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      'Private Citizens' Is a Brilliant New Novel About Porn, Tech Culture, and Millennials

      February 14, 2016
      From the column 'The VICE Reader'

      Tony Tulathimutte. Photo by Lydia White/courtesy of William Morrow

      Tony Tulathimutte is a virtuoso of words, and not just the big ones that have you Googling definitions on your smartphone. He's a copy editor's nightmare, as is shown by the lists of slang terms and neologisms from his debut novel Private Citizens that he's been posting, including words such as "Masturbate-a-Thon," "ladycanon," and "listicles (n.)."

      Which is to say, he doesn't shy away from the preoccupations of internet-grown, fauxthentic millennials. Despite winning an O. Henry Award and graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the 32-year-old's writing edifies and entertains in language that's highbrow yet unwholesome—gourmet junk food, like the cereal-milk-flavored soft-serve at Momofuku Milk Bar. This comes through especially in Private Citizens, which is about four estranged friends in San Francisco circa 2007. Though the book tackles some notorious Bay Area subcultures like Silicon Valley, progressive nonprofits, and Stanford (where Tulathimutte attended), it also gets into weirder niches like dumpster-diving communes, motivational cults, Craigslist escorts, and social-media optics when you're disabled.

      I recently spoke to Tulathimutte (who is an occasional VICE contributor) over Skype to discuss his time in Silicon Valley, hot-take culture, and the inevitable comparisons young Asian-American novelists get to Tao Lin. Tulathimutte was dressed for the office in a collared shirt, though he'd spent the entire day inside his Bushwick apartment and was—as our interview began—drinking cans of Brooklyn lager between hits from a vape.

      VICE: Why don't we start out with your self-written Goodreads review: "A fine book by an anxious man."
      Tony Tulathimutte: Yeah, five stars. It was a gag, but here's the thing: I'm basically from the internet. I spend a ton of time commenting and reading comments and being generally aware of the world through what people are doing there, which gives you a weird mix of awareness and isolation.

      You wrote an essay for the New Yorker about the rise of personal branding. To a specific audience—maybe other writers and MFA students—you seem a master at it.
      You want to know something hilarious? Half the people who shared that article thought I was writing in favor of personal branding. If I'm good at it, I don't seem to have much control over how people see me. When you're online, you may participate here and there, but you're always playing the spectator. When you write something like a novel that's attached to your name as a signal of achievement, you can wind up the subject of a menagerie of online comment. For me, that's been a real head-fuck. I know how nasty I can get when I'm dealing with whatever random topic is in front of me. Because it's fun to be nasty. It's fun to gossip and overreact. It's easy to dismiss any of the stuff that's always flooding at you. It's usually more entertaining to other people and beneficial to you to have a hot take. To be known as a dispenser of hot takes.

      I've been mistaken for Tao Lin on OKCupid. I was also mistaken for Paul Yoon at an award ceremony where he won the Young Lions Award. — Tony Tulathimutte

      When I think of your online presence, I'm vaguely reminded of Tao Lin.
      I'm appalled. But he's a useful example here. In the 2000s he was notoriously aggressive and shameless about his branding. Like, he'd relentlessly pitch Gawker to write about him because he was a cool, hip, relevant person. But he'd pepper it with self-aware quotation marks to show he wasn't too serious about it, but he was still doing it. He did it in an irony-delimited way that made it a considered aesthetic position rather than crass self-marketing. The classic dissociative hipster move. The higher-level joke is that the fiction he was promoting was all about stripping away identifying markers like personality and affect and even names.

      Tao Lin's one of very few well-known Asian-American writers, so I've anticipated for a long time that I'd be compared to him. You know, I've been mistaken for him on OKCupid.

      What?
      I'm not even kidding. I got a message from someone that said, "Really loved your book, Eeeee Eee Eeee."

      Maybe she was trolling you?
      Maybe. I was also mistaken for Paul Yoon at an award ceremony where he won the Young Lions Award. He was in a suit and had slicked-back hair, and I was just wearing a bag or something. So, to bring up Tao Lin in light of the irreparable hit he's taken to his deliberately crafted personal brand is interesting now, when there are so few cultural referents we can attach to an Asian identity that you become grotesquely fixated on defining yourself in relation to them.

      I get that sense, too. Like, if you have to be tokenized, you want to be the token, not a token.
      This problem of sizing yourself up against other people in your demographic node is way bigger if there are only a few well-known people in it. The reason why you and I grew up being compared to Bruce Lee is because he was the only game in town, except for a few other demeaning roles. It gets a little easier if you open the floodgates.

