248 pp. Vintage Contemporaries, 2013.
Reviewed by Tom Andes
272 pp. Ecco, 2013. Paper, $25.99
Reviewed by Tom Andes
With a pair of edgy debuts on large houses, Alissa Nutting and Tao Lin are moving from the turgid margins of American literature and into the mainstream. Already well-regarded by their own significant readerships, Nutting and Lin have experienced very different career trajectories. The recipient of an MFA and a PhD, Nutting has taken the more well-trodden path, publishing in many of the nation’s more reputable literary magazines and winning The Starcherone Prize in Innovative Fiction for her first collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. On the other hand, Lin has spent the decade since completing his BA in journalism publishing prolifically on New York’s Melville House and cultivating his reputation as a literary outsider. Yet for all the differences between their styles, themes, and subject matter, Nutting’s and Lin’s visions arrive intact on a larger stage than either writer has yet enjoyed.
Both novels deal with the transgressive: Tampa with a female sexual predator, Taipei with a pill-popping writer. While both writers manage to short-circuit the reader’s need for moral certainty, Nutting and Lin handle their subject matter differently. Conventionally structured and satirically distant, Tampa succeeds at being arousing, horrific, and laugh-out-loud funny. Nutting’s prose feels much less self-conscious than Lin’s, whose novel is told with cold journalistic remove, and whose humor derives from the sprawling banality of his sentences. While both writers have at one time or another flown the standard of innovative literature, the success of these vastly different works testifies to how little that label means, as well as the extent to which small press fiction (both authors built their careers on small presses) has the potential to change the landscape of mainstream American literary publishing.
If in terms of style and structure, Tampa seems more conventional than Taipei, in terms of its subject matter, it isn’t. Told in an uproarious first-person that delights in such gratuitous details as the smell of a 14-year-old boy’s semen, Tampa tells the story of Celeste Price, a 26-year-old junior high school English teacher who takes her job for the exclusive purpose of seducing one of her students. It’s difficult not to imagine Nutting laughing out loud as she composed the book’s more explicit passages, and the fact we root for Celeste at all testifies to the efficacy with which her creator utilizes the first-person; perhaps we’ll root for anyone, no matter how awful, if we have enough access to what that person is thinking, and if that person is as entertainingly hateful as Celeste is.
Obviously, the way the reader reacts to Tampa depends on her tolerance for the grotesque, as well as her sense of humor. Is Nutting poking fun at the superficiality of the American culture Celeste sometimes seems to embody—like her real-life inspiration, Florida high school teacher Debra LeFave, Celeste claims to be “too pretty for prison”—or are we supposed to be laughing at Celeste herself, who remains unrepentant? In some respects, Tampa plays like a morality tale without a moral center, which is part of what makes the novel so unnerving. Nothing about its form breaks with narrative convention, yet in fulfilling the convention, Nutting creates a satire that crackles with enough energy to masquerade as something more complex.
Nutting uses Celeste’s buffoon of a husband, Ford, as a butt to generate sympathy for Celeste—time and again, we watch her drug herself in order to submit to sex with Ford, whom she finds repulsive—yet Nutting allows Ford a moment that humanizes him at the end, when he confronts Celeste in her prison cell; similarly, the author succeeds at humanizing Jack, the student Celeste seduces (though Nutting doesn’t quite do the same for Boyd, Jack’s successor, who seems even more keen to fuck his English teacher than Jack does). In this regard, it’s impossible to talk about the book without talking about gender, for despite the inevitable comparisons to Lolita, I’ve never read a book about a male sexual predator that revels in the kind of details Celeste offers about her own body and the bodies of the boys she seduces. It’s not pornography. But like the Supreme Court justice said, the definition of pornography—like our sense of what’s funny—remains largely subjective.
As the title of her previous collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, suggests, Nutting writes explicitly about gender, and those concerns play out in some darkly compelling ways in a novel that’s as swift, well-paced, and entertaining as Tampa is. Yes, satire enables Nutting to distance herself from her creation, yet for all that Celeste is obviously a monster, not for nothing does she bitterly identify Ford’s privilege in the very last scene in which her husband appears. In other words, I don’t think I’m wrong in identifying a fundamentally libratory impulse in Nutting’s writing; that is to say, if there exists an entire genre of (mostly) male transgressive literature, and if most of the widely acclaimed transgressive writers from Nabokov to Miller have been male—and written about sex from a male perspective, and had fun doing it, to boot—why shouldn’t women get to do it, too?
