January 16, 2012

Tao Lin speaks about the day his father was sentenced to prison


Hua Hsu, writing in The Atlantic, once made the following observation about Tao Lin, author of the Melville House titles Bed, Eeeee Eee Eeee, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Shoplifting from American Apparel, and Richard Yates:

[T]here’s something unusual about a writer being so transparent, so ready to tell you every insignificant detail of a seemingly eventful day, so aware of his next novel’s word count, yet also remaining so opaque, mysterious, “inscrutable.”

The tension between the factual surface and the mysterious emotional reality is in display in Lin’s contribution to the new anthology The Moment, “a collection of personal stories from writers both famous and obscure revealing how a single instant changed their lives forever” edited by Larry Smith. Lin’s personal essay, excerpted at Salon.com, describes how his father was sentenced to 70 months in prison for attempting to manipulate the value of his company’s stock, the emotional impact this had on his father and his family, and the surprisingly positive impact the prison term had on Lin’s father. Though Lin addresses the emotional impact of the experience very directly (unlike his “concrete/literal” style which eschews all emotional description), there remains a clinical, detached element to his descriptions. When he writes, “I felt a dizzying confusion, like the moment between falling and recovering, but sustained,” the language has a scientific quality, like a diagnosis.

There’s an intriguing phrase midway through the piece where Lin describes his brother and mother’s response to the news:

After the sentencing I looked at my brother. He seemed catatonic with emotion. My mom’s eyes were wet and red and she was smiling, weakly and awkwardly, like a stroke patient.

In both cases, powerful emotions are compared to physical illnesses, and in both cases the illnesses are paralytic in nature. The phrase “catatonic with emotion” seems particularly odd and revealing about Tao Lin’s writing style. When emotion is compared to a medical condition, it is typically compared to an active one: a seizure or an attack. But for Lin, emotional states bring about a kind of rigidity, are akin to the “inscrutable” illnesses: strokes and comas.

Psychological considerations aside, the literary impact of Lin’s technique is to create a deep suspense regarding emotional states. Like a scientist, Lin lays out the evidence and details of the “case” without indulging in “claims” about the emotional subsurface. Lin describes himself crying, but does not explain why he cries. Interestingly, Lin’s essay concludes with his father learning to be more emotionally self aware while in prison. In a letter to Lin’s mother, the first in 20 years, “my dad said he had become too focused on business and had forgotten to care for my mom, for people.” The topic and style of Lin’s essay address the mysteries involved with expressing emotion—the difficulty for an individual to express his/her feelings, the uncertainty of discerning emotions in others, and the literary challenge of representing emotion accurately in language without slipping into sentimentality or presumption.