book is rejecting religion or morality. Many books do not discuss swimming pools or airplanes and I think people would agree that those books do not necessarily reject swimming pools or airplanes. The authors have just chosen to focus on other things.

Beyond that literal level I think in order to view a work of art as nihilistic one would need to view the work of art as existing not in this world, but in its own world. If one views the art as a person’s creation, that (the art and the person) together seems life affirming, to me, in that a person has, in their life, created something and shared it with society. I don’t know what a person who feels that “life is devoid of meaning” would be like. It seems difficult to imagine what they would do each day. I feel they definitely wouldn’t work 8 hours a day editing a book. I don’t think I know what the word “meaning” references when applied to conscious beings. It seems “nearly impossible” for me to accurately and earnestly call someone a nihilist.

Rumpus: Do you think The New Yorker has a particular aesthetic with respect to the stories that it publishes? Could you define what that aesthetic is?

Tao Lin: I feel I haven’t read enough New Yorker stories to define their aesthetic satisfactorily. Lorrie Moore appears regularly in the New Yorker and Rebecca Curtis appears sometimes and they each seem distinctive to me in tone and sense of humor and also in prose style (Lorrie Moore especially, re prose style) and so maybe the New Yorker‘s aesthetic is wide-ranging enough to be beyond definition, in terms of myself. I also know that the New Yorker used to publish Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison often (something like 30-40 of their stories), in the 80′s, and their stories are much different in focus and tone than many of the stories I’ve read in the New Yorker in the 90′s or 00′s, so from that I know that the New Yorker‘s short story aesthetic is changing over time, which is another reason I feel “uneasy” defining their aesthetic.

Rumpus: There is a significant shift from Eeeee Eee Eeee to SFAA in that SFAA is more realistic whereas Eeeee Eee Eeee has “surreal” elements. [By surreal, I'll use the definition of the OED Online: "Having the qualities of surrealist art; bizarre, dreamlike."] Bed did not have surreal elements. Do you feel more comfortable writing in one mode as opposed to the other, real or surreal?

Tao Lin: I feel comfortable writing in either modes. My books that don’t have concretely surreal elements usually feel surreal to me in tone. Real life often seems “dreamlike” to me. I like viewing real life as a dream. I like writing about it as if it were a dream.

“I think I view everything as fiction. Or, more accurately, I think I view everything as “[whatever word one wants to use to indicate 'all things' or 'itself'].”"

Rumpus: In a very funny and thorough 2005 post called “k-mart, k-mart realism; the rise, struggle, decline of” on your blog (which was then called “Reader of Depressing Books”), you noted under the section called “the decline,”  that Frederick Barthelme had not published a story in The New Yorker since sometime before 1992 and “will not publish another story in The New Yorker ever.” What did you mean by that statement?

Tao Lin: I think I meant only that in the time the blog post covered he did not publish another story in The New Yorker, not that he won’t publish another story in The New Yorker ever again.

Rumpus: I have heard you call SFAA an autobiographical novella. What to you makes SFAA different from a work of non-fiction?

Tao Lin: Some events and dialogue in SFAA are moved around from how they are in my memory of real life. The dialogue is edited down, and I structured it and edited it like it was a novel. Honestly, though, I don’t know how it differs to me from non-fiction, because I would edit and structure non-fiction also. I think I just don’t really make distinctions for what is non-fiction and what is fiction, even when I read other books. When I read Lydia Davis’ THE END OF THE STORY, which is labeled as a novel, I assume the narrator is Lydia Davis and that everything in the book happened to her, and that she is using her memory as a first draft. But I know she is writing about a former self, so she seems, to me, to still be writing about someone else. I think I view all memoirs as fiction, if only because it’s based on memory. I think I view documentaries, even, as fiction, on some level, because everyone is “acting” to some degree at all times. I think I view everything as fiction. Or, more accurately, I think I view everything as “[whatever word one wants to use to indicate 'all things' or 'itself'].”

Rumpus: Why did you choose to cover a period of two years in SFAA? It seems like a lot to fit into a-hundred-and-three pages. How did you choose which details to place in your novella?

