Baseless confidence: Tao Lin’s “Taipei”

In praise of James Joyce’s “Dubliners”, Ezra Pound wrote, “since de Maupassant we have had so many people trying to write ‘stories’ and so few people presenting life.” Perhaps Pound would have liked Tao Lin. He certainly does his best in Taipei to fly past the nets of traditional narrative structures. Which is not to say that things don’t happen. Lots of things happen, and they are catalogued in an even, empirical tone: book readings are attended, on drugs and off; MacBooks are opened and closed; containers of cubed fruit are purchased at Whole Foods; and someone is “fingered” — with scare quotes — presumably in an ironic, detached manner. A prodigious amount of prescriptive drugs are consumed, and the narrative spans the globe, without ever really getting off the ground.

The author, Tao Lin, is an indie literary wunderkind in an era when baseless confidence and a facility for social media are the primary credentials. Lin owns his own publishing house, Muumuu House, which publishes the usual chapbook material, along with Twitter selections and Gmail chats, online and in print. He is, of course, also an artist and filmmaker; somehow he still finds time to write. Taipei is his third novel, the title a play on the protagonist’s birthplace and obsessive-compulsive bent. Paul, our main character, is presumably a Lin self-insert, the novel a pseudo-autobiographical distillation of Lin’s childhood, perhaps signifying a more personal, reflective shift in his writing. At the very least we’ve moved beyond his previous works: dialogue is no longer conducted through Gchat, and the main character is not named Dakota Fanning because “it just felt right.”

To quickly map the general plot: Paul, an introvert writer, visits his parents in Taipei, returns to America, meets a new girl, marries her in Vegas, visits his parents in Taipei, this time with his betrothed, and finally returns to America, all of which occurs in various states of drug-induced stupor. Immediately, one connects the work to that of “Less Than Zero” author Bret Easton Ellis (whose slightly out-of-context, tweeted praise graces the book’s back cover): affectless twenty-somethings consuming vast quantities of drugs, all conveyed in a detached, minimalist style. The big difference is the nature of the drug-taking. In an Ellis novel, drugs catalyze debauchery, paving the way for violent orgies and orgiastic violence. In Taipei, drug consumption is a coping mechanism, an attempt to effect “normal” feelings: “They’ll think we’re on drugs if we’re not on drugs. We’re normal when we’re on drugs.” The drugs too have changed, cocaine replaced with MDMA, ecstasy, Adderall, psilocybin chocolate, Ritalin, LSD, benzodiazepine, etc. The nature of the drugs consumed, with milligram amounts studiously observed, and the lack of any sort of transgressive release, blurs the line between prescriptive and recreational consumption. As we begin to delve (relatively) deeper into Paul’s past, we learn he was essentially a social recluse in high school following a traumatic experience in band camp during which he was unable to keep time on a triangle. It was only when he began to consume drugs in college that he was able to function at all socially. At one point in the novel he notes that “he would only appear in public if he’d ingested sufficient drugs to not primarily be a source of anxiety, bleakness, awkwardness, etc. for himself and/or others.”

There are quite a few “others,” none particularly memorable, all introduced in the manner of “Kyle, 19” or “Kyle’s girlfriend, Gabby, 28.” Interactions between characters tend to fade in and out, inconsequential conversations sprinkled into descriptions of Paul sleeping at parties and going out to eat. The closest we get to an Ellis moment comes when Paul and Erin, future-wife, stay with Maggie and Calvin, rich teenagers who put Paul up in Calvin’s mansion while Paul is on a book tour (Facebook allows Paul to serendipitously hook up with sympathetic fans in this way, something that would smell of deus ex machina if it served to advance the plot in any way). Some kind of debauchery seems imminent, but a general lack of arousal asserts itself, which is attributed level-headedly to the prescriptive drugs they’ve copiously downed.

But in its own stilted, partially tone-deaf way, Taipei is something of a breath of fresh air. In a market saturated with “literary” thrillers, where characters speak off cue-cards, Taipei’s naturalistic dialogue, where characters mishear each other, frequently speak in near non-sequiturs, and occasionally let conversations drop altogether, feels refreshingly natural. And whereas I don’t believe “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn has any real knowledge of the “meth tweakers, truck-stop strippers, [and] backwoods grifters” with whom she professes to sympathize, I’m convinced Lin is writing about what he knows, however banal it is. A (relatively) inspired passage has Paul and Erin, now married, and on LSD in Taipei, taking a trip to a local McDonald’s to improvise a gonzo documentary, filmed with a MacBook, entitled “Taiwan’s First McDonalds”:

[Paul] asked Erin about a Hispanic girl wearing giant, padded headphones. “She’s actually producing right now,” said Erin, “She’s a producer.”

“What’s her favorite McDonald’s meal?”

“She just gets a side salad,” said Erin.

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, that’s her thing,” said Erin pointing at what seemed like an Ash Wednesday marking on her forehead. “See? She’s Zen.”

“Let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum: this girl.”

“She gets six Big Macs,” said Erin about a pale, red-haired girl sitting in a sandbox. “She puts it all in the McFlurry machine. And the Oreos come down.”

“Jesus. She puts it in the machine? This girl?

“She extracts the sauce from the Big Macs and she puts them in a cup,” said Erin.

“So she brings it home?”

“It’s ‘on the go.’ She’ll just bring it anywhere.”

“Then what?”

“Then her interns are instructed to massage her, because she’s actually a candidate for the next McChicken sandwich.”

It goes on for several pages and, although I don’t anticipate a Nobel nomination anytime soon, this kind of narrative irreverence, where characters willfully talk about things unrelated to any form of central “plot,” is to me infinitely preferable to the ham-handed expositional dialogue that fills most contemporary fiction. Even Paul’s metaphysical digressions, which read a bit like philosophical pictionary, as if Lin has been forced to describe basic existential problems with long and vague, often technological, metaphors, are kind of endearing. And speaking of technology, Taipei accomplishes no small feat in its convincing incorporation of internet terminology, and not just in the sense that Lin avoids “name-dropping” to contextualize the time period (as in “[Blank] logged on to the internets to watch a Youtube.”); beyond his convincing, and unassuming, incorporation of social media, Lin goes further, hitting on the ways in which the internet shapes the way we now approach the world conceptually: “Most mornings…he wouldn’t exactly know anything until three to twenty seconds of passive remembering, as if by unzipping a file — newsroom.zip — into a PDF, showing his recent history and narrative context, which he’d delete after viewing.” GIFs and hard drives also pop up as metaphorical material, illustrating the disjuncture between Paul’s empirical, technologically-formed concept of things like memory and chronology, and their fleeting, abstract reality.

The Tweeted endorsement by Ellis I mentioned earlier reads, “With ‘Taipei’ Tao Lin becomes the most interesting prose stylist of his generation.” The qualifier they omitted from the jacket continues “…which isn’t to say that ‘Taipei’ isn’t a boring novel.” And most of the novel is quite boring. But apart from judgments of good or bad, Taipei is in one sense profoundly depressing. In several reviews, Lin is hailed as the voice of a generation. If so, it is generation without much hope. The world of Taipei is vacuum-sealed: characters don’t follow sports, politics, or current events, and for all their being writers, no real intellectual discussion goes on. They are not active participants in any form of democratic, literary, or in any way productive process. If Lin is the voice of a generation, it is a generation that, when it thinks of “work,” does what Paul does, “visualizing himself on his back, on his yoga mat, with his MacBook on the inclined surface of his thighs, formed by bending his knees, looking at the internet.”