Podcast: Tao Lin at the Brookline Booksmith [MP3]


If you track 26 year-old writer Tao Lin’s literary trajectory via his Internet presence and self-promotional stunts, it’s easy to get the sense that he’s on the brink of something really big. The Brooklyn-based author’s follower-to-followees ratio on Twitter is steadily climbing, his MySpace account was recently purchased for a ludicrous sum of $8,100 by an investment banker, and the buzz surrounding his latest work, a novella called Shoplifting From American Apparel, appears to trump that of his prior writings (two poetry collections, a book of short stories and a novel called Eeeee Eee Eee) in both sheer volume and praise. In a world constructed by e-definitions, Lin is a burgeoning success.

But it’s unclear whether or not the success Lin has cultivated on the Web can be reconciled with a tantamount “real-life” reputation: The NYU graduate was met in the basement of the Brookline Booksmith for his reading Thursday night by a handful of lit-savvy, college-aged vegetarian types and a few gawkers who’d likely been enticed by the word “shoplifting” in the novella’s title. The event was short, awkward, subdued, and peppered with nervous laughter — a lot like Shoplifting From American Apparel itself, but decidedly far removed from the hype that Lin’s Internet presence would imply.

That his Web presence precedes his real-world status might not be an altogether bad thing. For Lin, the discrepancy between a career created on the Internet and one played out in the “real world” offers excellent fodder for the existentially minded protagonists of his work, who are mostly autobiographical. Sam, the main character of the minimalistic Shoplifting From American Apparel, spends much of his time talking to his peers on Gmail chat. Lin’s candid exploration of Sam’s Web existence (and by extension, his own) is full of melancholy, tension, and hilarity — largely uncharted territory for the literary world until very recently.

Sam’s Gmail chats with Luis, who bears uncanny similarities to Lin’s Seattle contemporary Brandon Scott Gorrell, are particularly illuminating. In the opening passages of the novella, Sam and Luis are chatting online late one evening, and Luis says: “Do you sometimes look up from the computer and look around the room and know you are alone, I mean really know it, then feel scared.” He then asks: “What are we going to do … We met each other in real life and didn’t talk that much.”

Their despondence is unsettling, especially when Sam signs offline to masturbate. But later, when Sam confides in Luis about his family moving and about being arrested for shoplifting, they share an Internet-fostered moment of tenderness. “Are you okay, my friend,” Luis writes to Sam. “I feel like petting your head … Don’t steal shit for a while … and try to make yourself happy in some way.” If nothing else, Lin is a master of pinpointing the ways in which the Internet and text messages can quell loneliness, while acknowledging that these faceless forms of communication probably created that loneliness to begin with.

--Carrie Battan

Here’s audio of Lin reading two excerpts from Shoplifting From American Apparel and the Q&A session that followed.

DOWNLOAD: Tao Lin at the Brookline Booksmith (recorded September 17th, 2009)

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