Sunday, August 4, 2013

Taipei by Tao Lin

Tao Lin has earned the reputation as the Bad Boy of Indie novels or Alt Lit (wedded to culture of the Internet and self-publication), but can he sustain that claim now that main line publisher Vintage has published his latest autobiographical crossover novel Taipei (2013) ? The book cover is notable as an animated GIF transferred to holographic foil.  It is a love story about  Paul, a Brooklyn novelist anticipating embarking on a book tour "September 7 to November 4" (p. 93).    We know it was "twenty months ago" (p. 90) when Paul first learned of budding love interest Erin, in "January 2009") (p. 90), placing the action (or lack thereof) in August, 2011.  The vocabulary is minimalist: Stephen Marche of Esquire calls it the "Asperger's style" of literature based on disaffection and disconnection.
This novel was trashed by Lydia Kiesling in her review "Modern Life is Rubbish: Tao Lin's Taipei" in the online literary magazine The Millions, founded by Max Magee in 2003.  Her review resonated on the Internet.  She wonders "why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row...Why does he hate me ?...Why does he inflict upon me his framework-y (p. 8) somethingness, his soil-y (p. 11) area, or the salad-y (p. 21) remains of the burrito?"  The author seems to be embarrassed by words and what they can represent and mean.  His are colorless, witless, humorless.  "Picking out individual passages cannot express the cumulative monotonous assault on the senses." 
LK notes that everyone's ages are "recorded, as if in a hipster police blotter, a method to describe people without really describing them."  LK sees the drug use as a good excuse for its awfulness, because it now had a Problem.  She also points out regarding sex in the book that "when the panties come off, the camera, narratively speaking, looks politely away."  Sex is awkwardly clinical, witness "At Paul's apartment they drank green juice and showered, then performed oral sex on each other, showered again, turned off the light to sleep" (p. 216).
Kiesling feels that Tao Lin anticipates the backlash in Taipei.  “He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as ‘monosyllabic,’ ‘awkward,’ ‘stilted and unfriendly’ within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet” (p. 129).  Wow, TL writes his own book review !  Yet in a June 9 comment to Kiesling's review, a reader compares Lin the superrealist attempting to do with writing what photographers do on film: capture what is.  TL bears out this notion on the last page: Paul "briefly discerned her movement as incremental - not continuous, but in frames per second - and, like with insects or large predators, unpredictable and dangerous" (p. 248).
Clancy Martin (NYT, 6.30.13) takes the high road as few reviewers have done.  He elevates it to a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, like Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.  The magic moment between Paul and Erin happens in Taipei, while visiting his parents.  CM points out that "Rather than talking about, they are talking to."  Paul finds himself focusing on their "conversation, which was producing its own, unmediated emotions" (p. 182).  Earlier the couple imagine an "unlikely romance and mutually learning the true meaning of life" (p. 140).  CM opines "life is changing from the aesthetic to the ethical...his characters have become authentic."  This is a subtle reference to Søren Kierkegaard's book Either/Or, in which the aesthetic and ethical represent sequential evolutionary stages in a young man's development.  Ironically, the word ethical refers also to drugs available only from a physician's prescription.
In support of CM's thesis, Paul's relationships are first classified as "obsessions", with Laura (p. 56) and Erin (pp. 109, 147).  TL tends to pathologize human emotions into illnesses.
The novel lacks any form of action and seems to be a form of Paul's diary, especially since no moral stance is taken toward the author's actions.  A discussion regarding a documentary on rap artist Lil Wayne's drug use is insightful to the structure of the novel.  "Paul felt it was bleak and depressing that the filmmakers superimposed their views onto Lil Wayne" (p. 98).  And so, in this autobiography, Paul never opines on the good or evil of endless pill popping, he never pathologizes on drug use.  It can be argued that the characters manipulate themselves chemically to avoid acting "crazy."  Paul says "They'll think we're on drugs if we're not on drugs.  We're normal when we're on drugs" (p. 149).
Many reviewers have derided the utterly simplistic vocabulary in the book, totally devoid of creative metaphor.  Yet, on occasion, compelling literary snippets surface like "Paul....stood naked in Calvin's room struggling to insert his left leg into his boxer short's left hole, which kept collapsing shut and distortedly reappearing as part of a slowly rippling infinity symbol" (p. 99).
Much of the language is indicative of a generation weaned on the Internet.  "Paul didn't know what to do, so he went "afk," he felt, and remained there - away from the keyboard of the screen of his face - as Erin, looking at the inanimate object of his head..." (p. 107).  The author is obsessed with how the Internet is colonizing our consciousness.  A social interaction makes him feel "a sensation not unlike clicking 'send' for a finished draft of a long e-mail" (p. 122).  The online world is more addictive than anything in a pharmacy.
Popular culture abounds.  Cornmeal Funyuns have been around since 1969 and are referenced in a song by Eminem.  Klonimin, Xanax, Adderall and a myriad of other prescription drugs are ubiquitous in this book.  Tao Lin refers to his literary heros Brett Easton Ellis (p. 90), Ann Beattie (p. 179, Chilly Scenes of Winter) and David Foster Wallace (p. 120).  On his way to Taipei, he contemplates getting caught and writing a meganovel Infinite Witz (p. 159), a tip of the hat to DFW's Infinite Jest and Joshua Cohen's Witz.


Bobst library, NYU