      Something I like about Private Citizens is how much attention you paid to how your protagonists look. Will being Asian, Linda being attractive, Cory being overweight—just to name some of their outward attributes. Were you thinking consciously about this as you wrote?
      First of all, unless you're writing a Tao Lin-esque novel where you're purposefully discarding significant markers of identity, then you're usually just obliged to talk about how people look. It informs what you know and how you feel about them, and how they feel about themselves. With Cory, it's physical, internalized self-disgust. Will is uncomfortable at being looked at because he's hypersensitive about racism. But he's dating Vanya, this super-hot paraplegic woman who wants to be seen, for the ostensibly noble purpose of repping people with disabilities. So the idea of image is all over the place, especially in Will's storyline.

      And from a real-life, personal-branding standpoint, by cultivating an interesting Instagram, Facebook feed, and being really careful about whom you take photos of.
      Right. What's the quickest way to boost your image? Post a photo of yourself with a celebrity. Or a sex tape, even better. I used to teach that Daniel J. Boorstin book, The Image. It's one of the early alarmist books about media images replacing the written word. Of course there's some truth to this, and the most obvious victim would be literature, which relies not only on an interest in words but facility and patience with them.


      VICE Meets Norwegian literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard:


      Do you often think about how you look?
      When I was a freshman and just starting to write. I asked my friend Alice what it was like to be female. Instead of trying to answer this massively stupid question, she just said, "For starters, we think about how we look a lot." It opened up this face-scalding Pandora's box of identity issues for me. I'm emotionally stunted in all these ways and racial self-awareness is one of them. It never really occurred to me at that point that the way I saw myself basically as a Whitmanesque transparent eyeball was way different than how others saw me.

      All of your characters are deeply failing somehow. They're broke, undisciplined, emotionally stunted, self-medicating... which seems to get at millennials in general.
      That's the line about millennials, right? That they're these diapered adolescents who have to live with their parents and are lazy, self-absorbed. I can't think of a single generation who thought the next generation wasn't inferior.

      Personally, I have nothing to say about millennials. I'm not trying to represent them. I'm just trying to write about some aspects of my life. If some people see themselves in that, I'm lucky, but I also expect that lots of people won't relate at all, which is fine.

      How does pragmatism and idealism play into both having attended Stanford and having had a pre-novelist career in Silicon Valley?
      It depends on what you call pragmatism. My training's in cognitive sciences.

      It seems enviably useful to me, I don't know why.
      Well, it enables you to score jobs in Silicon Valley. Whether you do anything useful there is another question. You can go and make six figures designing the UI for an app that tells you when your friends are farting. Is it practical? It's definitely lucrative. I marginally enhanced the usability of login forms for some websites. I was unhappy and I made a shitload of money. I wouldn't call it practical.

      The Ice Bucket Challenge wasn't relevant because everyone sincerely cared about ALS, it was relevant because everyone was doing it and it provided a convenient platform for people to perform their own brand. —Tony Tulathimutte

      It's smart you unpacked that. When I was saying pragmatic, I was automatically thinking about the financial dimension. The fact that I immediately went there and you called me out on it seems to strike a chord with current preoccupations or the ways in which the values are placed.
      When you live in a small Bushwick apartment with two roommates at the age of 32, you're going to constantly question the value of what you're doing. I mean, it beats doing work I don't find useful or meaningful [while] making a lot of money for myself and even more for other people.

      But it's important to also frame this in privilege. My parents paid my tuition. I live pretty efficiently and I've saved up enough that I can literally afford to be cavalier about money. You cannot advise everybody to say fuck it and chase the dream. Realistically, you know there are limited opportunities to go around. Even people pursuing what they want full-time often end up failing. I don't know what the solution to this unfairness is. Probably dismantle capitalism.

      Sure.
      What do you think is the thesis of this interview?

      I was thinking we would go with whole millennial angle, but you've convinced me otherwise.
      It actually points to a larger problem of how things are accorded significance online, on the basis of relevance. The idea that what's relevant is what's important. I mean, if we're being honest, besides fandoms or politics, the stuff we care about most usually doesn't resemble what everyone else cares about. I think most people believe this intuitively, but still behave as if Latin poetry is unimportant and Snapchat is important just because everyone's talking about it. It's circular, that what we should talk about is what people are talking about. That's one of Boorstin's big points, that relevance is self-perpetuating, so celebrities are people who are famous for being famous, and so on. The Ice Bucket Challenge wasn't relevant because everyone sincerely cared about ALS, it was relevant because everyone was doing it and it provided a convenient platform for people to perform their own brand.

      But there's this unspoken pressure to keep current. That's how the internet makes money, off the economy of relevance, and creating and strengthening trends is a big part of that. So there's an incentive to, you know, make fetch happen. No major publishing organization is innocent of this, even VICE, which I write for and obviously like. The publishers that are growing right now are those that understand the nature of trends and have good social-media game, and the people who do best within them can turn a ham sandwich into an 800-word thinkpiece.

      Follow James on Twitter.

      Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte is available in bookstores and online from William Morrow.

      Topics: Culture, books, literature, fiction, Tony Tulathimutte, Private Citizens, Asian-American literature, internet culture, personal branding, Tao Lin, James Yu, The VICE Reader, novels

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