Sex, Drugs and Bleakness In Tao Lin's 'Taipei'

by Molly O'Brien

11 June 2013

A Taiwan McDonalds, an Ohio mansion, a Brooklyn bookstore, and a pit of existential despair: Lin's third novel will certainly take you places.
cover art


Tao Lin

(Knopf Doubleday)
US: Jun 2013

A recent cover of Time Magazine depicted the “Me Me Me Generation” as a cute redheaded girl taking a picture of herself with her iPhone. “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents,” the cover blurted. “Why they’ll save us all.” Many lazy, entitled, narcissistic millennials rearranged and Photoshopped the cover with riffs on the silliness and/or truthfulness of that particular thesis, appropriating the imperious tone of Time and turning it into something much funnier.

Three summers ago, Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time along with the headline “Great American Novelist”. A month later, Tao Lin was on the cover of The Stranger wearing nearly the same shirt and spectacles as Franzen, and with the same headline. It was a clever act of appropriation, one perfectly in tune with Internet sensibilities (mimesis turned “meme-ification”), even though Lin’s work isn’t about copying anything, but rather creating new things for others to disseminate.

His output is enormous. He has published poetry books, novellas and novels in print, as well as online essays, blog posts, tweets, and some crude Microsoft Paint portraits of hamsters and whales that I’ve always found terrifying. Taipei is a huge step forward for Lin: it’s somehow more whole and less fleeting than his previous works, even as the signifiers (prescription drugs, Gmail, YouTube videos, organic food) remain the same.

Like Philip Roth and Philip K. Dick and maybe even a couple other writerly Philips, Lin has a habit of turning himself into a fictional character. Taipei’s author substitute is Paul, a writer in his mid-twenties living in Brooklyn, navigating a book tour and a visit home to his parents in the novel’s eponymous city, moving in a daze from one sort-of girlfriend to another.

He’s the kind of guy who, realizing he has been lonely, decides to give his life an “interim period” before re-socializing himself, and thus “[doesn’t] have an in-person conversation for more than a week.” Eventually he begins seeing people again. He starts a friendship with a compatriot named Daniel, who says things like “Um, so, my debit card, either from cutting so much blow or being maxed out, isn’t working.” He starts a relationship with Erin, a writer living in Baltimore; they impulsively travel together to Las Vegas; then, more impulsively, get married.

Here’s where one’s idea of the narrative might split. A new reader of Lin will continue on with Taipei and watch a love story slowly turn in on itself, like an underwater somersault. A reader more familiar with Lin’s work might recognize that Erin, like Paul, has a real-life counterpart, and that the two real-life writers have written about each other for publications like Thought Catalog, and that there is even footage of their Vegas wedding on the Internet, as well.

However, even those who know the real-life story (at least, what there is to know from what’s published on the Internet) will still be dazzled by the fictionalization of it, its untrammeled expression of a particular moment at a particular time. The moment might have happened in the past, but Lin’s observational prowess captures the present. Here are Paul and Erin, just after the ceremony:

“...Then the pastor, a large man with white hair and a serious expression but a friendly demeanor… read a prepared statement, completing the marriage, at which point—coincidentally, it seemed—a door opened and a smiling woman, with a tiny dog at her feet, congratulated Paul and Erin, after which, sort of huddled against each other, they moved toward the exit grinning… they hugged tightly and jumped repeatedly as one mass, spinning a little, while sometimes saying ‘we did it’ quietly.”

After the wedding, there’s the fallout. Paul’s “interim period”, once finite and somewhat comforting, ends up becoming a way to describe the entirety of his life. As his thoughts face inward, his self erodes before our eyes, spinning out in long similes: “His memories had increasingly occurred to him without context, outside of linear time, like single poems on sheets of computer paper, instead of pages torn from a book with the page number and book title on top.” He sees Erin asleep in the car, “cushioned by the fluffy, patchwork, faded blanket loosely wrapping all but her face, like an oversized astronaut suit with no visor.”

In a novel populated by items and actions either mundane or self-consciously trendy—sex on Ambien, trips to Target to buy hair dye, blogs that “get a lot of hits”, parties so boring one has to consume huge amounts of guacamole to entertain oneself—Lin also includes grim and fascinating reflections on creativity, health, and mortality. His characters do massive amounts of drugs but maintain a sense of well-being because they eat vegan or take vitamins. With their dimmed views of the future, they never lose their capacity to create, even if they’re just “calmly organizing things” in a library or filming a movie called Taiwan’s First McDonalds on a MacBook camera.

Between Paul’s intermittent introspection and the long, unfurling, trance-like metaphors, Taipei feels oddly spiritual. Paul takes many simultaneous journeys: he trips on mushrooms, he travels to Taiwan and Ohio and back, and he manages somehow, to transport his self (his soul?) from one place to another. Reading this, I was reminded of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, another novel of self-discovery, specifically the moment when the title character confronts death: “So this is how things were with him, so doomed was he, so much he had lost his way and was forsaken by all knowledge, that he had been able to seek death.. .Om! he spoke to himself: Om! and again he… knew about the indestructibility of life, knew about all that is divine, which he had forgotten.”

Here is Paul, nearing the same moment: “Paul believed again, without a transition, at some point, that he was in the prolonged seconds before death… he was thinking of ‘seven days a week’ as a structure from life, that if he remembered anything from life he’d never be fully taken by death, so could always still return to life, even if by rebuilding a version of life, here in death, which maybe was the only version there was, or had ever been.”

Paul doesn’t get an Om! at the end. Any kind of obvious salvation from his existential despair (let alone his Williamsburg ennui) would cheapen the novel’s premise and turn off any reader who might actually enjoy Lin’s poetically bleak prose. There’s no out to be found here. No exit, hell is other people, I know myself but that is all, etc. Taipei is Brooklyn, life is death, Paul is Paul. Taipei might be the first spiritual narrative that millennials—that anyone living in 2013, really—can get behind.



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