Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin
The Necessary Alien
Tao Lin’s gleefully-titled first novel can be welcomed as a comedy about the empty and disjunctive lives of a Florida pizza delivery boy called Andrew and his various acquaintances (to call them friends would suggest mutual empathy). It can be enjoyed on this level alone, perhaps with the smirk and ultimate indifference. The characters in the novel would probably respond in this way themselves, if they could be bothered to read. But it is also something else. It is something else because it isn’t exactly a comedy. Not that it isn’t funny; it’s funny on every page. But a comedy has the shape of a smile. It moves from one point, descends through another and ends with a return to the higher level. There is movement, there is resolution. Think of The Divine Comedy. There is no such movement in Eeeee Eee Eeee, and no resolution either. It remains instead with emptiness and disjunction. This is really why it should be welcomed.
Nothing happens in Andrew’s life - unless getting fired counts as something happening. It happens on the first page. Or rather it doesn’t. Andrew is late for work and is told to clear out by one of the managers. He gives the manager “a shit-eating grin” and carries on as normal, as if nothing had happened, which it probably had. There are many such non-happenings in Eeeee Eee Eeee. The manager then tells Andrew to drive co-worker Joanna home after a shift. “Don’t rape her, or we’ll know” he says. Andrew doesn’t rape her, but the possibility lodges. It becomes part of the routine journey. As they drive, Joanna - “a phone person; a high-schooler” - says a turn was missed, so he makes a u-turn and a cop stops the car. Andrew gives him a shit-eating grin too and then
has an image of himself drunkenly resisting arrest; being shot in the back of the head while running away. He is afraid there are kilograms of illicit drugs in the glove compartment. He will fight the cop in hand-to-hand combat.
This doesn’t happen either. He gets a fine instead and carries on. Almost all the action depends on the imagination. Suggestion animates routine; it offers endless possibility. Andrew enjoys possibility. It eases him through an empty life. He is calmed when a co-worker says something about dying from eating too much pizza after sex with a prostitute. He feels calm when it feels like he’s being filmed, starring in an independent movie. “Things must happen and explode because of being in a movie.” But nothing happens. He’s troubled by possibility too. He remembers taking a girl to see Mulholland Drive and how she kept saying she was having fun and that they ought to go out together again, to which he readily agreed.
Andrew saw her next a few months later, from across a street, and she averted her eyes. Did she avert her eyes? Maybe she was being polite when she said ten times enthusiastically that she was having a lot of fun. Maybe she was being sarcastic. Maybe politeness is the same as sarcasm.
It’s possible, so it might be true. How can anyone tell? Did he even really mean to agree to meet her again? If he doesn’t know what he felt himself, how can he know what she was thinking? It’s one thing to let possibility animate one’s empty life, another to let actuality dissolve in it.
One means of giving life some meaning is to create a stable environment. So Andrew is writing stories about “people who are doomed”; people like himself. Doomed is the hyperbole necessary to give meaning to an empty life. Andrew is not doomed.
He will never commit suicide. He will never kill anyone, start a band, or commit suicide. His girlfriend in college once tried to commit suicide. Then she published a book. Andrew needs to publish a book. Publishing a book will not make him feel less fucked.
The book will create the stability life lacks, the lonely stability of the book. But it is still possibility masquerading as actuality. A book leaves the doomed world behind. I becomes he, fucked becomes less-fucked. It’s why Eeeee Eee Eeee is written in the third person. It isn’t Andrew speaking. If he could speak, his life would not be empty. He is left behind, still fucked.
In his actual world, Andrew laments the absence of his ex-girlfriend Sara, whom one might call his real-life book.
She never thinks about Andrew; hasn’t ever e-mailed or called. Andrew never e-mails or calls either, really, just has imaginary conversations with her almost constantly; his idea of her. Maybe he will e-mail her tonight. She will respond with a form letter. We thank you for your submission but are unable to see your work at this time.
Like his book about the doomed, Sara’s presence offers the possibility of meaning. Her absence means emptiness, disjunction. He imagines calling everything in the world after Sara. He imagines every face being Sara’s face. Everything would be as clear as a book; the kind of book with which we’re all familiar. The author crafts a world of meaning pretending all the while it is actuality and denying that it is only ever possibility. For Andrew, without Sara, it’s nothing, just doomed. “He wants to drive into a mountain and make the mountain explode. Florida has no mountains. Florida has no Sara. No Sara; no future. No marshmallows. Andrew stops thinking.”
One aspect of Tao Lin’s novel that I haven’t yet mentioned is also what will draw most attention. Andrew and his various acquaintances share their blank world with talking bears, dolphins, hamsters and moose. They move around like any other member of the community. ‘Eeeee eee eeee’ is the sound made by the dolphins when they’re not talking to humans. Everyone in the novel thinks it is perfectly normal. And of course it is perfectly normal, in novels. Anything can happen in a novel. They have so much life. It’s why we love them. But what’s left behind remains fucked, which is why we should also resent them. Resentment appears in Eeeee Eee Eeee as its most mysterious character. As well as bears, dolphins, hampsters and moose, Andrew also occasionally encounters an alien, sometimes standing in a doorway, sometimes lurking in dark places, sometimes right there in front of him, and he’s frightened. He’s not frightened by the bears, so why is he frightened by the alien? He doesn’t say. He can’t because the alien is the absence of possibility, which is alien to his world, alien to the novel. The alien appears as the death of the imagination; the death of the novel.
While the alien threatens an unnameable fate, the animals seem merely to want to convey something about now. And although they can talk, they do not say it. Instead, a bear insists that Andrew climbs down a ladder into a hole in the ground. Eventually they reach a cliff above an underground city of dolphins and bears. Andrew views it from on high. A dolphin joins them on the cliff. Then more dolphins. So many dolphins that one is crowded off the cliff. As it falls it goes: “EEEEE EEE EEEE”.
This may not be what the bear wanted him to see. He doesn’t say. But that gleeful or distressed cry is the cry of the novel, and also the experience of reading it. We plunge into the breach that opens up between possibility and actuality. It is an exhilirating plunge. This experience alone sets Eeeee Eee Eeee apart from the lumpen literary scene. But then there is Tao Lin’s bracingly deadpan prose with its ever-so-slightly obsessive repetitions of words and phrases - “killing rampages”, “Jhumpa Lahiri”, “Duane Reade”, “Shit-eating grin”. These resound meaning and meaninglessness across the apparently insouciant narrative. Some, though, just make you laugh: “I wish I could punch Sean Penn in Sean Penn’s face”. The repetitions are often implicit rhetorical questions. Why would you grin if you ate shit? He makes a shit-eating grin anyway, at a pizza box.
He is embarrassed for the pizza box. He folds it. ‘Shit-eating grin.’ He needs to stop. He needs to use his face to convey emotions to other humans in order to move sincerely through life - laughing in groups of three or four; expressing gratitude, concern, or disapproval about people, the weather, or food; and manipulating members of either sex to get them to love him, like him, or respect him. That is what a face is for.
Can that be done in a novel? Eeeee Eee Eeee appears to admit defeat by ending with a swift descent into whimsy. Andrew meets Salman Rushdie, the animals, an alien and the President of the United States in a café. Along the way they all claim to have read The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa’s fictional diary of boredom and solitude. One might judge this a failure of nerve, albeit a knowing failure, while mitigating it with expressions of hope for Tao Lin’s future “career” as an “important” writer. But all this would be to evade the singular gesture of this remarkable novel, its rejection of the empty pleasures of fiction even as it indulges them; a gesture toward the gleeful or distressed cry of actual life.