“While writing Taipei, I got into this habit of taking Adderall and staying up all day and night,” says the novelist Tao Lin. “That would be a good framing device [for your story] and I think you will be able to tell when I am peaking and coming down on Xanax or whatever.” We are sitting in Lin’s studio apartment in Murray Hill. There are rainbow Christmas lights across the wall and floor, and jagged mirrors appropriated from the street. Lin sits at a vanity turned desk, decorated with melted candles and lightbulbs covered in wax. His eyes are glimmery, and his DIY haircut is fuzzy and discordant. He is pushing around the 120 milligrams of Adderall he will take at some point tonight. “The longer I was awake the more intimate I felt with the novel. Sleeping reset that intimacy … I don’t even really have a reason to stay up anymore, but I don’t not have a reason either. I’m just, like, organizing my Gmail account for six hours.”
Lin and I had met up earlier that evening at a magazine party at the Jane Hotel. He had invited me so that we could chat about this profile I wanted to write about him. Five minutes into the party, Lin suggested that we go back to his place and just get on with it: I could observe his regular routine of taking drugs and not sleeping … and just write about that. Two hours later, I’m at his home.
Lin fumbles with a few plastic boxes containing, he says, Adderall, Xanax, heroin, cocaine, Percocet, Trazodone, Tramadol. He laughs, holding up two stamp-size squares of DMT.* “I will probably die soon,” he says, moving at slothlike pace. “But, I don’t know. These drugs sometimes, I think, aren’t as unhealthy or as extreme at all compared to, like, single mothers with two kids who sleep three hours a night. Or the average person who binge drinks every night and eats shitty food, or people who are in war …”
“I’ve been here fifteen minutes and this is already getting dark,” I say.
Lin laughs a little. “That seems good,” he says. “The book is … bleak.”
Taipei is the 29-year-old’s seventh book and his first with a major publisher (Vintage Books, a division of Random House). It’s about a writer named Paul, who plows his way through drugs, New York literary parties, and a relationship that culminates in an impromptu Vegas wedding and unfortunate honeymoon in Taipei; the whole story is cast with a sort of dreaminess that is helped by complicated descriptions of hallucinogenic drug use. It is arguably Lin’s strongest work.
His novels, stories, and poetry are taught in creative-writing programs across the country; he’s often invited to speak at colleges. Yet invoking his name in literary circles sparks divisiveness: He’s often referred to as a ‘self promoter’; the guy who incessantly e-mailed email@example.com; a writer who publicly sold shares of his last novel. Lin is painted as either the future of fiction — “a revolutionary,” as The Stranger called him in 2007 — or a “hipster” novelist, an artless cataloger of G-chats, whose books are so boring that a New York Times Book Review writer, in 2010, said that by the time he got to the last 50 pages of Lin’s second novel, Richard Yates, he “knew exactly how they felt” every time Lin’s characters said they wanted to kill themselves.
Some of this seems to be changing with Taipei. In his New York Times rave, Dwight Garner says the book has “distant echoes of early Hemingway, as filtered through Twitter and Klonopin.” (Though, to be sure, there are still those who are unimpressed.) Ben Lerner, the National Book Award–nominated poet and Fulbright Scholar whose Leaving the Atocha Station was among the most critically acclaimed novels of 2011 said over e-mail: “One thing I like about Tao’s writing is how beside the point for me ‘liking’ it feels — it’s a frank depiction of the rhythm of a contemporary consciousness or lack of consciousness and so it has a power that bypasses those questions of taste entirely. Like it or not, it has the force of the real.”
Lin, sitting at his vanity, tells me to finish the last third of Taipei while he works on his laptop. He puts on headphones and for a moment Grimes blares forth — “See you in the dark night” — before he secures the plug. Like Lin’s previous books, Taipei is autobiographical fiction; Lin says it stemmed from journal-like notes and memory. As a reader, I just assume everything in the book happened to him. Bret Easton Ellis read the book and said on Twitter that Lin is the most “interesting prose stylist of his generation.” He also called the book boring. The novelist Sheila Heti tells me that she finds his style “relaxing” while Lin’s agent Bill Clegg notes that it’s “mesmerizing.” Maybe the allure is in part a fascination with Lin himself — his personality is impossible to separate from his work. There is the Lin in front of me, telling me about his Vegas wedding, about heroin, about taking mushrooms and believing he died; then there is the protagonist in Taipei, Paul, with the same story. Then there are the Lin’s multiple Twitter accounts, his active presence in comment sections. It is a personality that multiplies and dissolves into itself, all of the Lins somehow forming a single image.
