Book Review: ‘Taipei’ by Tao Lin

Taipei (Image Credit: Tao Lin)

Taipei (Image Credit: Tao Lin)

I’ve waited for Taipei for a while. I knew that we were due for a roman à clef soon. I just didn’t expect it to be quite like this.

I first discovered Tao Lin amongst the few books sold at Urban Outfitters. He had titles such as: You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am (2006), Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009), and  Richard Yates (2010)  attached to his name. I’ll admit, I was a little curious. After reading them, I was intrigued by his writing style, but still not hooked. (source 1)

Lin is a 29-year-old writer, born to Taiwanese parents, who currently lives in New York. Initially, I blew his writing off as just hipster-novelty. His name though, wouldn’t stop appearing around the Internet. And as I read more of his work, I started to think- maybe this guy is actually onto something.

At its best, his new novel Taipei reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in a 21st century wasteland, sweeping yet caustic, with generally precise but at times tangential prose. It’s a view of our world seen through MacBooks and drugs. But at its worst, it’s just a hyper-ironic book with hyper-ironic dialogue and characters.

The novel centers around Paul, a young writer living in New York with his girlfriend, Erin, who’s just coming out of a relationship with a guy named Beau. The novel follows them around as they take drugs and tweet or go to Whole Foods. The title is from the city his parents live in and Paul visits every so often. There’s emptiness to the characters because their lives are empty, and a nervousness and anxiety in the way it’s written that only Klonopin could quell.

There’s an eerie dream-like quality to Taipei that’s reminiscent of the Japanese writer Ryu Murakami, but the self-awareness of the text makes it painfully grounded in reality. Here’s an example:

“Increasingly, as his memory occupied less of his consciousness, the past four to six months, whenever Paul sensed familiarity in the beginnings of a thought or feeling he would passively focus on intuiting it in entirely”.

See what I mean? It’s fragmented and awkward, yet his works reflect a certain modern-ness.

Tao Lin’s modernity also extends to his sentences. They exist as intricate combinations of blank words, while still possessing a finite structure. I enjoy his interjections of awkward adverbs, seemingly on purpose, as if to dissemble syntax.

“Paul couldn’t find Kyle, 19, or Kyle’s girlfriend, Gabby, 28—his suitemates in an apartment off the Grahm L train stop in Brooklyn—and was returning to Michelle when he realized he’d walked past Kyle, standing drunkenly alone in a dense area of people, as if at a concert.”

Tao Lin’s frequent descriptions of a character as just their age add to this emptiness, as if that were to say everything about the person. Focusing on a superficial value like age gives Lin a hipster-police voice, but in such a way that I think he’s being ironic and comedic.

Besides being thinly veiled autobiographical projections, the characters also seem like crash and burn type archetypes—sort of in an awkward Sid & Nancy way. One can see this from their prolific drug usage: Ambien, Adderall, Xanax, Klonopin, MDMA, LSD, mushrooms, heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, Methadone, Seroquel, Flexeril, Percocet, codeine. But for all the novel’s awareness and drug use, it is never self-pitying—which is refreshing and haunting when you think about how many other stories use drugs as an emotional crutch.

The reader also knows Paul is (in a way) self-medicating for his extreme social anxiety. However Paul against Paul is not the only conflict throughout the novel. The reader explores his relationships with his family and his job and of course, Erin. Chronicling their impromptu Las Vegas wedding, he writes:

“’We should get an Elvis wedding.’

‘I’m fine with an Elvis wedding.’

‘Actually, I don’t want an Elvis wedding,’ said Paul. ‘It seems extremely stressful.’”

And then both characters visit Taipei afterwards.

Overall, I like the novel. The self-conciseness is what intrigues me most about the book. It’s the “cringing” (a word Mr. Lin uses many times) self-examination that I find enjoyable.

“Paul, who felt he solely wanted to interact with mutual sincerity, to hesitate a little, which maybe the cofounder of Vice sensed as anxiety because he slapped Paul’s shoulder three times painfully.”

There’s a crawling sensation in my shoulders but I am simultaneously riveted to the page.

The characters’ participation in Tumblr or Facebook, or making another video of themselves on Ecstasy, works because of the novel’s fluidity. I personally enjoyed one description, “an eerie building far in the distance, thin and black, like a cursor on the screen of a computer that had been unresponsive.” Tao Lin makes use of blinking imagery, which adds to the subtle feeling of emptiness throughout. The emptiness is something I can only compare (probably to somebody’s chagrin) to Bret Easton Ellis’ early work. Much like Ellis, the poignancy of his words lies in sweeping understatement.

I knew a book that chronicles life in the chaos of modern world would come along soon (they always do). I guess I didn’t expect Taipei to capture this as poignantly and as well as it has. Mr. Lin writes, “opened his MacBook—sideways, like a hardcover book—and looked at the internet, lying on his side, with his right ear pressed into his pillow, as if, unable to return to sleep”

That could be anyone—even me. That’s the beauty.

Tao Lin is a young novelist who has captured what it means to be uninhibited and unaffected in today’s world. And it’s within his empty prose that I also see myself.

Because, let’s face it, it really could have been you or me he was talking about just then.

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