Wednesday, September 22, 2010





When I was but a young man, with barely a hair on my face, my father instructed me, in all things, to be a harsh a judge as possible- of appearance, of character, and especially of culture. It was on one of our rare outings together- for him, to golf; for me, to listlessly kick bunches of loose sod around the perimeter of the green- and he, after a mighty whack of his driver that sliced a ball deep into the woods, found himself searching for his charge closer to my perambulations than he usually came. Pausing a second and wiping the sweat from his brow with a white-gloved hand, he turned, and, perhaps inspired by the closeness of the woods and the tooth-and-claw existence that goes on there, gave me the following sage advice:

“Son,” he said, “if I have learned anything, in all of my years of developing advertising campaigns for the introduction of new disposable panty-liners to market, it is that distinction is to be prized above all else. Enthusiasm wanes, innovation grows fallow, but the ability to distinguish- at a second!- between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ has been the one quality that has lead me to a leading position within the industry- and here, to this exclusive greens club.”

And while I have forgotten most of my father’s advice, and hardly speak to the old man, save on birthdays and holidays and during the rare occasions of receiving a large check in the mail, this has always stuck with me. Now, as a man in the dotage of his late twenties, with a full and magnificently curly moustache, I realize that everything positive I have achieved- a reading series, a well-respected podcast- comes from my own highly-refined sense of taste. I have achieved modicum of success, I am not too modest to say, and have as a result been party to some of the most interesting literary encounters of the last nine months. Perhaps the most compelling of these was the intense and violent vendetta between literary critic and author Joshua Cohen, of the Jewish Cohens, and literary blogger and itinerant rascal Tao Lin.

It all began at a party.

At the time, Tao Lin had reached the height of his fame. We all enjoyed his games and gambols, and he brought color to many a young librarians cheek with his shocking blog posts about his penis, and, although I had never read anything that he had actually written except for that one Atlantic article, the consensus was that he was a talented writer whose metafictional trickery hid deeply serious concerns. On the night in question, he had just emerged triumphant from an epic struggle with a cadre of anti-literary Cinnabon employees, who objected to his liberation of a Caramel Pecanbon in the Manhattan Mall, and Lin was sharing his story with anyone who would stand in front of him and read his ongoing Twitter narrative, which was mirrored on an iPad slung across his chest.

Into the room strolled Joshua Cohen- himself, profiled in the New York Observer at the age of 30, enjoying a possibly more refined version of literary success. His Twitter feed was private, and while some were surprised by his emphatic embrace of Jewish interest literary fiction, the consensus was that he was a talented writer whose meta-fictional trickery hid deeply serious concerns. Although he was considered more of a traditional talent, Cohen had shown himself extremely willing to experiment- instead of putting out a debut novel about a close-knit but dysfunctional Jewish family, as is considered traditional, Cohen shattered expectations by putting out a debut novel about a curmudgeonly genius Holocaust survivor, a stunning literary feat, given that most young authors of Jewish interest fiction wait until at least their third book to write a novel about a curmudgeonly genius Holocaust survivor. But Cohen did valiantly respect the old guard of the New York literary establishment, and his dislike of Tao Lin was well known.

The tension hung thick in the air, and a hush fell over the revelers, broken only by the dull siroccous of the window unit Lin stood behind, ever Tweeting. Cohen smiled grimly, his eyes sparkling with righteous mischief, and instantly concocted a scheme- a blistering literary slam that, provided everyone around understood the con- and sub-texts, would irrevocably injure Lin’s appeal and derail his upcoming plan to publish all of his Tweets, individually, as single-page glossy paperback originals from Dalkey.
Interested observers separated as Cohen cross the room, stopping a mere foot from Lin’s stooped head.
“Mr...Lin, I believe?,” said Cohen, proffering a hand. “My name is Joshua Cohen; I’ve been assigned to review your novel for Bookforum?”
Lin made no reply, nor did he even glance up. Instead, he quickly searched for “Joshua Cohen” on Wikipedia; much to Cohen’s embarrassment, Lin’s iPad revealed that Cohen was the last, and least interesting, disambiguation for the name, coming after an inventor, an Israeli assassin and the mayor of Annapolis, Maryland. Even more galling was that Lin, upon finding Cohen’s entry, immediately began to suggest changes. Red-faced, Cohen coughed into his hand.
“I was thinking,” he muttered, desparate to regain control of the situation, “that I might have a proposal that you would find...interesting. How does this sound- you write a review of your own novel, which I will publish in Bookforum under my own name. Then, a few days after publication, you can reveal the treachery on your blog.”

“What better way,” he continued, growing ever more confident, “to give a meaningful critique of writing, than to provide the author with the rope to hang himself- so to speak, of course. It almost seems more...honest this way.”

His words settled over the entire room. Lin’s thumbs, usually twitching with nervous, phone-typing energy, sat still, and Lin himself slowly leaned backwards. It had been so long since he had raised his head from the Tweeting position that the muscles of his neck had atrophied, and he was forced to curve his spine back until the weight of his cranium shifted and his head flopped backwards, like an infants, onto the air conditioner. Only then was he able to look Cohen directly in the eye.

The moment held...and passed. Slowly, ever so slowly, Lin’s fingers resumed their tarantella. A moment later, the Twitter feed on the iPad updated.

