Tuesday, May 29, 2007

you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin

Action Books, 2006

Reviewed by Mike Young

Thanks to a recent book by a Princeton philosophy professor, we can now feel swell about incorporating one of our best words into critical dialogue: bullshit. In Tao Lin's first book of poems, you are a little bit happier than i am, Lin attempts to dismantle the bullshit of self-deception.

But dismantle seems like a tame word. Really, this book drops a calm, neutral-faced sledgehammer asteroid on many of lyric poetry's familiar gestures: assured speakers, linguistic sweetening, and any attempt to convince the reader of the world's latent morality, the wise old sea coddling the boat. Not that Lin isn't looking. He just doesn't want to lie. In "book reviewers always praise books as ‘life-affirming’ because the more humans there are on earth the better," Lin describes a video of a bull's death. The reader watches along, winces, ready for the poet to sing us all out of our guilt. And here comes the end:

      and now the bullfighter is cutting off the bull's ears
      from behind, and the bull is on the ground, and shivering
      as if it were cold, and just wanted a blanket, and a bed
      and i deleted this line
      and i deleted this line, too, in revisions
      and i deleted this line that was talking about god
      and this line was also talking about god and it said something about the
      universe and i deleted it
      and this line kept talking about semantics and i deleted it

Wait, what happened? What happened to rhetoric that pats our head and "lets us off the hook"? This spirit of bullshit omission—revising not just lines of poetry but also fuzzy-headed thinking—gives these poems a tone of totalitarian sincerity. Which is scary, sure, and a little annoying. As Lin puts it in the long prose poem "i Am 'i Don't Know What i Am' And You Are Afraid Of Me And So Am i": "I am so afraid of myself that my afraidness scares you more than it scares me."

Speaking of philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas sometimes floats through these poems (see: "i am 'you' to you"), Lin reminding us that we can't quite get from Self to You. In his poem "in manhattan on 29th street across the avenue then over the railing there is a little beach," Lin speaks to his friend: "you had cancer or something so they excised your flesh / there were other problems with your lymph nodes." This isn't immature or sloppy language; this is a true transcription of interminable doubt, of sitting on a plastic stool next to a hospital bed and trying to attach the name of the disease to the shaky hands in front of you, pretending with your own hands and knowing, really, that you aren't even close. Yet Lin is almost sure, like us, that a real knowledge of love would still the terror of seeing and being an Other: "There should be something about you / in this poem. But // there is just me, being stupid."

That takes care of about 3/4 of these poems. Thankfully, even with the saucer-eyed, frightened moose philosophy, Lin is still alive. And that means he is finding some way to reckon. This reckoning arrives via somersaults of wit and imagination that recall the Kenneths Patchen and Koch, giddy with caffeine. Which means: tangerines, elves, laundry machines sending emails, hamsters assembling outside Tokyo, bears "climbing buildings and falling off and falling on baby carriages and old women," genies, secret passageways, ninjas, and beach balls. Why is this not bullshit? Because if the universe is really so cruel and indifferent, we can retaliate by replacing "bullshit" with "talking shit." And Lin talks shit about the "absurd" with the pure and brilliant relish of the best escapist, euphoric now and then to be alone in his head.

To explain this blend of murk and mirth is pretty much impossible. That blend is the book, its identity and strength. On one hand, yes, Lin favors flat and accurate articulation of feeling over language play: one of his favorite phrases and things to think about is the "side of your face," which with every repetition becomes less clunky and scientific, until finally defamiliarizing and reigniting the whole idea of "beauty." But Lin doesn't need to dazzle to entertain. To dazzle, anyway, is to blind. Lin would rather return the reader to the clarity of silliness. Tao Lin is not a robot. Several poems addressed to particular people—old friends who work at Circuit City, who are stuck in smalltown Florida—are so hot with empathy that they stir you dizzy and drained, in the way of that favorite sad song over and over, that way of feeling distant but okay.

In this book, Lin doesn't really feel okay. Sometimes he gets close, but most of the time he recognizes that he is, in the parlance of all annoyingly accurate punks, "fucked." Yet after their monotone bleakness, Lin's poems deliver the indifferent universe and the bullshit of rhetoric a shit-faced grin, polite and giving enough to hope that the reader ends up okay. We are with Lin the whole time, in a "yes, oh wow, I hope no one's looking, I've been there" sort of way, especially with him in bed, at 4:30 am, in his poem "4:30 AM:"

      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially

And so on for a page and a half, the blink and click of it all, until, finally:

      thank you for reading my poem

I am probably a little bit happier than Tao Lin, but I am glad his poems are here to call me on my bullshit, to make me think about the rhetoric of my happiness, and to give me—just before running away—a nervous high-five.


Tao Lin (b. 1983) is the author of a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and a story-collection, Bed, (Melville House, 2007). Tao's blog is Reader of Depressing Books.


Mike Young co-edits NOÖ Journal , a free literary/political magazine. His own fiction and poetry have appeared in Juked, elimae, MiPOesias, BlazeVOX, Pindeldyboz, and elsewhere. Visit him at "Dragonfly on a Dog Chain."