NEW YORK - Tao Lin's new novel is based on a true story - his own.
"It just started out of my life, what was happening to me," the 27-year-old author says of "Richard Yates," a novel about a young New York writer and the New Jersey teen he meets online. "Usually, if something is notable to me in my life, I'll write about it and use it later for fiction."
Much about Lin seems true and not true, a question mark and exclamation point. The author lives in a gated apartment house in Brooklyn that has a "Beware of Dog" sign out front, even though there is no dog. "Richard Yates" is invented yet includes an index to put the story in "the perspective of 'real life.'" The author is an alleged master of self-promotion who in person is as unembellished as the minimalist authors he admires.
Lean and slightly built, with short, dark hair, Lin wears jeans and a plain, brown shirt. He is sitting on a small, unmade bed and speaks in a polite monotone, in a mechanical rhythm like the floor fan that rattles softly on this muggy afternoon.
Lin is a poet, publisher, illustrator, novelist, short story writer and blogger with an acknowledged and authored past as a shoplifter. He has been called a revolutionary and a rogue, and, by the gossip blog Gawker, "perhaps the single most irritating person we've ever had to deal with." But he commands no armies and seeks few conquests beyond enough money so he can write the kind of books he likes to write, as might have come from Ernest Hemingway, Ann Beattie or "Kmart" realists such as Joy Williams and Bobbie Ann Mason.
"I'll say it's definitely not a response to anything," he says of his work. "It's mostly a desire to re-create work I have read and liked."
"Richard Yates" references the author of "Revolutionary Road," but otherwise the title is a non-sequitur, words to fill a space, like a "Beware of Dog" sign without a dog. The main characters are called Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, not because they are like those actors, but because he preferred famous names to making up new ones, or to using his own.
The novel begins in 2006. Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning communicate on Gmail chat. They hook up, fight, reunite, despair, confess. Haley shoplifts. Dakota is bulimic. Their lives are captured in a tone numbed and childlike, a lullaby of dread and of wonder.
"Haley Joel Osment was lying in the dark on his air mattress in a three-person apartment on Wall Street," Lin writes. "His room has no windows. He said he was walking today and noticed he was thinking, 'Life is stupid. I am stupid.' But it was one sentence not two. Dakota Fanning said that was OK. She said she had a broken violin she was saving because she wanted to smash it but she always said, 'No, not yet.' When they had nothing to say they were quiet and then said 'hi' to each other around 40 times."
Lin says the book is based on a former relationship and that the girl upon whom Dakota is based has read it and made only technical suggestions. They are still friends, he says, and appreciate fiction "that seems to be nonfiction," how a book can be a novel and "totally autobiographical."
"Richard Yates" is a history maker in at least one way - the rare, if only, book made possible by the author selling shares of it so he could finish. A concept worthy of Mark Twain, or Andy Warhol, his plan was mentioned two years ago on the "Freakonomics" blog of The New York Times (which identified Lin as a "rogue author") and attracted enough "investors" to make the book possible.
One contributor, University of Houston philosophy teacher Curtis Haaga, purchased a share for $2,000 after receiving a one-page contract from the author that ensured 10 percent of royalties.
Haaga said he had read one of Lin's previous works and was reminded of the filmmakers Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse") and Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") because of the "interconnected and disconnectedness and awkwardness that seems to be the theme of a lot of contemporary work. He delves into this in an authentic and exciting way."
"I like to think of it as a noble romantic gesture," Haaga says of his stock purchase. "This is not an investment opportunity. It feels more like a way of supporting the arts."
The son of a physics professor ("My mom always just helped my dad," the author says), Lin was born in Alexandria, Va., in 1983 and moved as a toddler to Florida, growing up in and around Orlando. He remembers being outgoing until his teen years when he "became really nervous and afraid of social situations." Only in high school did he become interested in reading, through the novels of Kurt Vonnegut.
"(I liked) how he made it seem like human life was insignificant, and since I was feeling pretty bad that made me feel better," he says.
Encouraged by a teacher at New York University, Lin began writing and continued to find authors he admired, including Don DeLillo and Lorrie Moore and her short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," about a mother's discovery that her baby son needs kidney surgery
"The tone and sense of humor seemed extremely creative to me, in the way that if I met someone who seemed really original I would feel excited," Lin says.
His first book was the poetry collection, "you are a bit happier than i am," released in 2006 by Action Books, based in the English department of the University of Notre Dame. The author says some 25 publishers turned down his story collection "Bed" before it was acquired by the Brooklyn-based Melville House Publishing, whose co-founder, Dennis Johnson, knew about Lin through his blog, "Reader of Depressing Books."
"'Reader of Depressing Books' was a great site, unlike any I'd seen before, with an interesting writing style all in lower case - more unusual then than now - with line breaks as if in free verse, and in a great kind of hipster jargon and smart commentary," says Johnson, who also published "Richard Yates" and other Lin works. "He was very critical of big publishing in a perceptive way and discussed fiction and poetry intelligently. It was a potent combination."
"Richard Yates" is, for Lin, a mainstream book, without giant squid, talking dolphins or humans phoning the media to report their own deaths. The plot never turns as dark as the short story "Three-Day Cruise," which opens with a drowning, a brain tumor and a euthanized poodle. "Richard Yates," Lin believes, is a "page turner."
"Which is like the opposite of all my books," he says.
There is danger and sadness in his work, but not defeat, if only because of the author's commitment to telling the story. In a piece from "Bed," one of the main characters is a creative writing student who submits "crude, uncritiqueable" fiction that gets "straight to the point, which was always bafflement." Lin calls "bafflement" another word for "mystery," which, for an author, is another word for inspiration.
"Whenever people look at a depressing book and view it as, like, a negative thing, I don't think they're viewing it as having been created by a person," Lin says. "If you view both the book and the person, then it's definitely a life-affirming thing. A person, instead of feeling like the characters do, has actually done something about it by writing a book. So I think a book is always life-affirming."