Thursday, June 23, 2011

What It’s Like Is What It Is - #37

STORY: "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues" by Tao Lin

FROM: BED (Melville House Publishing, 2007)

BASICALLY: A self-conscious 23-year-old tries desperately to take on the appearance of a normal, functional life. Though he can barely talk to a teenage girl who works at the library with him, she seems oblivious to his awkwardness. When she invites him to toilet paper some guy's house with her and her friends, he goes along, but the experience only seems to fill him with more doubt.

Tao Lin is apparently some kind of hipster literary darling. (It's good work if you can get it. I imagine.) After reading "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues," I can see the appeal. It's not exactly tightly-plotted, and the ending doesn't so much resolve as cut off, leaving the last lines hovering there in the darkness, but he orchestrates a towering moodiness and links it inextricably to a particular time of life. Youth is foremost, with all its attendant miseries, anxieties, and personal failures as it flowers painfully into adulthood. Sometimes Lin reminds me of Douglas Coupland back before everything Douglas Coupland wrote began to disappoint me.

The fact that Coupland, who really can be great, had such a hard time sustaining the Voice of Disaffected Youth makes me curious to know whether Lin can write in only this one voice, or whether he's got any range, because I think it's got to be very hard to be able to Speak For a Generation and still come up with other meaningful works that don't try to Be That Same Thing. I'm using a lot of Capitalized Phrases right now, but what I'm trying to point out is the way some authors' writing can be become kinds of writing, types of writing, and probably in a future entry I'll have to figure out whether Tao Lin succumbs to that or is able to break free of it. Even if he does succumb, of course, it doesn't negate the fact that, in "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues" at least, he does something pretty cool.

What kept occurring to me as I was reading was that it would be so easy for a story like this to be completely boring. The protagonist, Greg, is weak. He's frequently passive, always self-incriminating, and his story opens on and returns to long passages of expository summation.
That kind of gnawing offness that Greg always felt, that constant knowledge that he was doomed in small but myriad ways, intensified in the presence of people, became immediate and insufferable, like a rat in the stomach. So after his parents sold the house and retired to California, Greg moved alone into an apartment behind a rundown 24-hour supermarket. 
It goes on in that vein for quite a while—for three and a half pages, in fact, everything we learn about Greg comes through the narrator's explanations and not through any action on his part.

As anyone who's ever taken a workshop class knows, this is Not How It's Done. Start with action! Into the pot boiling! The last thing in the world you want to do is give your character's whole history right up front—that shit's gotta work its way in through dialogue and flashback and other Artfully Applied Techniques! …And usually, that's great advice. But, in spite of All the Clever Things I Know, I enjoyed Lin's approach. He has a way of mucking around in the dullest, most quotidian details of experience and finding the warped little gems.

I suspect that Lin's ability to tell a story this way relates to what author/teacher John Dufresne says in THE LIE THAT TELLS A TRUTH: "The only reason to ever describe a tree is to show how it is different from any other tree." Well, Lin describes boredom, listlessness, uncertainty, and shyness in terms that are anything but customary. After Greg moves out on his own at the beginning of the story, 
His meals became larger and less often, like a crocodile's. He'd eat an entire package of bacon or a box of frosty muffins, sleep for 20 hours, and then masturbate, languishingly, to all his crushes from middle and high school. 
I love how this has the ring of universal truth, but is so specific to the nature of this character. Lin could have told us that Greg was lonely and angst-ridden and thought a lot about his past, but it wouldn't have had the power of these details. Equally, he could have given us a scene of Greg being bored, of doing nothing—but who wants to see boredom dramatized? We all know what boredom is. This story unfolds the unique crevasses of Greg's particular ennui, but it also keeps blazing forward.

Lin's also great with the similes—the word crocodile was my first hint of the kind of voice we're dealing with. In fact, Lin frequently uses similes to buffer his exposition. Greg "became nocturnal and strange," he tells us outright, but continues, "taking on all the impatience and bipolarity of a young child , without any of the charm or smooth complexion." As Greg struggles to fit more easily into society, he reads self-help books and tries to start calling people by their names because 
It would be interpreted as friendly. And though his voice still sounded small and weepy to him, like gerbils let into a swamp, Greg felt good to be saying people's names. To be making some kind of progress.
For some readers, I suppose the constant similes could get grating. If I read more Lin and find that this is always his technique, that he always describes people in the same way and uses similes to couch his explanations, then I'll be less impressed. But for this story, about a suburban guy trying to find some meaning and some forward momentum in his unremarkable life, I think Tao Lin's technique works beautifully to find the beating heart at the center of one person's nothingness.


Beach Sloth said...

I like the direction of your project.

Lisa Barrow said...

Thanks! And, I gotta say, I enjoyed your magnificent interpretation of the most recent Transformers movie. Thanks for swinging by!

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