Review: On Tao Lin’s "Taipei"

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 Vintage • 256 pp. • $14.95 • 4 June 2013

This review will appear in the August issue of the American Reader.

In the novel Taipei, Tao Lin’s seventh book in as many years, the presumed syndromes of a generation are thrown onto a screen by way of a magic lantern, a narrative projection that lights up young life in order to pose its meaninglessness. The novel curiously has been read as a Künstlerroman—a subspecies of the Bildungsroman that tells the story of an artist—wherein its protagonist, a published writer named Paul, drifts through a fog of present moments—through drugs, sex, atonal chatter, and existential puzzlement—and arrives at something like emotional maturity. The novel has been read, too, along these lines, as Paul’s encounter with the other in the course of traveling or finding love in the “Internet Age,” or even as the opposite, as a parable about his will to total assimilation into media.

Yet where the Bildung’s arch of maturation should be, in Taipei there is only a slanted line cropped by weak epiphanies. Such interpretations, in any case, are laced with an assumption about its author’s generation: that it is thoroughly mediated by technology and therefore estranged, in the extreme, from existence. That Taipei’s characters ingest a haul of pills invites the conclusion that they are merely treating a new form of alienation with experimental medicine. One would think, by reading its critics, that Taipei is just The Magic Mountain in the present, only now the ill of the sanatoria have been rudely dumped onto the streets of Brooklyn.

Tao Lin has fielded accusations of generational syndrome for almost a decade. He has endured, even laughed at and encouraged, memes that call him autistic and reporters that question his sociopathy. His prose style, which is actually more of a construction, is referred to (sometimes in jest) as Affectless or Asperger’s Realism. Gawker, the anti-literary police of the aughts, even called his stunt-drunk public persona “retarded.” More than any of his contemporaries, Mr. Lin inflames the critical passion for diagnosis. This is propitious, too, for his perceived literary authenticity, because he is even more aware than his critics that he belongs to a generation understood to be mentally disordered.

Certainly Tao Lin’s early fiction invited the diagnosis of arrested development. More puerilia than juvenilia, works of fiction like Eeeee Eee Eeee and Bed not only courted immaturity but mated with it scandalously. Even their titles sound like baby talk. These early works amounted to an adolescent gesture, a tongue out, thumbs-to-cheeks, finger-wagging attempt to annoy the contemporary. Mr. Lin’s early prose reads like a student’s math assignment, a zero-sum game where ideas and things are added and subtracted in the way a child plays with a calculator, as in Eeeee Eee Eeee:

           Folding boxes is easier. Everyone is folding boxes. Andrew is folding
           boxes. If the entire job were to fold boxes people would scream. They
           would fold, and sometimes scream, existentially, then be dragged into
           a field and beaten into a paste.

Aspects of this arithmetical prose style have lingered, for better or worse, in Tao Lin’s present fiction. Taipei, in particular, is an accumulation of instances that totals out to zero. And the calculating substitution of catchwords preloaded with literary market value into appositives (“scream, existentially, then be dragged”) is now a hallmark of Mr. Lin’s prose. The difference now, the genius loci of his maturing fiction, lies in the sophistication of the formula. If Mr. Lin wanted to be accepted by readers and critics, he would have to build a house they would freely enter—and so his arithmetic has become a geometry. Yet the prevailing ethic is still the same. For the author of Taipei, meaning is an arbitrary construction that does not inhere in material things; it is still, therefore, a matter of taking apart and putting together, a narrative mathematics.

From Mr. Lin’s own e-mail mouth:

            Though all meaning is arbitrary it can still be used as a tool just
            like arbitrary rules can be created to make life “better.” I hope you
            understand.

Critics would do better not to play psychologist with an author who rejects inherent meaning; or, at least, if one wants to diagnose him with something, one should first put away the clinician’s coat. It is too difficult to say much about Tao Lin as a person that abets the reading of his fiction. This is probably because, like a politician, he shrouds himself behind an avatar, a veil of media that obscures the real Tao Lin from public vision. The meaning of Mr.. Lin, in other words, is revoked by the public persona he wields through media. When he sells videos of himself taking MDMA for a film company called MDMAfilms, this tell us nothing, really, about a novel where characters likewise take MDMA.

