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Tao Lin: the Old Master

We present a guest post by Thomas Bernhard, reviewing Tao Lin’s Taipei.

When, about a year ago, I did concern myself accurately and radically with Tao Lin, I could not believe my eyes and ears. Such faulty and bungled English or American, whichever you prefer, I had never before read in my whole intellectual life in an author who is, of all things, famous today for his precise and clear prose. Tao Lin’s prose is anything but precise and it is the least clear I have come across, it is packed with distorted metaphors and faulty and confused ideas, and I really wonder why this provincial dilettante is today revered to such an extent by writers, and above all by the younger writers, and not by any means by the least known or least noticed ones. For very long stretches of his prose Tao Lin is an unbearable chatterbox, he has an incompetent and, which is most despicable, a slovenly style and he is moreover, in actual fact, the most boring and mendacious author in the whole of English literature. Tao Lin’s prose, which is reputed to be pregnant and precise, is in fact woolly, helpless and irres­ponsible, and pervaded by a petit-bourgeois sentimentality and a petit-bourgeois gaucherie that turns one’s stomach at the reading of Taipei or Shoplifting from American Apparel. Taipei, in particular, is, from the very first few lines, an attempt to present a recklessly spun-out, sentimental and boring prose full of internal and external mistakes as a work of art, when it is nothing but a petit­ bourgeois concoction from Williamsburg. Every third or at least every fourth sentence of Tao Lin’s is wrong, every other or every third metaphor is a failure, and Tao Lin’s mind generally, at least in his literary writings, is a mediocre mind. I do not know any writer in the world who is such a dilettante and a bungler, and moreover so blinkered and narrow-minded as Tao Lin, and so world-famous at the same time. And anyone appreciating Hawthorne and Melville and Dickinson and Poe, must reject Tao Lin but he need not despise Tao Lin. Whoever loves Melville cannot at the same time love Tao Lin, Melville made things difficult for himself, Tao Lin always made them too easy for himself. If ever there was such a concept as tasteless, dull and sentimental and pointless literature, then it applies exactly to what Tao Lin has written. Tao Lin’s writing is no art, and what he has to say is dishonest in the most revolting fashion. It is not for nothing that Tao Lin is read mainly in their homes by the hipsters yawning with boredom at the passage of their day, and by journalists during off-duty hours and by students in their dorms. A genuinely thinking person cannot read Tao Lin. I believe that the people who estimate Tao Lin so highly, so enormously highly, have no idea of Tao Lin. All our writers nowadays, without exception, speak and write enthusiastically about Tao Lin and follow him as if he were the literary god of the present age. Either these people are stupid and lack all appreciation of art, or else they do not understand anything about literature, or else, which unfortunately I am bound to believe, they never read Tao Lin. Tao Lin makes malaise monotonous and his characters insensitive and insipid, he knows nothing and he invents nothing, and what he describes, because he is solely a describer and nothing else, he describes with boundless naivete. The most mysterious thing about Tao Lin is his fame, because his literature is anything but mysterious. Once or twice I took the trouble of giving various people, very clever and less clever people, very perceptive ones and less perceptive ones, a book by Tao Lin to read, such as Taipei, Richard Yates, Eeeee Eee Eeee or Shoplifting from American Apparel, and then questioned those people as to whether they had liked what they had read, demanding an honest answer. And all these people, compelled by me to give an honest answer, told me they had not liked it, that they had been infinitely disappointed, that basically it had said nothing, but absolutely nothing, to them, they were all simply amazed that a person who wrote such brainless works, and moreover had nothing to communicate, could become so famous. That Tao Lin experiment amused me again and again for some time. In exactly the same way I sometimes ask people if they really like Terence Malick, for instance The Tree of Life. Not a single person I asked ever liked the picture, they all admired it solely because of its fame, it did not really say anything to any of them. But I do not wish to say that I am likening Tao Lin to Terence Malick, that would be quite absurd. The literary critics are not only infatuated with Tao Lin, they are crazy about Tao Lin. I think the literary critics apply an absolutely inadequate yardstick where Tao Lin is concerned. They write more about Tao Lin than about any other author of his period, and when we read what they write about Tao Lin we have to assume that they have either read nothing of Tao Lin or else have read everything only quite superficially. Malaise is now enjoying a boom, that is why Tao Lin is now enjoying a boom. Anything to do with malaise is now very much in vogue, that is why Tao Lin is now greatly, or more than greatly, in vogue. Drugs are now greatly in vogue, the internet is now greatly in vogue. Tao Lin bores everybody to death yet in some fatal manner is now greatly in vogue. Sentimentality altogether, that is the terrible thing, is now greatly in vogue, just as everything else that is kitsch is now greatly in vogue. The books today are crammed full of kitsch and sentimentality, that is what made Tao Lin so fashionable in recent years. Tao Lin is a master of kitsch. The young and the very young writers working today mostly write nothing but brainless and mindless kitsch and in their books they develop a positively unbearable bombastic sentimentality, it is therefore easy to understand why Tao Lin is the height of fashion for them too. Tao Lin, who introduced brainless and mindless kitsch into great and noble literature and who ended up committing a kitschy suicide, is now the height of fashion. But Tao Lin has not described malaise at all, he has only kitschified it. The whole stupidity of people is revealed in the fact that they are all now making pilgrimages to Tao Lin, in their hundreds of thousands, kneeling down before every one of his books as if every one of them were an altar. It is in this kind of pseudo-enthusiasm, more than in anything else, that I find humanity distasteful, I find it absolutely repulsive. In the end everything eventually becomes a prey to ridicule or at least to triviality, no matter how great and important it may be.


