You could be forgiven for thinking that Tao Lin was desperate to be liked. You could be fooled by his obsessive management of his literary blog (reader-of-depressing-books.blogspot.com), his daily email harassment of New York's Gawker.com, the fact that—although I don't know him—he sent a (still pending) request to be my friend on a social networking site. But he'll be the first to tell you: He doesn't care if you like him, because being liked is a meaningless abstraction, just like "respect," "decency" or "Elijah Wood."
Lin's debut novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee (Melville House Books, 212 pages, $15)—which is being published concurrently with his debut short-story collection, Bed—is likewise eager to demonstrate the meaninglessness of almost everything else. Absurdist memes like Jhumpa Lahiri, sledgehammers, hypothetical murder, murder-by-dolphin, teleporting bears and OCD pop-culture speculations ("Domino's is the more cutting edge version of Pizza Hut... What is Denny's the more cutting edge version of?") are machine-gunned throughout the book with such conspicuous irrelevance that every possible cultural reference starts to seem interchangeable. Even adjectives are often used sarcastically, sidestepping meaning in favor of flat affect.
But what's the book about, you ask? Wrong question. There are characters, of course—Andrew, Andrew the bear, Mark, Ellen, hamsters, the president, Salman Rushdie—but little in the way of recognizable "plot." This is fine by me. Andrew works at Domino's Pizza and misses his girlfriend. Ellen sits at home in the dark. Mark likes Spiderman. I should also mention that in this book animals can talk and dolphins can hold sledgehammers with their flippers and you can "network" with the president by "calling him up," and that these circumstances are accepted by everyone in the book with the bland apathy of the clinically depressed.
The entire world of the book, in fact, seems to be organized according to the knee-jerk existentialism and defensive sarcasm of a depressed high-school senior. As in Mark Leyner's early '90s college-campus hit My Sister, My Gastroenterologist, boredom and anomie are the rule, identity is suspect, and it's all pretty funny.
The book's brightest moments, although they are distributed thinly—the ones that could validate all the prodigious adolescent slapstick—are the ones in which we can see around or beyond the limited juvenilia to a broader perspective, so that the book is not condemned to the cheapened world views of its characters. This occurs, for example, when the dolphins congratulate themselves for their beautiful sadness, or when Mark is desperate for sincerity in the face of Andrew's po-mo fast talk.
That is to say, I wish Lin could more often trade in his sarcasm for a more genuine, literary sense of irony (Kafka's would do nicely), so that a larger world is met, understood and transformed, rather than compressed and depleted. .
Tao Lin reads from Eeeee Eee Eeee on Thursday, Aug. 2, at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Free.