Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dolly Parton pretty much rules

The best cover of "Jolene" so far turns out to be Dolly Parton herself, slowed down by 25%:

I love it!!!

I rewatched Steel Magnolias recently and was blown away by what a good actress Dolly Parton is. She's entirely in the same tier as Shirley Maclaine. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, is not all that impressive, though her bad Southern accent probably makes her seem worse than she is.

Relatedly: I watched The Parent Trap (original version) for the first time in 15 years or so, and Hayley Mills' performance is totally subtle and sophisticated. Not only does she play the twins different, she plays them playing each other differently! It's pretty amazing. You don't even think about the "special effects."

Yeah, since being in a play, I notice acting more, not that I didn't before.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Semantics of the Word “Beautiful”

I’m interested in the semantics of the word “beautiful,” specifically with regard to physical, human beauty, so let’s set aside for now the matter of aesthetic judgments of music, art, horses, the sky and other objects we sometimes call “beautiful.” Let’s also, for the purposes of this discussion, set aside New Age–y, Christina Aguilera–ish notions about “inner beauty,” where “beauty” is conflated with some kind of essential value or moral goodness. In other words, let’s not say “Everyone is beautiful” when what we mean is “Everyone has intrinsic value,” if that is in fact what we mean. (Even if everyone potentially has moral goodness, some people, in practice, are Hitler.)

So what do we mean when we say someone is “beautiful”? How does a “beautiful” person differ from a “pretty” or “attractive” or “handsome” or “good-looking” or “cute” or “striking” person? Let’s start with some discussion questions.

1. What percentage of people are “beautiful”? 5%? 10%? 20%? In other words, what percentile rank, on the scale of attractiveness, qualifies someone as beautiful? In a group of 30 people (a college class?) how many, if any, are likely to be beautiful? I do mean this to be a semantic question – how much is rarity tied up with our conception of beauty? – rather than one of demographics. (It occurs to me that the standard 1-10 scale of attractiveness must follow a bell curve; in other words, there are far more 5’s than there are 10’s, or 1’s for that matter.)

2. Are women more likely to call other women “beautiful” than men are likely to call women beautiful, or is it the other way around? In other words, is the cut-off point between classifying a woman as beautiful versus merely attractive at a different percentage (say, 20% versus 10%) depending on what gender is doing the perceiving, or is it about the same? 2b. That’s looking at it from a heteronormative perspective; how does the meaning of “beautiful” change, if it changes, when gay men describe other men or gay women describe other women? The standards of beauty must be different, not being normative and reinforced/exaggerated in the media on the same constant basis, but does the word itself have different applications? What is its use value in LGBT culture?

3. Similarly, is the cut-off at a different point for men versus women when they are on the receiving end of the judgment? Do men need to be in the top 5 percentile to be judged as “beautiful” versus “handsome” or “attractive,” whereas women need only be in the 20th percentile to be called “beautiful”? (I suspect something like this is the case; “beautiful” is gendered enough that we’re more reluctant to use it in reference to men.)

4. Are the standards for who gets called beautiful different depending on the group we consider them part of? For example, might a Hollywood actress appear beautiful in a room full of regular people, but not beautiful by Hollywood actress standards? Or is “beautiful” absolute?

5. Does “beautiful” imply objectivity? Studies indicate that people generally agree who is attractive and who isn’t. (“Eye of the beholder” is a phrase used for outliers; consensus is the general rule.) Do we use the word “beautiful” to acknowledge mass agreement? I.e., “She is beautiful” usually means “She is beautiful, obviously,” not “I find her beautiful; isn’t that interesting?” (A friend commented: “‘Attractive’ is transitive; ‘beautiful’ is intransitive.”)

6. Is attractive literal? I’m also interested in the semantics of the word “attractive,” which seems oddly functional, almost like “serviceable,” but without the implied insult. In beauty set theory, “attractive” seems the most all-encompassing term, entirely gender-neutral and otherwise inclusive (perhaps even encompassing qualities that are not physical). But what exactly does it mean to describe someone as attractive? Does it imply that you are in fact attracted to them, even if you don't plan to act on that attraction? Or just that you could be, under the right circumstances? Would it be contradictory to say, “He’s attractive, but I’m not attracted to him”?

7. How synonymous are “hot and “beautiful? (Do you still describe people as “hot”? I can only use this cheesy term with at least a little irony.) Are “beautiful” people always by definition “hot,” or is “hotness” a separate quality, something more like sexiness? 7b. Is “gorgeous” closer to “hot” or “beautiful”? (To me, “gorgeous” is a subset of “beautiful,” i.e. you can’t get to gorgeous without being beautiful first.)

8. What about “striking? Continuing with the set theory idea, I’d be interested to see how people map adjectives like “striking” against these other terms – is “striking” a subset of “beautiful,” or do people mainly use it to mean “unconventionally attractive but not quite beautiful”? In my mind, striking people are also beautiful, but I wonder if most people use it as more of a euphemism.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Randall Jarrell Was Totally Wrong About Philosophy in Poetry

From "Reflections on Wallace Stevens" in Poetry and the Age:

The habit of philosophizing in poetry—or of seeming to philosophize, of using a philosophical tone, images, constructions, of having quasi-philosophical daydreams—has been unfortunate for Stevens. Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem; the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano.

Randall Jarrell is great, but I disagree with these three sentences in so many ways:

  1. Poetry is a terrific medium for philosophy! Philosophical ideas needs space, breathing room, and poetry is ready-made to provide that space. Prose can also be engineered to make more open spaces where thinking can happen (synapses—a return as at the end of a line or stanza or paragraph creates a juncture; see the form of Kate Zambreno's Heroines), but the prose that's best for philosophy resembles poetry as much as it resembles other prose. 
  2. Why should interestingness be the last demand we make of philosophy? Bad philosophy has two ways to fail: by being wrong, or by being terribly uninteresting. Science, perhaps, does not have to be interesting, since it can rest of the laurels of being useful. But philosophy is only useful if it is interesting.
  3. When poetry isn't interesting, the problem is rarely that it's too philosophical. If anything, the opposite it to blame for most dull poetry: cliches, empty images, pointless metaphors, sentimentality, obscurantist fanciness at the level of langauge/syntax replacing and distracting from the absence of interesting ideas, of philosophy. 
  4. What's so bad about a "forlorn and absurd air"? That almost seems like a prerequisite for being a poet. What's the opposite of forlorn and absurd? Gladsome and reasonable? Cheery and realistic? Sounds like awful poetry.
  5. Along similar lines, a "sewing-machine that also plays the piano" is a beautiful definition of a poem.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Live-tweeting Dirty Dancing

It's time for another Sommer & Elisa live-tweet! We're veering out of Kubrick Kountry this time to watch everyone's favorite end-of-summer movie, Dirty Dancing.

Synchronize your watches and start the movie at 7 pm Denver time (do the math for your respective time zone) on Sunday, September 8. Barrelhouse has kindly offered to sponsor the event and has donated some literary goods, so we'll be awarding prizes for best and worst tweets. Don't forget to use the hashtag #watermelon.

You can RSVP to the Facebook event here. See you at Kellerman's!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Some embarrassing songs I like

Let's all confess the worst songs we like!

Sometimes I like songs I think are legitimately good but they're by embarrassing artists. Like "Hands Clean" by Alanis Morrissette; only a million people have watched the video which means it basically doesn't exist:

I've probably mentioned before how much I like "I'm With You" by Avril Lavigne. I'm pretty sure I despise every other song she has recorded; "Complicated" is down there with Dave Matthews Band in terms of pure musical puke that should be banned. But I find "I'm With You" oddly, deeply affecting.

Sometimes everything about the songs is embarrassing. I'll totally sing along when "Santeria" comes on a jukebox, oh yes! I'm that girl:

And why the F do I like "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World? I don't know, but it's undeniable.

Sometimes it's the video itself that I like and that can be embarrassing too. I'm not even embarrassed to say I think "Call Me Maybe" is a damn good song; everyone agrees, right? Justin Bieber put it best when he said:

But I don't watch the official video; I watch the one with Biebs and Selena Gomez and all their friends. Don't make me explain:

In my defense I have never and would never buy any of this crap. But I definitely stop and turn it up when they come on the radio.

Your turn.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What if my name were Chloe?

One of my Twitter bros just posted this gedankentweet:
It reminded me of something similar I tweeted a while back:
You can do this with any name I guess; would be weird to be named Myrtle or Dave. But "Chloe" in particular, I feel, gives me uncanny feelings, I think because it's just similar enough to Elisa in terms of basic characteristics (squarely feminine, vaguely European, not deeply tied to any historical period) and just different enough in effect. You see, a "Chloe" seems always to be first and foremost aesthetic — I expect Chloes to be beautiful, perhaps ethereally beautiful, delicate, artistic. Probably sexy, but at least sensual. I don't think of myself as a Chloe at all. But if I were named Chloe, would I think of myself that way?

This also reminds me of the Name-Letter Effect: "your subconscious preference for things that sound like your own name." In other words, people whose names start with a C are more likely to live in California or drink Coke instead of Pepsi. If your last name is Law, you're more likely to become a lawyer than the average person, etc. (Oddly, I've always hated brand names that start with E.)

Anyway, quick poll: I have no idea, really, what connotations the name "Elisa" has, since I'm too close to it. The first time you heard my name, or met another Elisa, what expectations did that create? What does "Elisa" mean to you?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Dioramarama: Farrah Field's Miniaturisms and Orson Welles on the Thorne Rooms

I almost forgot to tell you about a little essay I wrote about Farrah Field's new book, Wolf and Pilot. I focused on Field's obsession with size:

In the book’s closing notes, we learn that the first poem’s details are based on a Narcissa Thorne diorama. It makes perfect sense that Field would find inspiration in dioramas (from the Greek roots di-, “through,” and orama, “that which is seen, a sight”), because the poems in Wolf and Pilot have the feel of a scale replica—perfect and delicate like dollhouse rooms. And in “Dalebound,” there’s an embedded effect: We watch the dolls peer into their own diorama, a miniaturized view of the future. 
What are Field’s dioramas made of? Words, of course, and stanzas (Italian for “room”). But also textures—grass, wool, leather, linen. And references—the word “dalebound” is borrowed from a Ross Brighton poem. And Dickinsonian feathers—hope is usually reserved for the future, but these girls look for hope in their past. (Outside of our unreliable memories, the past is as gone to us as the future.) 
Every particular makes sense within the box, with its one open wall for us to peer through (“Someone’s always watching,” Emaline says, “but never where you think.”). But they have uncertain reference to the larger outside world. Do these objects represent reality, reflect and refract it, or does life imitate art? (“We are the girls,” they say. “Everything in the world points to us.”) In our world, up a level, “just like heaven” is a reference to The Cure, but does The Cure exist in the world of the box? Probably not—though the box does have pizza and friendship bracelets, other paraphernalia of pre-teen sleepovers. The girls are older now, old enough for drinks, but not too old to indulge in funereal fantasies, where one discovers who really loved you, and if you’ll be missed.

You can read the full thing here.

I also wanted to share this fascinating little snippet with you. Michael Gushue sent it my way, via our mutual friend Kathleen Rooney, with this note attached: "Hey, will you do me a favor and forward this extract to Elisa? It's from Barbara Lemmings's biography of Orson Welles. I saw that Elisa mentioned the Thorne rooms in her review of Wolf and Pilot. I thought she might find this interesting." Thank you Michael, I do! Here's the bit (From Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Lemming):
“And when you go inside I want you to ask somebody to direct you to the Thorne rooms,” he continued. 
When I asked Orson what were the Thorne rooms and why he was so anxious for me to see them, he refused to explain. 
“As soon as you get to Chicago, just go and see them,” he insisted, “and then come right back to the hotel and call me to tell me what you think of them.” 
Fair enough. 
But when I arrived in Chicago, after stops in several other cities, I was tired and wanted more than anything to sleep. At dawn on Saturday morning the phone was madly ringing in my hotel room. It was Orson. Had I taken his walk yet? Had I been to see them? What were they like? What had I thought? 
And so I took the walk Orson mapped out for me, past the magical toy shop that no longer existed, past the bronze lions with their ripping tails, and into the cavernous lobby of the Art Institute, where a guard directed me to the children’s museum in the basement. 
And there they were. 
It was difficult to see at first, because they were set low for children. But when I bent low and looked in, I was mesmerized. The Thorne Rooms were a series of illuminated boxes set into the wall. To see inside, to see inside, you had to look through a picture frame and a piece of glass that separated you from the densely furnished miniature room. The rooms suggested a dazzling variety of periods and places. The picture frames sealed off these richly detailed fantasy worlds, intensifying their sense of strangeness. 
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I brought Orson a surprise from Chicago, a catalogue of the Thorne rooms. We were having dinner at Ma Maison when I gave it to him. At first, as he tore open the package and saw the book’s title, Orson was beside himself with excitement at the prospect of seeing his beloved Thorne rooms again. But hardly had he turned the cover and flipped through a few pages, when he tossed the book on the floor. 
“What’s the matter,” I asked, trying to conceal my agitation. 
“This is useless to me.” 
“This isn’t my magic box. Don’t you see what they’ve done? They’ve cut the frames off!”

When I retrieved the book and opened it, I saw what Orson meant. There were the miniature rooms I had viewed in Chicago, but not the frames that enclosed them. To Orson, the frame had been all, separating as it did the artist’s heightened, imaginary world from the prosaic “real” outside the magic box.
I absolutely love the Thorne rooms, by the way. One of my favorite things in any museum. Funnily enough, before I even finished reading this passage, I thought to myself, I should get a book of the Thorne rooms! And I went with haste to Amazon to search for one. I found a nice-looking coffee table book but noticed immediately that the cover image just looked like any room, because the rooms are so realistic, and when you're not viewing them in person, you lose the sense of scale. ("Scale," I think, is part of the "aura" of the art object; see also the sublime and photographs and aura.) So me and Orson Welles, we're like this.

Top image via Knoxville Museum of Art

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Some Notes on Tao Lin’s TAIPEI

On expectations, hype, etc.

At this point, Tao Lin’s reputation precedes him. His writing is often described as flat, affectless, straightforwardly minimalist, and either painfully “sincere” or ironically distant to the point of meaninglessness. These characteristics do not describe Taipei, his latest novel, out from Vintage this summer, at least not well. I’ll try to describe the book in more detail shortly, but let me say first that my purpose in writing about it is partially to respond to the many people, those I know and those I don’t know, who seem strongly averse to, even infuriated by an idea of “Tao Lin” which has become an inaccurate caricature. Too, I think an idea of the “Tao Lin fan” has emerged and is a caricature in itself: a young, clueless, HTML Giant–reading alt-lit type self-consciously obsessed with fa├žades of coolness. The anti–Tao Lin crowd is in opposition as much to this supposed fan base (which probably does exist) as to the author and his work. Further, this fan base is perceived to have been duped by hype into seeing something where there is nothing.

As an “early supporter” of Tao Lin’s poetry and short fiction, I have consciously avoided reading his Melville House books, having somehow absorbed so much “negative hype” about them that I grew to worry I wouldn’t like them. And like many writers I know, I feel variously alienated, annoyed, and offended by the HTML Giant “scene,” which I vaguely associate with him. Meanwhile, I’ve maintained a kind of distant friendship with Tao over the Internet – that is, I think of him as a friend, although the word “friend” might suggest a misleading level of intimacy. I’ve only met him in person a few times – at least we were in the same room a few times (we have read at the same events on several occasions, once in Amherst, once in Brooklyn, and at least once in Boston), but most of our interactions have been online; we’re sort of like near strangers who feel unusually positively toward each other. Increasingly, my fondness for him is coupled with a kind of defensive loyalty, as I see him as largely misunderstood. Anyway, he recently offered to send me a copy of Taipei, and I gladly accepted, and started reading it with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. I think it’s a brilliant book – flawed, sure, but all brilliant books are flawed.

Anyway, with that preamble out of the way, let’s talk a little about the book. (Quick summary: It’s the story of how Paul, a young, successful writer, becomes increasingly embroiled with drugs over the course of about a year, during which time he marries and starts a “film company” with another writer named Erin.)

On style and substance in Taipei

Like The Designated Mourner (the Wallace Shawn play I’ve been performing with Denver Poets’ Theatre), Taipei is aggressively stylized to the point of forcing discomfort for 5 to 10 minutes until you adjust to the new reality and learn how to experience it. The discomfort arises from a very literal, precise description that feels not like fiction but a hybrid of magazine journalism and a director’s notes to himself for a scene in a film with no dialogue. See the first sentence:

It began raining a little from a hazy, cloudless-seeming sky as Paul, 26, and Michelle, 21, walked toward Chelsea to attend a magazine-release party at an art gallery.

This style is initially unsettling, and a close-minded reader looking for reasons to hate this book will find in it confirmation of his worst biases. It’s toneless! It’s inhuman! It’s lazy, artless writing! But by the end of the first chapter, you’re aware of two things: First, Tao Lin is way funnier than he’s given credit for. Second, Lin’s prose is not at all “minimalist” in the usual sense of the word. Rather, it’s marked most by long, dense sentences that would challenge a champion diagrammer and elaborate extended metaphors. For example:

On the plane, after a cup of black coffee, Paul thought of Taipei as a fifth season, or “otherworld,” outside, or in equal contrast with, his increasingly familiar and self-consciously repetitive life in America, where it seemed like the seasons, connecting in right angles, for some misguided reason, had formed a square, sarcastically framing nothing – or been melded, Paul vaguely imagined, about an hour later, facedown on his arms on his dining tray, into a door-knocker, which a child, after twenty to thirty knocks, no longer expecting an answer, has continued using, in a kind of daze, distracted by the pointlessness of his activity, looking absently elsewhere, unaware when he will abruptly, idly stop.

Taipei is full of this kind of oddly effective circumlocution. The sheer number of clauses and interruptions and qualifications forces re- and re-reading. “Effortless,” unlabored prose that you skate over without noticing is often taken to be a virtue, but I admire the toothiness of the writing in Taipei, and found myself savoring whole paragraphs for much longer than strictly necessary. Understanding in these passages comes pleasantly slowly, as though you’re circling sleepily around a thought of your own you can’t quite complete, but are nevertheless sure is interesting. (I was surprised that Lin’s meandering, sometimes difficult sentences reminded me more of Henry James or Faulkner than the Lish-y writers he is often associated with.)

The book deviates from near-real-time reportage, interspersed with occasional snippets of memory/flashback, only once in ~250 pages. It’s a passage in Chapter 2 that I’d hold up defiantly to anyone who claimed Taipei is uninteresting. In a way, it makes the book. Paul wakes up feeling disoriented and, as a kind of check against forgetting his context, quickly recaps the events of the past several months to himself, along with his plans for the near future, placing himself in a self-excusing “interim period” between his recent move and his upcoming book tour. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the (very close third person) narrator launches into a seven-page version of Paul’s life history, beginning with his birth and moving through a series of anecdotes which we take to be significant events in Paul’s development as a person. It should not work (why does it work?) but it does – somehow I believe this history; I believe that an outgoing, popular child could become a withdrawn, cripplingly self-conscious social outcast based on a single incident in middle school:

Paul wanted to play percussion like three of his friends, including his “best friend,” Hunter, but his piano teacher said percussion would bore him, so he chose trumpet, which he disliked, but continued playing until the summer before high school, when he switched to percussion on the first day of “band camp,” which was ten hours of practice every weekday for two weeks. During lunch break, that day, Paul was practicing alone by silently counting and sometimes tapping a cymbal with a soft-headed mallet when a senior percussionist, the section leader, began teasing him from across the room, saying he was “so cool” and something about his baggy jeans, which his skateboarding brother, at college in Philadelphia, had left in Florida. Paul was unable to think anything, except that he didn’t know what to do, at all, so he committed to doing nothing, which the senior incorporated into his teasing by focusing on how Paul was “too cool” to react, continuing for maybe thirty seconds before commenting briefly on Paul’s hair and leaving the room.

This sets off a series of events through which Paul becomes uncomfortable around his friends and increasingly withdrawn:

Two months into freshman year he had committed to not speaking in almost all situations. He felt ashamed and nervous around anyone who’d known him when he was popular and unself-conscious. […] The rare times he spoke – in classes where no one knew him, or when, without knowing why, for one to forty minutes, he’d become aggressively confident and spontaneous as he’d been in elementary/middle school, about which his friends poignantly would always seem genuinely excited – he’d feel “out of character,” indicating he’d completed a transformation and was now, in a humorlessly surreal way, exactly what he didn’t want to be and wished he wasn’t.

I cannot relate directly to a great deal of the experience in this book (since so much of it involves being fucked up on drugs I have never tried) but moments like this feel deeply true, and touching to an almost tragic extent. It reminds me of a moment toward the end of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, when Mick’s coming of age is portrayed as a horrible, irreversible transition from a girl’s freedom to a life with no choices. (For other books that depict the end of childhood as a startling, sometimes crushing realization of self-consciousness, see The Mountain Lion and A High Wind in Jamaica.)

This moment is important, too, because it’s echoed later on, in the novel’s present, when Paul decides, in more or less the same way that he decided to stop speaking – arbitrarily but with complete conviction – to appear in public only while drunk and/or high. To the reader, of course, and probably to Paul and certainly to the author, the fallacy of these decisions is painfully clear. They are comforting in as much as they are decisions, making future events feel more under his control, when in fact he is only controlling one variable, and in doing so inviting chaos.

On character and setting in Taipei

Most of the characters – twenty-something kids that do a lot of drugs – are boring and interchangeable, aside from Paul. But Paul, too, would be boring if it weren’t for the close third person narration giving us special access to his interiority. We’d despise him if we had only his actions and words to judge him by. (Novels: making boring people less boring since 1470!) Throughout, Paul’s thoughts – often muddied by drugs but still complex, fumbling toward profundity – are rendered superficial and inane by their manifestation into speech, as if via translation by a non-native speaker who is also drunk:

As the bus moved into denser parts of Taipei, nearing Paul’s parents’ apartment building, Paul felt like he could almost sense the computerization that was happening in this area of the universe, on Earth – could imagine the three-or four-minute simulation, in a documentary that probably existed, of occurrence and eventual, omnidirectional expansion, converting asteroids and rays and stars, then galaxies and clusters of galaxies, as they became elapsed in space, into more of itself. Paul had read about this in high school, lying on the carpet in his room, in The End of Science, with excitement, intuiting that, from the perspective of the computer at the end of everything, which he would be a part of and which would synthetically resemble an undifferentiated oneness, it didn’t matter if he had never kissed a girl, was too anxious to communicate with his peers, had no friends, etc. When Erin woke, seeming depressed and confused, avoiding looking at anything as she sat up, Paul patted his lap and she lay there again. Paul asked if she could think of a newer word for “computer” than “computer,” which seemed outdated and, in still being used, suspicious in some way, like maybe the word itself was intelligent and had manipulated culture in its favor, perpetuating its usage.

“I’m still thinking,” she said after a few minutes. 
“I don’t think my question made sense,” said Paul. “There can’t be a newer word … for the same word.”

The distance between "Paul" and the author is continually widening and narrowing. At times, especially in the first third of the book, the reader can believe Paul is only similar to, loosely based on Tao Lin. As you read on this illusion is forcefully broken, as when a poem written by Tao Lin (the infamous "whale poem") is attributed to Paul. By the end I, at least, had come to think of Paul as an exact facsimile of Tao Lin – of Paul’s father as Lin’s father, and so on. This does not, however, diminish the accomplishment of the book; I was only more astounded as to how Lin was capable of conveying “altered states” with so much insight if he was in fact “altered” at the time.

And what of Taipei? Most of the book takes place in New York and its environs, not in Taipei. But Taipei is a fitting setting for Paul’s retreat from reality as we know it. Especially there, in the “otherworld,” he is free to act without reason or consequence, being mostly ignored and not understood. As Paul and Erin film a “documentary” about “Taiwan’s First McDonald’s” on Paul’s MacBook, the locals blend into the scenery as insects into a forestscape. Because he is not fluent in Mandarin, even interactions with his family are “non-advancing and often koan-like.” And so Taipei seems to encourage Paul’s further relinquishment of control, via near-constant ingestion of MDMA, Xanax and other substances, to become an almost mechanical part of a larger flow, with a consciousness emergent outside himself.

Other miscellaneous notes on Taipei

* I see a definite kinship between Taipei and Leaving the Atocha Station, mostly at the level of scope and theme, rather than style. I know Lin admires Ben Lerner (see this great interview from The Believer), but I’m not sure to what extent the influence is uni- or bidirectional or simply coincidental, since they’re both lit darlings of my generation and may just have their fingers on the pulse of the same zeitgeist, etc. Some key differences:

  • Lerner’s prose is crisper, more concise, and more obviously “clever,” whereas Lin’s (as I’ve belabored) is rangy, dense, sometimes obsessive. Both are smart and funny in equal measure. 
  • Though both books seem pretty much autobiographical, Lerner’s focuses much more on the actual business of writing, whereas in Taipei, Paul is understood to be the author of a number of books, but he is never seen writing and seemingly does not talk or think about it much. 
  • Interestingly, both novels end with a kind of hopeful redemption. I found the end of Taipei to be more successful. LTAS had something of a forced happy ending, but Taipei ends more ambiguously – after eating a bunch of mushrooms, Paul believes himself to have overdosed and died – and then somehow enters back into existence through an act of will, “by discerning some code or pattern of connections in his memory.” This spell passes, and after hugging Erin, he is surprised to hear himself say he feels “grateful to be alive.” Is he actually grateful? In the moment, probably. (Here the quotes apparently denote speech and not irony.) Is he giving up the drug life? Probably not, but we don’t know because those are the last words in the book. 

* As evidence of the aforementioned mass-dismissal, in certain circles, of Tao Lin and his work, I offer this: Shortly after starting the book, I tweeted "Taipei is HILARIOUS" and three people immediately replied with some variation on the quip, "Intentionally?" as though certainly it could not be funny on purpose, only as camp! To which I respond, I'm not laughing at it, but who can know what geniuses intend?

* I think Tao Lin has a knack for dialogue and it’s where he’s at his funniest.

* There’s a moment toward the end where Paul suggests that he, Erin, and two high school students they’ve befriended have an orgy and film it. Maggie, who is seventeen, resists. “It’s not worth doing at all if it’s not filmed,” says Paul, which is just like that part in the Truth or Dare documentary where Warren Beatty makes fun of Madonna for seemingly believing the same thing – that life happens on film or it doesn’t happen at all.

* If this book had a "thesis" (it doesn't, but humor me) it could be that all the social mirrors we surround ourselves with now (Facebook, etc.) make self-consciousness even more conscious, and therefore even more paralyzing.