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 façades 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.


  1. Nicely done! Best review of Taipei I've read yet.

  2. One of my favorite passages from Tapei:

    "As the beating slowly normalized he'd think of how his heart, unlike him, was safely contained, away from the world, behind bone and inside skin, held by muscles and arteries in its place, carefully off-center, as if to artfully assert itself as source and creator, having grown the chest to hide in and to muffle and absorb - and, later, after innovating the brain and face and limbs, to convert into productive behavior - its uncontrollable, indefensible, unexplainable, embarrassing squeezing of itself."

    1. Thank you Les. I paid attention to that part because I previous blogged about the use of heart-as-metaphor in a poem in his first book. He's really good at riding that line where you almost can't take it seriously, because it's too sentimental, and you think he can't take it seriously himself, but somehow he makes it strangely poignant.

    2. Ah, now I see my last comment was mildly brain-dead, especially after I looked up this (

      I really like the comparison to Henry James. Tao as James with more of a heart perhaps?

      Just on a personal level, the interesting thing about Taipei for me is that it feels more like a linear "story", even though so much of it is analytically psychological, compared to his other work. I'm re-reading Richard Yates now, which seems like just a beautifully-written story on the surface, but to me approaches allegory, and includes more imagistic description- not striving to "record" as much as Taipei. Probably just a personal thing, but I really recommend Richard Yates to anyone who hasn't read it.

    3. Thanks for the recommendation -- I've still yet to read his other long-form prose.