Full disclosure: I published one of Tao Lin’s stories when I worked on the editorial staff of Fourteen Hills eight years ago, so if I can’t claim to have a vested interest in his career, I can say I’ve enjoyed watching it develop. Compared to Nutting, Lin seems a literary outsider, though to some extent, that’s because he’s made himself one. Over the last decade, since deciding not to pursue an MFA, Lin has cultivated such a singular internet presence that he’s seemingly loved and loathed in equal measure as much for his online persona as for his literary output, which has been nothing short of prodigious: besides Taipei, Lin has published two novels, a novella, a book of stories, and several collections of poetry, mostly on NYC-based Melville House, which has become one of the most well-respected independent literary publishers in the country, thanks in part to Lin.
Taipei tells the story of Paul, a New York-based writer who commits (loosely) to a period of increased social activity following a breakup, during several idle months before he embarks on a book tour. Framed by visits Paul makes to his parents in the titular city, Lin’s novel coalesces around Paul’s relationship with Erin, another writer, who he eventually marries. Along the way, Paul attends parties and gives readings in Brooklyn and eventually in other parts of the country, imbibing liberal quantities of substances ranging from caffeine to Klonopin to cocaine to LSD; in particular, Lin renders the drug use with hilarious journalistic specificity.
Less conventionally structured than Tampa, Taipei tells a story where nothing really happens, and rather than exploit the conventions of well-crafted fiction to give voice to a satirical monster, Lin flouts many of those conventions, positing a world in which the ready availability of every kind of distraction (both technological and chemical) robs even the most significant choices of moral consequence. Even Paul’s marriage seems a lark—they do it in Vegas, of course—though Erin expresses misgivings before the ceremony, as though she senses their decision ought to have a narrative weight neither Paul (nor Lin) seems to feel it has. Yet while the novel doesn’t have the same kind of arc Tampa does, and while Lin doesn’t use plot points as carefully as Nutting (if at all), by the end, while I’m not convinced Paul has experienced growth, nevertheless, something indefinable has changed.
Though Lin’s fans and detractors both seem to tout the unschooled quality of his work—the former as if that quality made his work more “real,” the latter as if that quality made his work less crafted—the fact is, you have to be unschooled in a very schooled way to write a novel as ambitious as Taipei and not have it falter under its own weight. For all that Lin sometimes seems to be reinventing the form—though he doesn’t always live up to the billing, not for nothing do people apply words like “genius” and “visionary” to his work—Taipei succeeds chiefly because Lin understand the verities of good fiction: that is, he invests in his characters, and he follows them wherever they go, structuring the story in such a way that we feel something significant has happened by the end; he writes sympathetic, engaging characters who are generally just trying (and often failing, heartbreakingly) to connect with each other; and above all, he never sacrifices accessibility for his aesthetic agenda, which is a quality he shares with Nutting.
In Taipei, Lin delivers a novel of surprising delicacy and grace. Not that it’s going to win over naysayers—it’s still a Tao Lin novel—and not that it doesn’t have its flaws; in particular, the first 40 pages drag, as a few of Lin’s stylistic tics (which are otherwise very funny) begin to resemble self-parody. But like the best literature, the literature Lin creates insists so single-mindedly on its own view of reality, it’s only after repeated iterations—only as his oeuvre begins to accumulate—that we begin to realize how deceptively lighthearted he is, or how much weight his work might actually have.
Having attended graduate school in a city obsessed with its own avant-garde pedigree, I understand serious experimentalists won’t class Nutting and Lin as transgressive. After all, they’ve both written linear novels in a clear, accessible prose style, and their books are designed for mass market consumption: Ecco packaged Nutting’s novel in faux-black velvet while Vintage produced Lin’s as a glitzy trade paperback. Yet it’s precisely their accessibility that makes their work potentially so enlivening. Rather than keeping us out, Nutting invites us in, and the classically plotted structure of her novel fools us into complicity with a monster, while the detached immediacy of Lin’s observations draws us into terrific proximity with his protagonist.
Of course, as darkly satirical as Tampa might be, on some level, it remains a joke. Likewise, while Taipei might seem to comment on the superficiality of its milieu of twenty-something Brooklynites, it’s hard not to feel like Lin sometimes partakes a little too much of that superficiality himself. But then this is a pair of novels by a pair of writers at the outset of their careers—they’re both 30, I think—and for all the differences between the two novels, each demonstrates a singular vision, as well as an impressive formal command. What’s more, neither of these books constitutes simple satire, and they confound our expectations not through formal innovation so much as by making problematic fiction’s imperative to instruct us as well as to entertain.