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Review: Taipei (2013) by Tao Lin   Leave a comment

coverTao Lin is hot property in the world of contemporary literature, with Taipei, his third novel, being hailed as his breakthrough work. Part of his appeal lies, no doubt, in his capacity to divide: whether as a person and a writer, he tends either to inspire adoration as the voice of his generation or hatred for being a shallow impostor. Lin also complicates matters further by blurring the lines between fiction and autobiography in making Paul, the protagonist of Taipei, into a rather transparent stand-in for his own self. Paul essentially shares every aspect of Tao Lin’s history, from his Taiwanese background to his rampant drug use.

One of Lin’s champions is Bret Easton Ellis, and it is perhaps no surprise that Taipei is being compared to Ellis’s debut novel Less Than Zero (1985). In terms of personality, though, these two writers could not be more different. Unlike the self-promoting, egoistic Ellis, Lin, to coin a term, is a “black hole” provocateur. In the interviews I have read, he comes across as curiously passive and non-committal, much like the protagonist of Taipei, in a way that initially makes me want to punch him in the face for his apparent pretentiousness but, after further consideration, makes me also admire his ability to provoke such a reaction in spite of his utterly flavorless personality (nonetheless, I still want to punch him in the face).

Taipei had a similar effect on me as I was reading it. The opening pages were a lesson in patience: endlessly detailed descriptions of Paul’s passive-aggressive interactions with his initial girlfriend Michelle, introductions to a myriad of characters who bobbed in and out of the story without much significance, a lack of clear plot direction, and most grating of all, the minutiae of Paul’s online activity, as he cycles through an assortment of online chats, emails, blogs, texts, and other social media that are just as boring to him as they are to us as readers. Taipei is a boring, plot-less novel about a pretentious, self-absorbed protagonist who fritters away his time on worthless pursuits, goes to parties, does LOTS of drugs, whines about his poor relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriends while doing everything in his power to alienate them, and generally inhabits a zone of hipster privilege that is itself a cultural cliche. Not only that, but the novel’s title misleads the reader into expecting that it will shed some light on Taipei in some way, but when Paul goes to that city he does the exact same things he does in America: takes lots of drugs, plays with his MacBook, and sets about alienating his female companion.

My opinion started to moderate a little not because the novel improved dramatically as it went on or suddenly took on some kind of coherent plot, but because I began to see some unexpected similarities between Lin’s writing and earlier works of literature. Throughout Taipei, for instance, Lin uses quotation marks to indicate phrases that seem like cliches, and while in the early stages of reading I reacted, for instance, to Kyle’s description of Traci as “really hot” in quotation marks with an angry note in the margin (“what is this? high school?”), I reluctantly remembered that Flaubert does much the same thing in Madame Bovary, albeit with italics rather than quotation marks. I remembered also reading about Sartre’s drug habits, about how he was so amped up on speed that if you examine his handwritten manuscripts you can see where his handwriting slides off the edge of the page from writing so quickly.

It was the Sartre connection that really got me thinking, making me ponder a possible resonance between Taipei and Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938). Nausea is a meditation on the anxiety of existence, a haunting feeling which troubles all human beings but that bothers, in particular, the novel’s sensitive central character Antoine Roquentin. Roquentin seems to be more attuned than others to this existential condition, and Sartre explores his protagonist’s ongoing dilemma through two main avenues: Roquentin’s ambivalent relationship with an Englishwoman, Anny, and various lyrical moments of philosophical insight, the most famous of which occurs when Roquentin sits on a park bench and contemplates the root of a chestnut tree (a passage that was inspired, it is said, by Sartre’s experiments with mescaline).

The best parts of Taipei more or less follow these aspects of Sartre’s novel. In place of Anny, Lin inserts Erin, a writer from Baltimore, into the story, who provides a breath of fresh air after Paul’s earlier, insipid entanglements with Michelle and then Laura, relationships that revealed little about the characters and did not move along the plot in any way. Erin, by contrast, provides an excellent foil to Paul’s character in the second half of the book, indulging his immature impulses by sharing drugs, making amateur films with Paul on their ubiquitous MacBooks, going to Las Vegas with him, visiting his family in Taipei, and then returning to New York for the novel’s final binge on heroin and magic mushrooms. Erin is the only character in the novel with any warmth and depth, and it is for this reason that she actually manages to shed some light on the colorless protagonist in Paul.

The true potential of this novel, however, comes into focus whenever Lin follows Sartre by providing the reader with lyrical contemplations about the meaning of existence. Normally, the prose style of the novel is either dull (tedious, in-depth descriptions of drug-taking and email-checking) or, in some cases, laughably clumsy. Lin comes up with some awful similes, from comparing Paul’s inability to understand others to “an amoeba trying to create a personal webpage using CSS” (p.10), to his protagonist’s social discomfort being “not unlike playing a difficult Nintendo game alone, with no instruction manual” (p.37). But these moments are somewhat redeemed by some glimpses of true lyrical beauty, such as this passage in which Paul imagines technology subverting its role as humanity’s slave and slowing taking over society:

“At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness. Instead of postponing death by releasing nanobots into the bloodstream to fix things faster than they deteriorated, implanting little computers into people’s brains, or other methods Paul had probably read about on Wikipedia, until it became the distant, shrinking, nearly nonexistent somethingness that was currently life— and life, for immortal humans, became the predominate [“predominant”?] distraction that was currently death— technology seemed more likely to permanently eliminate life by uncontrollably fulfilling its only function: to indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter, for the sole purpose, it seemed, of increased functioning, until the universe was one computer. Technology, an abstraction, undetectable in concrete reality, was accomplishing its concrete task, Paul dimly intuited while idly petting Erin’s hair, by way of an increasingly committed and multiplying workforce of humans , who receive , over hundreds of generations, a certain kind of advancement (from feet to bicycles to cars, faces to bulletin boards to the internet) in exchange for converting a sufficient amount of matter into computerized matter for computers to be able to build themselves.” (p.167)

Or, to give an another example, here is a beautiful passage from late in the story in which Paul, high on mushrooms, imagines that his being is melding with that of Erin:

“His steady, controlled petting of one of Erin’s vertebra with the cuticle of his right index finger gradually felt like his only method of remaining in concrete reality, where he and Erin, and other people, shared a world. Sometimes, forgetting what he was doing, his finger would slow or stop and he would become aware of a drifting sensation and realize he was being absorbed— from an indiscernible distance, beyond which he wouldn’t know how to return— and, with some urgency, move his body or open his eyes, seeing grid-like overlays on the walls and holograms of graph paper in the air, to interrupt his being taken. The effort became gradually smaller and more unconscious and, as if for something to do, in place of what was now automatic, Paul began to discern his rhythmic petting as a continuous striving to elicit certain information from Erin by responding or not responding to her rhythms, in a cycle whose goal was to produce momentary equilibriums. He felt increasingly attuned to the speed and quality of her breathing and heart rate, until he felt able to instantly discern changes in her physiology, which in entirety began to seem like an inconstant unit of unique, irreducible information (an ever-changing display of only prime numbers) that was continuously expressed and that bypassed the parts of them that allowed for deliberation or perception or intuition, beginning and ending in the only place where they were exactly together, undifferentiated and unknowable, but couldn’t, in their present form, ever reach, like a thing communicating directly with itself, rendering them both irrelevant.” (pp.243-4)

These are the kind of occasional gems that are buried in the midst of a novel that is otherwise focused on the annoying and pretentious task of enumerating the banality of a certain class of people in America. Could it be that one style cannot exist without the other, that these lyrical passages need the tedium of Paul’s postmodern life in the same way that a picture needs a frame, that light needs darkness? Whatever the case,  I certainly don’t think that Taipei is the next great work in contemporary literature, nor that Tao Lin is mature enough to break through at this stage, even though the consensus seems to be against me. Young writers tend to suffer from a lack of discipline, but Taipei perhaps suffers from too much: its relentlessly unemotional style is suffocating, a drawback made all the more stark by the intrusion of its best, most lyrical moments, those rare times when the novel breaks free from its pretentious shackles and shows glimpses of the writer that Lin might someday become.

Rating: 2.5/5

© 2013 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted June 20, 2013 by Peter Mathews in Review

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