Taipei is about relationships and drugs: The characters buzz around New York, Las Vegas, and Taipei on MDMA. They take heroin and live-tweet X-Men: First Class from a Manhattan movie theater. But Lin, in front of me, taking pills, is a little hesitant to talk about drugs: “Just say that I hate stories where people talk about drugs the entire time,” he offers. “And then I will feel better talking about them.”
What will make this story good, says Lin, is showing how healthy he is. Lin tries to eat only raw fruits and vegetables, mostly in the form of green smoothies he makes in a tiny alcove of a kitchen that seems otherwise unused. “Are you getting what’s in these?” he asks, holding a glass with parsley stuck to its sides like lawn trimmings.
“Yeah, um,” I say. “Coconut water … spinach … kale?”
“There is no kale,” Lin says firmly. “Make sure that you don’t put kale.”
“You seem,” I tease, “very adamant about that.”.
“Kale has a bad reputation … People I don’t like very much make fun of kale,” he says, laughing a little.
There is a gentleness to Lin’s demeanor. If you met him at a party, he’d shake your hand with a palm as soft as soup; he’d mumble, a sort of robot monotone. Tao Lin is eccentric but has an ability to manipulate the strings of social dynamics, an aggressiveness apparent in his many attempts to actively frame my story, in an online gregariousness that has made him the center of a “scene.”
There are many young writers who are inspired by Lin, and openly imitate him. Stephen Tully Dierks, a staff writer for Thought Catalog, describes discovering Lin and going through a phase where he was unable to stop himself from imitating him: putting cliches in “scare-quotes,” the use of the tilde (~), heavy usage of the words seems and fucked. Tully Dierks describes Lin’s language working a pattern into his brain, making other ways of writing seem wrong or inadequate. A 2010 profile of Lin in the New York Observer was written in Lin-esque prose.
Lin sometimes elevates writers who work in a similar style to his own, assigning ideas for pieces and publishing them* through Muumuu House, his website and small press. The writers then become a diminutive Internet-y version of Warhol’s superstars: turned into personalities who show up in Lin’s books, who accompany him at readings, and who sometimes also get press for their own work. Lin has helped launch the careers of Megan Boyle, his estranged wife and a Vice columnist, and Marie Calloway, whose controversial story “Adrien Brody” earned her profiles at the New York Observer and Gawker, and whose book What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life? was released last week.
This world has multiplied. “Alt lit” is the term for a community of (hundreds, if not thousands, of) writers who publish online and have been connected to Lin. They publish poems on Twitter, they Instagram photos of white powders lined up on chapbooks. (The Tumblr blog Alt Lit Gossip, names Lin its “crown prince.”) But Lin feels an aversion to the connection. “I wouldn’t have been a part of it,” he says, when I ask what if a scene like this were around when he was in college. “I was just alone all the time. I don’t like there being any [type of] scene. I don’t like using terms, categorizing people, anything like that.”
Most of the time, Lin says, he is alone in his apartment for days on end, though he does describe rare writer-filled gatherings there. There was a recent one, after a reading for the novelist Sam Pink, that involved a pile of heroin, MDMA, and cocaine. Guests snorted the coke through a ridiculously long, golden, glass straw that Lin shows me, waving it around like a baton. For five hours people lazed around the apartment chatting and trailing back and forth from the bathroom to vomit, while Lin lay on his bed, copy editing Taipei.
Lin’s attitude is that when it comes to drugs, “or probably almost everything,” depictions on TV, movies, and books are almost always the opposite of the way things actually are. “I’m sure candy probably kills way more people and causes way more suffering than heroin,” says Lin, his words slurring and tapering off to a whisper. “People lose a third of their lives because of diabetes.”
Lin sits across from me on the floor with his laptop and forwards me a style guide he created for Taipei. We talk about the novel’s themes: memory, time, death, impermanence, technology. He is sitting on a yoga mat with a bowl of grapes; the Adderall is working and he is talking more and running his fingers through the grapes, letting them fall against the bowl with a drumming sound.
He has tight guidelines — formulas — that create his distinctive writing style. The guide contains specific techniques for sentence structure and lists of grammatical rules: “Yes comma if verb does have adverb (“stared ahead with a masklike expression, weakly trying …”). Under “Do not Use” is the phrase “falling asleep.”
“What if I wanted to say someone was falling and asleep?” he explains, eye contact steady.
In conversation, I find Lin to be incredibly open, trusting. There is something sweet or preserved about this. He seems nondefensive or maybe boundary-less. I can’t help pushing this a little, asking things like how many sex partners he’s had, and whether he’s ever fantasized about sleeping with men. I ask Lin to send me his tweet drafts, a document that contains hundreds of unpublished tweets, lines somewhere between jokes and poems. A sample: “idly felt a distinct urge to unfold ~15-25-foot, pure-white wings and fly away idly in sunlight in a fantasy world similar to ‘willow’ while standing in public bathroom in basement on cloudy day in taiwan waiting for one of two toilet stalls to free up.”
Lin is positive about sharing writing on social media, believing that in the future the Internet will “represent every person perfectly.” And that people who only think of Twitter in terms of sharing links aren’t imagining what the Internet will look like in twenty years. It’s Lin’s sureness in what he believes that makes him so alluring, says Megan Boyle, Lin’s former wife.
Now we are in the window between late night and early morning when the air takes on an eerie quality, which to my sleep-deprived mind feels meaningful. On the bathroom floor next to a roll of toilet paper and a book about writing are the stems of those grapes from earlier. I peek into Lin’s shower, which holds five thick bars of Dr. Bronner’s soap and nothing else.
Lin has twisted a blanket like a snake and wrapped it around his head. He is telling me about a time he and his girlfriend took too much heroin and then lost each other in public. “I saw her randomly, outside of like CVS or Duane Reade. She had bought shampoo and seemed confused, throwing the shampoo as she walked away.” Lin talks about other times on the drug, being in line at the post office and ‘”nodding out,” vomiting in trash cans, going to restaurants then asking for the meal to be boxed up instead, throwing it away outside, puking. A moment later, talking about Adderall, Lin tells me he doesn’t view himself as addicted because he has no measurable definition for “addicted.”
The light in Lin’s room is pinkish; outside birds begin to chirp but the curtains are still drawn. Lin says he used to believe that nothing happens when you die, but now thinks there might be other possibilities, like you could be isolated somewhere. (A line from Taipei: “Death would seal them into their own private afterlives.”) When my alarm goes off — 8 a.m. — it scares us.
I ask Lin how he feels about turning 30 in July. He shrugs
“What do you imagine when I say ‘age 30?’”
“Tom Cruise” he says, after a second. “I definitely just think … Tom Cruise.”
After a 10 a.m. interview with another journalist (which he conducts on speakerphone while I sit listening), we decide to go to the Vice Media office. But before we can leave, Lin has to find his drugs.
“Did you steal my Adderall?” he asks for the second time.
“No, I swear. You can check my bag,” I say.
“Are you going to put this in your article?” he asks, his voice a little forceful, and I can’t tell if this is more of his trying to frame the story or not.
Lin says that he needs money, around $150, and asks if I want to buy anything from his room. He tries to sell me a giant paperback of Anne Sexton’s letters and “Alt Lit” poet Steve Roggenbuck’s chapbook. He is waving books around. “I can’t escape the drug theme,” he says.
“You should put that in,” he says. “‘I can’t escape the drug theme,’ Tao seemed to say, across the room.”
* This post has been corrected: It originally said that DMT was a drug “he hasn’t tried yet,” but Lin wrote to us to set the record straight that he had in fact previously done it. Also, the post originally said that he “edited” the stories published in Muumuu House. Lin says that he does not edit any of the stories: If he accepts them, they are published just as they were submitted.