Tao Lin: Two years felt artistically satisfying to me. In earlier drafts it ranged from one and a half years to three years. I think what influenced me most re what I included in the novella was that I wanted the novella to be calm and somewhat non-dramatic, so as to intensify the prose style’s effects. I edited out or edited down certain dramatic passages. I edited out something where Sam argued with his brother. Scene-wise I wanted the novella to skip amounts of time in a consistent manner, so that it would be consistently non-sequiturish on a scene level. Books or movies that move forward in a consistently elliptical manner are emotional to me; they make me think about how lives move sort of “crazily” toward death. An example to me of a book like that is Richard Yates’ THE EASTER PARADE which covers something like 45 years, or 50 years, in around 220 pages without noticeably abberant skips in time.

Rumpus: While twenty years ago, writers who shunned large social or political issues for “tiny domestic ones” as Tom Wolfe put it in the essay referred to earlier, were denounced, it seems odd to be having that conversation today. Yet, the conversation is still happening in some form or another. While the minimalism, spare language and domestic scenes of Lydia Davis and Christine Schutt are now accepted and even praised, the conversation has shifted and become one of general “weight.” In a review for The New York Times, David Means even called Lydia Davis “maximalist” for her ability to convey, with respect to her characters, despite the domesticity of their circumstances, a sense of the “enormity of their situations.” It seems as if the bar keeps shifting with respect to what is defined as “weighty.” Do you think critics might be concerned that your work is not “weighty”?

Tao Lin: I think ~3 years ago I sometimes felt pressure, from reading those types of articles and reviews and listening to people say that certain books are more important than other books, to include terrorism or cancer or 9/11 in my work, and I did sometimes, though secondarily and with some amount of sarcasm, in the stories in BED.

Today I don’t think about “weightiness,” I think, except literally. 200 words about [anything] are viewed, ideally, as equal, to me, to 200 words about [anything else]. Today I feel unable, or maybe unwilling (due to it contradicting the way I want to view things, as I talked about elsewhere in this interview), to non-sarcastically process or earnestly comprehend articles that use the words “important,” “weighty,” etc. non-sarcastically.

If I were to engage myself in qualitative abstractions, and somehow train myself to “block out” that the universe is arbitrary, I think the conversation between critics and writers about what is “weighty” still wouldn’t be comprehensible to me. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine focused exclusively on things like the sound of peanut butter jars being opened, and I feel like people didn’t dismiss that book as unimportant or unweighty. Lorrie Moore’s stories often feature suicidal characters or dying characters or characters that are thinking a lot about death, and she has been called a practitioner of “tea towel fiction,” I think. Camus’ The Stranger seems universally regarded as important and weighty, and it seems to me to be about “the indifference of the universe,” which is not usually viewed as a large social or political issue, I think.

I think for those reasons, and other reasons, I feel that for me to consider “weightiness” while writing, or to just think earnestly about “weightiness,” ever, wouldn’t make sense at all to me. It would seem weird, like I was in a science-fiction movie. It would be like if critics started writing about how novels need to have more toy poodles in them. And I read their articles and felt pressured and earnestly put a lot of toy poodles in my writing.

Rumpus: In his essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” in which Tom Wolfe speaks negatively about “K-Mart realism,” Tom Wolfe describes a scene in which Leonard Bernstein has invited some Black Panthers to his home to speak to socialites about their “ten-point program” for a revolution. He states the socialites were “giddy with nostalgie de la boue.” Nostalgie de la boue is defined by the OED Online as “A longing for sexual or social degradation; a desire to regress to more primitive social conditions or behaviour than those to which a person is accustomed.” Do you ever feel nostalgie de la boue?

Tao Lin: I think I do constantly. But I also feel a constant longing for the opposite, I think, to “make progress” or be productive. And I also feel a constant longing to accept what I have, to “remain” where I am physically/metaphysically, in a kind of acceptance or Zen. The combination of those three longings, as applied to all aspects of my life, within a context of unidirectional time ending in “death,” might be the “central confusion” of my life.

***

All illustrations by Tao Lin. Illustrations in order of appearance:

1) tree-swinging sasquatch

2) toy poodle

3) sasquatch sitting at bench at night experiencing the full effect of the loneliness of existence

4) book covers of Tao Lin’s books (2006-2009)

5) buddhist tyrannasaurus rex

6a) sad pteradactyl living a life of fear and anxiety

6b) pteradactyl in rare moment of happiness


Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →