Tao Lin on The Cover of “The Stranger”


The Stranger (Sept. 23, 2010)
“Great American Novelist”
Subject: Tao Lin
Byline: Tao Lin
Photographer: Noah Kalina
Word count: 3223
Sentence length (words) : 25.36

Time (Aug. 23, 2010)
“Great American Novelist”
Subject: Jonathan Franzen
Byline: Lev Grossman
Photographer: Dan Winters
Word count: 3914
Sentence length (words): 14.68

Today The Stranger parodied, satirized, honored, pastiched, complicated, and/or reimagined (or somethinged) the Franzen-cover issue of Time (one of our nation’s other leading weeklies) by displaying Tao Lin on its cover. And by actually allowing Lin to profile himself.

The image seems an attempt at a near-exact replication, less a parody than a “parody/homage,” as Noah Kalina called it. Not unlike Lindsay Lohan recreating Marilyn Monroe for New York. But there’s no air of parody, commentary, or humor to New York‘s Monroe recreation. And it came some 46 years after the original. The Stranger‘s cover comes just 30 days after the original (one wonders about the production schedule, how this was planned).

But the text is an entirely different manner. Though it could work alone it’s obviously some kind of parody. This is complicated because Time‘s profile already reads like a parody, albeit unintentionally (it contains sentences like “The word freedom echoes down the corridors of Freedom” and turns of phrases like “The otters may not be worried. But Franzen is worried enough for all of us”). Also complicating the text’s delivery is that Lin’s life already seems like a parody of some other life. Then, after that, a parody of itself. Already a parody of a parody!

To summarize, this is an entity that is already a parody of a parody writing a parody of Lev Grossman’s profile of Jonathan Franzen, both of which (profile, Franzen) exude “unintentional parody.” And Lin is playing both the roles of Lev Grossman and Jonathan Franzen. And under the auspices of The Stranger‘s cover that is by definition not a parody, since it’s basically an exact replica, including text. The result is an impressively self-aware project that’s crazily ambiguous, murky, and/or complex in tone. Or that’s outside tone. Like how taste is outside sight.

Bafflingly, or not, Gawker completely missed or ignored the elements of parody or homage. Did Gawker believe The Stranger to have accidentally printed the exact same cover (and for Lin to have accidentally written a profile utilizing many of the same sentence structures as Time did a month ago)? Gawker, specifically Richard Lawson, seems to actually believe (or for some reason would like to convey that they believe) that The Stranger has earnestly proclaimed Lin to be a “Great American Novelist” (or “genius” as Gawker put it).

Did Gawker parody itself, for one post, to “wink at” The Stranger‘s parody? A quick scan of the profile would reveal that, even beyond being a parody, the profile is focused on revealing the ridiculousness of Lin’s life. Not the genius or greatness of it, but that he’s a “human” who’s shockingly, humorously inarticulate and confused, at least in person. Nate Freeman at The New York Observer noted Gawker’s failure to discern the feature in a non-literal way.

However it seems even funnier that Gawker completely failed to note the parody. Also funny is that Gawker actually published Lin less than 2 months ago! Reactions elsewhere on the internet seem equally, if less meanly, confused: Publishers Weekly, The Stranger commenter, The Alt Report.

Here’s some of the highlights of what Gawker failed to notice, intentionally or not (Lin on left, Grossman on right; Grossman is not chronological; dashes are purely to increase readability):

A mound of hamsters are asleep in a 20-gallon fish tank at Petco in Manhattan’s Union Square. There are seven of them, says a nonexistent woman in a baseball cap. She counted.

One of the humans perceiving the hamster pile is Tao Lin, a member of another species likely to manifest mysterious discomfort in a person who is vacuuming: the American literary novelist.

He’s a physically tenebrous guy, 5 ft. 7 in., with straight posture and a slightly zombielike expression one imagines to be the result of an imperceptibly rapid deviation […] between “almost crying” and “almost asleep.” At 27 (he turns 28 July 2), he is unnaturally socially anxious, with permanently self-cut hair.

Lin isn’t the richest or most famous living American human, but you could argue—I would argue—that he is one of the most nonjudgmental […] and also one of the best.

His first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee […] was arguably the literary phenomenon of the “fiction reviews” section of Bookslut.com’s May 2007 issue. His second novel, Richard Yates, arrives this month; like his first novel, it has a richly weird title, crafted with his signature blend of austere eccentricity and powerful atonality.


I’m in Petco to talk to Lin about this second novel […] Lin “thought it would be funny” to be profiled in a pet store


It’s hard to say exactly what makes Lin so uncomfortable. It could be me, or it could be the prospect of being on the cover of The Stranger (a legitimately unsettling prospect that puts him in the company of three-eyed kittens, promotional photos of breakfast sandwiches, a woman in a bikini holding a river bass, and, twice each, scaffolding and Dumpsters). It could be the much fretted-over standing of hamsters in America’s cultural-entertainment complex, or it could be the temporarily unsettling nature of The Human Centipede

The executive assistant job was not the kind of great American job that Lin’s literary predecessors had—not the kind Rhys and Beattie and Barthelme had. [Lin’s job at Angelica Kitchen] required him not to back down from complexity. Not simply a phone-answering job or a sandwich-making job or a vegetable-juicing job, it also required the chopping of uncut rolls of sushi into eight equal-sized pieces and pears into neat, aesthetically pleasing slices. But Lin doesn’t chop pears up that way. His learned and ancestral pear-chopping technique began with his birth in a Virginia hospital, which was the product of a mysteriously convoluted notion of what constitutes a pear that at some point took hold of his parents, causing them to move the Lin family to Orlando, Florida, and one night at Angelica Kitchen Lin accidentally chopped off a small piece of his forefinger, walked calmly to the back area, put on a “finger condom,” and returned to the food station, where he put on gloves, tried again with another pear, and so on.

Early readers of Richard Yates, including this one, have found that the book has a narcotic quality, the kind one usually associates with oxycodone or sleeping hamsters. This isn’t by accident. Lin is very conscious that, as carbohydrate intake increases, people are sleepier than ever.


[Phrases] like “hamster ass” and “ass and crotch rape” […] echo down the corridors of their lives


[The] idea proposed by Schopenhauer that there would be less suffering in the world if people greeted each other with “fellow sufferer” instead of “sir” or “monsieur.”

[Since] the onset of consciousness, through the stoics and pre-Taoists of B.C.—like Marcus Aurelius and Chuang Zhu—up to the humans of A.D., continuing with Fernando Pessoa and Michael Pollan and Oprah, the trend in human concern for food has remained unchanged.

[Lin] is focused—when not worried about his sleeping schedule, next social situation, if he e-mailed something to the wrong person, or if his checking account balance will be drastically lower than expected—on the cross-cultural, nongeographical, nongenerational concerns of human beings […] he doesn’t want to ignore, complicate, or simplify the commonalities of all humans and literal uniqueness of each human. Richard Yates, to Lin, is not about a subculture within a culture, a culture within a species, or even a species within a universe; it’s about what its 55,500 or so words convey, uniquely, to each human who reads it.

[Lin’s] brand’s main component is indisputably hamsters.

But not even Lin can talk hamsters all the time. “There was a time when I never talked about hamsters,” he mumbles in a near-inaudible drone

Hamsters are supposed to be pets for small children and alienated adults, or at least that’s why many believe they exist, but when Lin looks at them, that’s not what he sees […] he sees himself, but himself at his ideal, as a “thing” emanating nonjudgemental energy in front of a computer screen while categorically maintaining a neutral expression and sometimes typing. Hamsters don’t have messages or take vacations or believe there is good or bad in art, and neither does Lin.

“Hamsters just seem…funny,” Lin says, back in Petco, “and so does locking myself inside a big hamster-suit.”

A raft of sea otters are at play in a narrow estuary at Moss Landing, near Santa Cruz, Calif. There are 41 of them, says a guy in a baseball cap. He counted.


One of the humans admiring them is Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is a member of another perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist.


He’s a physically solid guy, 6 ft. 2 in., with significant shoulders, but his posture is not so much hunched as flinched. At 50 (he turns 51 on Aug. 17), Franzen is pleasantly boyish-looking, with permanently tousled hair.