ILL THINK ABT IT, tao_lin had posted, at 10:17 pm.

A burst of excited chatter filled the room, as Tao Lin flopped his skull forward again and Cohen strode away, his short frame bursting with confidence.

We will never know what internal agonies Tao Lin felt, as he began to prepare a defense of his own work. They must have been terrible. Attempting to write in the style of Cohen- without his protective caul of ironic detachment, grassroots marketing and the esteem of 17 year old boys who thought they were going to be real hot shit writers- may have been the greatest challenge Tao had faced outside of an American Eagle dressing room. For three days and three nights, like Jesus before him, his mighty Twitter feed fell silent. The lights in his loft remained dim. Stores throughout the tri-state area noticed an immediate and marked reduction in the low-level theft known in the industry as “shrinkage.”

It was on the dawn of the fourth day when Lin admitted defeat:

@JCohenBoyGenius I DCLINE YR PROPOSAL, posted tao_lin at 8:56 a.m.

Across Brooklyn, far from bookish enclaves like Park Slope, Cohen sat in his study, savouring his moment of triumph. But it did not come, he thought, without a slight defeat. By withdrawing from the gentleman’s proposal, Lin had suffered an embarrassing slight; but, at the same time, far better to be embarrassed in a scattered handful of literary blogs than to have your own writing disability splayed before everyone in BookForum.

You’re cannier than I thought, Lin. I’ll remember this, Cohen thought, next time.


Cowering against the rock face, soaked in the mist rising from the Reichenbach Falls- the pounding torrent mere feet away- Cohen reached a testing finger into his powder horn. DAMP!, he sputtered inwardly, feeling the moist, useless putty that was once his gunpowder. In a fit of rage he hurled the horn, his bandolier of bullets and his elephant gun into the river Aar, some fifty feet below. He now stood unarmed, and- as the golden light of the afternoon shot the mist through with rainbows- Lin was still out there, somewhere.
Since sighting Tao Lin’s iPad across the valley of the Bernese Alps, Cohen had followed him for days, silently drawing ever closer to his current FourSquare location. Although he had tracked some of the largest predators on earth across the most unforgiving terrain, Cohen felt ill at ease. At times, he even felt as if Lin knew what was happening- as if he could feel Cohen’s watchful, nigh-invisible eyes on him as he went about his travels, drinking lattes and stealing small objects from pastoral villages across the Bern Canton. By the time Cohen, ingeniously disguised as an elderly hiker, boarded the Reichenbachfall-Bern funicular railway, sitting a mere three rows behind Lin, he felt certain that Lin was aware of his presence. He was bringing him here- to this place of natural beauty- that they should have their final battle far from the pens and blogs of Brooklyn. The noveletta, he knew, was drawing to a close.
It was getting dark. Night fell quickly, here in the mountains, and even in the pre-dusk Cohen could feel a chill penetrating his soaked oilskins and pressing deep into his very bones. Lin had to know, he thought- had to know that Cohen would follow him on this very path, to be soaked by the waterfall, and- cold and waterlogged- be caught unawares. But where the devil WAS he? Cohen had seen him start out on this path, and had followed at a distance, around the sheer rock face- only to find himself alone, facing the thundering falls. How could a man just disappear?
Picking his way back along the path, Cohen beheld an ominous sight- a large bush, sprouting out of the fissure between the path and the rock, which upon closer inspection bore a number of broken branches. Sitting atop an indentation, pressed into the grass, was a gallery proof of Lin’s latest Melville House mini-novel, READ THE EXACT SAME 2-PART THING ON FACEBOOK TWICE, EACH TIME AS IF IT WERE MY FIRST TIME, DUE TO SOMEONE POSTING THE EXACT SAME THING TWICE, POSTED BY TAO_LIN, 6:33 SEP 6TH VIA WEB. He was here, damn it!, Cohen thought furiously, He was right god damned here!
He had scarcely a second to think before Tao Lin, hidden behind the other side of the bush, leapt into him, slamming them both into the rock wall. Their hiking boots scrabbled against the clay as they fought- first with Lin on top, then Cohen, first upright against the cliff, then horizontal on the path itself. Although Cohen had a good 40 pounds on Lin, as well as the ability to grow his own facial hair, Lin was well-versed in baritsu, the Japanese art of wrestling, and proved as slippery as an eel. They rolled over and over, dangerously close to the edge, each grappeling with all of his strength, neither willing to admit defeat, until...
Cohen found himself flat on his back, inches from the sudden drop, staring up into the dusk sky. His raised hands grappled at nothing; Lin was no-where to be seen. If he had fallen off of the side, into the river below, he had left no trace- no telltale line of debris down the rock face, no string of bubbles in the water. Uneasily triumphant, Cohen slowly raised his bruised body and began stumbling back along the path. Even now, at his moment of triumph, he had to ask- had he ever grappled with a man? Or had he fought the night itself?


1 comment:

  1. Followed your link here from metafilter. This is brilliant! I love the new vs old establishment framing. Tao Lin makes a very interesting and sympathetic "villain" - I love that he communicates by tweeting and suggesting changes to Wikipedia. It goes well Cohen's theory, at the end, that Tao Lin might be an elemental force.

    (An elemental force who reminds the digital generation of themselves, and who struggles to view his very personal writing through the lens of Cohen's ironic detachment - and can't. Very nicely done.)