As a young novelist who writes almost exclusively about young people (specifically, his friends and himself), Tao Lin has unsurprisingly been tagged – or burdened – with the ‘voice of his generation’ label, and said to resemble such writers as Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis. But the ‘voice of his generation’ who came to mind while I was reading Lin’s books was Jack Kerouac. It’s not the most obvious comparison, perhaps: their prose styles are very different, and one of the few other people to have seen some resemblance points out that ‘entire Lin paragraphs could be housed in a single Kerouac sentence.’ More obliquely, Lin has been included in a loose collection of writers one critic has called the ‘Offbeat Generation’.
It was Lin’s poetry, which seems less shaped and more spontaneous than his fiction, that first made me think of Kerouac (Kerouac’s verse is, I think, worse than Lin’s; both are better suited to prose). It occurred to me then that, in his fiction, Lin presents his own life as openly and transparently as Kerouac did, and that Shoplifting from American Apparel, the book of Lin’s I like best, shares with On the Road (which is much more rambling and long-winded) a kind of sense-making shapelessness. Neither writer tells moral tales, not even in the muted post-Chekhovian manner of most contemporary fiction; both simply depict stretches of life. That similarity seems connected with another: Lin, like Kerouac, espouses in interviews a quasi-Buddhist acceptance of all things.
Truman Capote famously said of On the Road: ‘That isn’t writing; it’s typing.’ It could be said that Lin’s fiction isn’t writing, but cutting and pasting (and not the old-fashioned kind, which would at least get his hands dirty with ink and glue). But that would be to elevate process above result; what matters is what’s on the page. And if a writer is able to challenge received ideas about what a ‘serious’ novel is supposed to look like, so much the better. Lin has done so not only with his fiction but in a pretty funny piece of literary criticism from 2007, ‘The Levels of Greatness a Fiction Writer Can Achieve in America’.