Franzen isn’t the richest or most famous living American novelist, but you could argue — I would argue — that he is the most ambitious and also one of the best.


His third book, The Corrections, published in 2001, was the literary phenomenon of the decade. His fourth novel, Freedom, will arrive at the end of August. Like The Corrections, it’s the story of an American family, told with extraordinary power and richness.



I’m at Moss Landing to talk to Franzen about Freedom. Franzen is here to look at birds: he’s a bird watcher.


It’s hard to say exactly what makes Franzen so uncomfortable. It could be me, or it could be the prospect of being on the cover of Time (a legitimately unsettling prospect that puts him in the company of Salinger, Nabokov, Morrison and, twice each, Joyce and Updike) […] it could be the much fretted-over standing of the novel in America’s cultural-entertainment complex. Or it could be the permanently unsettling nature of the human predicament.


Freedom is not the kind of Great American Novel that Franzen’s predecessors wrote — not the kind Bellow and Mailer and Updike wrote. The American scene is just too complex — and too aware of its own complexity, for anything to loom that large over it ever again. But Freedom feels big in a different way, a way that not much other American fiction does right now. It doesn’t back down from the complexity. To borrow a term from the visual arts, Franzen’s writing has an enviable depth of field: it keeps a great deal in focus simultaneously. Freedom is not just a domestic novel or a political novel. Franzen doesn’t chop the world up that way. Walter Berglund’s political and environmental passions began in his lousy childhood, which was a product of the history of his family, who emigrated from Sweden, and the vagaries of the economy, which are in turn fatally bound up with the health of the environment, and so on.


Early readers of Freedom, including this one, have found that the book has an addictive quality, the kind one usually associates with mysteries or thrillers. This isn’t by accident. Franzen is very conscious that people are freer than ever — that word again — to spend their time and attention being entertained by things that aren’t books.


The word freedom echoes down the corridors of Freedom.


[The] philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of busyness: that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions.

After the literary megafauna of the 1990s — like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld — the novels of the aughts embraced quirkiness and uniqueness. They zoomed deep in, exploring subcultures, individual voices, specific ethnic communities.



[Franzen] remains a devotee of the wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now novel. In that sense he’s a throwback, practically a Victorian. His characters aren’t jewel thieves or geniuses. They don’t have magical powers, they don’t solve mysteries, and they don’t live in the future. They don’t bite one another, or not more than is strictly plausible. Freedom isn’t about a subculture; it’s about the culture. It’s not a microcosm; it’s a cosm.



Franzen’s main extravagance is watching birds

But not even Franzen can watch birds all the time. “There were a couple of years when I could enjoy blowing off a workday and going bird-watching,” he says

Birds are supposed to be free, or that’s what the song says, but when Franzen looks at them, that’s not what he sees […] When Franzen watches birds, he sees himself, but himself at his best, which is at work, miserable work, in his rented office, chewing tobacco (he’s still at it), shouting himself hoarse in front of his crippled laptop. Birds don’t take vacations, and neither does he.


“I’m already losing sleep,” Franzen says, “trying to figure out how to lock myself inside a big novel again.”

There are long stretches where Lin’s profile strays from Grossman’s. The David Foster Wallace thread, in the Grossman profile, was tactfully omitted by Lin. Elements of parody seem focused on Lev Grossman, rather than Franzen, which in the end could be a service to Franzen, who is undoubtably more complex and/or nuanced than Grossman’s profile would make him out to be (see Lin’s line about 10,000,000,000 words). This can be extrapolated to coverage of any person. Lin’s profile, in conjunction with the Grossman profile, simultaneously comments on the nature of profiles and incorporates that commentary into itself.

It’s rare that a print venue of this size (circulation: 87,874/week) allow this amount of freedom to a writer. And it isn’t the first time The Stranger has allowed Lin such freedom. In 2008 he “reviewed” Seattle in an article openly requiring no research. In 2007 he ranked “The Levels of Greatness A Fiction Writer Can Achieve In America.”

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