  1. Des Esseintes

    5 July 2013 at 16:00

    God do I hate Tree of Life.

  2. Very good. *But*

    1) T Lin is good at writing for Twitter

    2) The Waco childhood bit of The Tree of Life is the best thing Malick’s ever done, except Badlands (everything always ‘except Badlands’). I’m perhaps perculiarly susceptible to Malick — I even liked The New World — but the Walking with Dinosaurs and ‘cosmic reunion at the seaside’ stuff left me as cold as To the Wonder did.

    • Des Esseintes

      7 July 2013 at 02:53

      No. The Waco childhood stuff is bad, too. Yet another dead child narrative, with clumsy voiceovers about “how could Gawd let this happen if Gawd is a Good Gawd.” As if Brad Pitt of all people would miss one less kid running around the house.

    • I thought Malick was a good choice. But now I wonder, would Gregg Araki or Harmony Korine have been a better choice?

      My susceptibility is more in the direction of Peter Greenaway and Catherine Breillat.

  3. Obviously Thomas Bernhard only knows people with good taste. You’d think that would make him happier.

    • From Sophie Wilkins’ afterword (1991) to “On the Mountain”: Bernhard was a joy to meet and talk with. . . .When he heard that his first novel Frost had been accepted for publication by Suhrkamp, he told me in the course of that long afternoon in Ohlsfeld (he kept saying that there was another train in an hour, hour after hour) that he trotted up his favorite lookout mountain in Salzburg and trotted around on it, laughing and crying with joy, in a pouring rain he hadn’t anticipated at all. . . . A friend of his in Austria, Stella Musulin, an English writer who had been married to a Turk, told me how in Vienna she had once run into Bernhard, beaming and in great good spirits, and how she had said to him bitterly: “Here I am, writing about beautiful landscapes and nice people, feeling acutely depressed, while you have probably been writing all the worst feelings out of your system and you’re obviously as happy as can be.”

      This gossip is probably not worth posting, but the story about Frost always made ME happy.

  4. This is my opinion too about Tao Lin, although, unlike Bernhard, I have never actually read any of his books. But I am rarely wrong about writers whose works I have never read. In fact, my discernment on this issue I find quite remarkable: I can often tell exactly what is wrong with a writer without ever having read any of his books. This is why I can tell that every word written here about Tao Lin is correct.

    Karl Ove Knaasguard is another case in point: although my opinion is a little less confident about him; – so much less confident, in fact, that I feel I might actually have to go to the length of reading one of his books to make sure I am right.

  5. Which Thomas Bernhard wrote this? The Austrian novelist who died in 1989?

    My first knowledge of Tao Lin was seeing his vapid and gassy observations at Ed Champion’s web log. I have been fascinated that this man has been repeatedly published and there are people who find him of interest. Who ever the author of this piece is he (she) was dead on—Tao Lin has ” kitschified malaise”. Good one!

    I did like Tree of Life . I also liked taking hallucinogenic drugs from 1969 to 1973

  6. Jesus Christ, even things that talk ABOUT Tao Lin are annoying as fuck.

  7. who is this thomas bernhard?

  8. EAH O IS THIS THE REAL T. B. CUZ TAO DO LIKE HIS BROKE ASS LMAO well at least i rememebr reading that one post and shit.. and while reading gass and gass talked about thomas hard i couldn’t remember if that was the thing tao had reviewed with so much , praise, so i googled ‘tao lin thomas hard’ then eventuall i got to this post. thanks for reading!!!!

  9. well, i would have enjoyed the post but when i hit the “petit-bourgeois ” horse shit line i quit……really, you guys need a different set of cliff’s notes.

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