Nevertheless, Tao Lin’s avatar—the bare fact that he has one at all—is inextricable from his fiction; not only that, Mr. Lin’s persona fuels the engine of divisiveness that has driven his relevance for almost a decade. Early in his career, Gawker pleaded with him to “stop,” to cease all public activity because they found his “stunts” to be “irritating.” But these “stunts” did not irritate the fanatical militia of interns Mr. Lin has sometimes marshaled to defend his reputation by spreading his propaganda—mostly radioactive blurbs from Miranda July—all over digital and physical New York City.

The passions stirred by Mr. Lin began to cool in the early years of the new decade. Sometimes his admirers flashed praise for his maturing fiction; occasionally his self-prostitution met with highbrow disgust. But the drone of his public blabbering had softened, almost imperceptibly, to a hum. It was not so much that he took leave of the public, nor were his antics deemed less “retarded” than before. It was rather that Tao Lin became, for many readers, innocuous and merely present, an indie contemporary instead of a gadfly to high cosmopolitan fiction. This status, this constant presence, was all the more secured by his workmanlike output. After six books in four years, all for independent houses, Mr. Lin could be acknowledged as a literary contemporary even if he was not roundly respected. In 2010, Mr. Lin even published his novel Richard Yates to a consensus of muffled praise. It seemed enough, at the time, for American critics to guiltlessly pat him on the head for a novel that named its protagonists after Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. It was, after all, the year that cosmopolitan fiction had to reckon with its Freedom.

What has this to do with his fiction? With Taipei, Tao Lin acknowledges that the best way to be authentically contemporary in a literary world where such a thing is never interrogated—where “contemporary novel” indicates nothing of a book other than its recent publication—is to write a novel that emits only the buzz of mere presence. In such a milieu, it turns out that by creating a translucent veil that invites all interpretation yet rejects all meaning, an author can achieve a certain measure of generational authenticity. In other words: Mr. Lin transformed his avatar into a narrative construction.

 

Taipei begins with Paul, a young writer living in Brooklyn, and it first details, by way of a third-person narration, the final moments of Paul’s relationship with Michelle. In these first pages, we are introduced to the full range of Tao Lin’s mature, programmatic style. Nearly figurative language is pinned between quotation marks, as when Paul feels like he is “moving through the universe” instead of walking on a sidewalk. Dialogue is clipped. Characters speak (or Gchat) in a pidgin of the immediately expressible, of declarations and questions that rarely brush past the implicit:       

             “What,” said Paul at a normal volume.
             “Nothing,” said Michelle still grinning a little.
             “Why are you grinning?”
             “No reason,” said Michelle.
             “What caused you to grin?”
             “Nothing. Just life. The situation.”

What next strikes the reader of Taipei is not the absence of figurative language—so frequently attributed to Tao Lin’s prose—but instead the vague and scientistic metaphors that persist throughout.

             Fran slowly turned her head away to rotate her face, like a moon
             orbiting behind its planet, interestingly out of view.

Or again.

             Michelle stared at him silently a few seconds before her eyes became
             suddenly watery, the extra layer of translucence materializing like a
             shedding of something delicate.

The novel’s sentences sliver sensation and spread it evenly over a given moment, until feeling itself disappears into bodily movement (a turning head) or a fleeting sense of duration (“silently a few seconds”). Its similes are neither heavy enough to weigh down a succession of instants nor light enough to float toward neutral beauty, which is the only form of beauty that vague and scientistic language can handle. It takes less than a chapter to realize that Taipei’s scattered pools of figurative language are nothing but mirages meant to distract the reader from its desert of automated prose.

After a few pages, Paul’s relationship with Michelle dissolves. He then travels to Taipei before returning seamlessly to Brooklyn. There he attends party after party, as if pulled along a moving walkway. It soon becomes obvious that Paul’s waking sleepwalk is an effect of the novel’s third-person narration. The narrator, neither a character nor an impartial gaze, reveals itself to be a veil of mediation—like Mr. Lin’s own public persona—one that will shroud Paul’s existential frame for the duration of the novel, all the while posing the problem of life’s meaninglessness. In this way, Taipei casts itself in the Camusian mold of an existentialist novel that must demonstrate the arbitrariness of living at all. But to do this, it fixes upon the circumstances of characters who are young enough to live to the fullest, while at the same time delaying any meaning they might glean through stillness or reflection. The novel’s formal devices are devoted entirely to this end. Its language attenuates moments of intense being—episodes of drug intake or sexual interaction—with paradoxical language and indeterminate modifiers:

             In DuMont Burger’s bathroom Paul swallowed half of half a 30mg
             Oxycodone and .5mg Xanax, feebly amused to be already deviating,
             in moderate excess, from his plans to ingest specific amounts of drugs
             at certain times during his book tour.

Here a surplus of imprecise language is used (precisely) to nullify meaning. To be “feebly amused” is to emit little more than existential white noise; “already” contributes nothing to “deviating”; “moderate excess” is a textbook, self-canceling paradox; “specific amounts” and “certain times” round out the passage, one that began with narcotics and benzodiazepines, with a procession of zeros.

Although its characters are not incurious, Taipei’s narration rarely allows them to settle into introspection; instead, it trots them through dozens of nearly identical scenes. As a matter of strategy, many of these scenes are framed within single paragraphs, and an alarming number of these paragraphs begin with temporal markers. It is the novel’s attempt to reproduce within the reader the disorientation of rushing through an eternal present with great speed:

             There last night in Ohio, around midnight…

             In his room, around 2:30 a.m….

             Around three hours later…

             That night, at Pure Food and Wine…

In most novels, such markers are used as bolts of realism that fix the reader to a narrative sensorium. In Taipei, the proliferation of these timestamps resolves in paradox: at first they bracket Paul’s experience in the reader’s memory, but as the plot accelerates past them, as if in a speeding vehicle, they become signposts for the impossibility of recalling what has just occurred.

At the sentence level, too, the novel obeys an ethics of presentism, one that inflates its now-ness in order to crowd out the past and the future. It is not so much that a new clause rises up and overthrows the memory of the clause before it; it is more that each moment is loosely attached to the next in a rapid sequence, like bubbles in foam:

            When Paul entered the party, ahead of Daniel and Fran, Lindsay wreathed
            a plastic snake around his head and pulled him toward a hallway designated
            for photographs. Paul mumbled the word “bathroom” and walked away grin-
            ning into the kitchen, where Matt was standing alone, not apparently doing
            anything. Paul asked about his vacation. Matt said he drove a rental car with-
            out a plan to Maine and ate seafood in a restaurant alone, did other things
            alone. “It was really good,” he said, and briefly displayed a haunted and irre-
            ducibly unenthusiastic expression before reaching for chips. Paul walked out
            of the kitchen and looked at Fran sitting alone on the sofa where he’d eaten
            Fig Newmans five days ago and returned to the kitchen.

Paul and his friends are not evidently antisocial. They hang out in Brooklyn, or wherever Paul is on book tour; they travel and take drugs, mostly pills and cocaine and the infrequent hallucinogen; they have sex with each other. It also happens that one of Paul’s girlfriends licks cocaine off of his balls. No, Paul and his friends are living it up, sometimes responsibly—Paul is an established writer, after all—sometimes not so much. Yet while the narration announces this living, it never truly enters Paul’s mind or spirit, where meaning might reside, still forming; nor does it exit the range of his solipsism. Daring to do so would risk upending its alienation chamber: the narrative where Paul is existentially incarcerated.

This is the point. Paul is not able, for two reasons, to exit his epistemic box. The first reason, plainly put, is that Paul would cease to exist without this narration, given that Tao Lin has no interest in writing characters who are free in any sense of the word. The second is simply that Paul must loiter in this morass of estrangement until it is time for him to learn his lesson. Following this logic, Taipei is bookended by an impression and its attendant, if vague, epiphany. In the book’s first pages, Paul, living in Brooklyn, thinks about the word “somewhere” as “both a placeholder and ends.” The title of the book refers to such a somewhere, Taipei, where Paul’s parents have returned after living in the United States. While visiting them, once by himself, and later with a girl named Erin whom he dates for many pages, Paul is offered only a brief respite, a minor comedown from the onrush of presents he endures throughout the novel. Paul’s mother, with whom he struggled as a teenager, now discourages his drug use and expresses genuine care and love, although the barely visible scars of family drama mark him as a man who will always willfully manipulate women.

At the end of Taipei, the chain of presents breaks. The narrative begins to vacuum-seal itself when Paul sees Erin moving “independent of his perception” before he becomes “dimly aware of the existence of other places, on Earth, where he could go.” The realization that others, especially women, exist independently of Paul’s consciousness arises at the very moment when he stumbles upon a deeper awareness of the earth. Yet the reader is hard-pressed to identify precisely what prompted this Heideggerian double epiphany. Is it simply Paul’s reward for his Siddhartha-lite endurance of never ending sameness?

As an edifice built to stupefy and alienate the reader, Taipei is something to behold. It is like a hall of mirrors where the visitor’s reflection eliminates any trace of her original affect, where a smile is thrown back as an anesthetized mouth. Much of the credit must go to Tao Lin’s geometric narration—his styleless, anti-literary triangulation of intangible metaphors, self-neutralizing modifiers, and unceasing presents. It is the last of these, the novel’s presentism, that undergirds it and maintains its deleterious effects. This is fortunate, too, for Taipei, especially now that presentism has capered back from the 1960s French nouveau roman to become once more the writer-tested, critic-approved form of alienation. Presentism, as a strategy of alienation aimed toward the reader, has the advantage of reproducing the symptoms of certain disorders already tied to Tao Lin’s generation; namely, it simulates the bogeyman of mediated affectlessness that haunts every Millennial.

This presentism, and its mediation effect, gives Taipei its contemporary feel. The philosopher Boris Groys, writing about the “contemporary” in “contemporary art,” puts it best:

            Being contemporary can be understood as being immediately present,
            as being here-and-now. In this sense, art seems to be truly contempor-
            ary if it is perceived as being authentic, as being able to capture and
            express the presence of the present in a way that is radically uncorrupt-
            ed by past traditions.

The argument has already been made that Mr. Lin’s alienating prose is “radically uncorrupted by past traditions.” Writing for the New York Observer in 2010, after the publication of Richard Yates, critic Christian Lorentzen argues that Tao Lin’s prose “works to heighten a sense of alienation.” And it does. Still, he makes a weird case for the author’s radical newness when he writes that his style reverse-gentrifies

            all the advances Flaubert made in the representation of consciousness. But
            by rolling back modernity, [he has] also advanced the novel by exposing its
            distortions.

It is surprising that Mr. Lorentzen would clear 150 years of literature like a slum in order to erect Lin Towers; he even bulldozes, in due course, Mr. Lin’s stylistic forebears. Yet the presentation of alienating, even minimalist forms of presentism is not a contemporary breakthrough; it is unquestionably a hallmark of literary vanguardism in French and American prose throughout the twentieth century. Even in the 1930s, Sartre wrote about Hemingway, Faulkner, and Camus as novelists of minimal presentism. Camus himself conceded this point, announcing the Literature of the Absurd as an ethically and morally neutral capitulation to presentism, or as he put it: “The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man.” Nor does Mr. Lin’s prose differ radically from Camus’, save for the latter’s first-person narration:

            A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean
            anything but that I didn’t think so. She looked sad. But as we were getting
            lunch ready, and for no apparent reason, she laughed in such a way that I
            kissed her. It was at that point that we heard what sounded like a fight break
            out in Raymond’s room.

It hardly matters, though, if Tao Lin’s geometrically pristine yet arbitrary novel is derivative. The perception that it is uncorrupted by tradition, that it avails itself of presentism, that it merely exists, unweighted with the baggage of meaning or sentiment, is more than enough for it to earn its contemporaneity, and by extension, its author’s authenticity. Taipei is beautifully cut, to be sure, like a diamond. But like a diamond, it unthinkingly weathers the present. If Mr. Lin is going to offer up such gifts to his generation in the future, here’s to hoping the next one is a less perfect but thinking thing.