I can’t remember a work of fiction in the last couple of years that’s been greeted with a more deeply divided response than Tao Lin’s newest novel, Taipei. The novel received a rave review in the Times, but also was subjected to an epic panning from The Millions reviewer Lydia Kiesling–which prompted author Jay Caspian Kang to post a takedown of Kiesling’s takedown on his blog. I think that makes sense.
Since I’m a writer, and since this blog occasionally covers my bookish interests, I figured that Taipei was something I should probably have an opinion about. So I headed over to The Strand and picked up a copy, and I guess now I have some thoughts on it.
In brief, the novel follows Paul, a moderately successful Asian-American writer, through a book tour, a spur-of-the-moment marriage, and two visits to his repatriated parents’ apartment in Taipei. In each of these settings, Paul and his friends pass the time by taking as much and as many drugs as they can get their hands on–everything from LSD to MDMA to Adderall to prescription pankillers to heroin. Lin writes these scenes in a voice that is the very essence of emotionally flat–the characters tell each other how they’re feeling, but the narrator offers almost no interiority and not a lot of elucidating action–in a way it’s an inverse of the classic “show don’t tell” writers workshop dictum.
I probably just gave away that I didn’t like the book very much. I’m not a reader who needs my characters to be confessional and emotive–I mean, my favorite writers are Hemingway, Carver, and Cormac McCarthy. But those writers at least create an environment in which the reader can feel the emotion of events, even if it’s not explicitly stated. The writer Lin seems to hew closest to is Samuel Beckett, and while Beckett has never been my cup of tea (I think the idea that you can recreate the meaninglessness of modern life through stark prose and stories in which nothing happens is kind of brilliant, but it also makes for a style I find unreadable), his work still has greater emotional resonance than Lin’s.
Maybe the whole point for Lin is that removal of sentiment. If so, fine. As a portrayal of an individual flattening himself out emotionally with drugs, Taipei works. Stylistically, it’s not for me, but it works.
But I think Taipei raises a broader issue. The prose style, combined with the fact that the characters are constantly self-medicating, and are also constantly e-mailing and g-chatting and filming themselves on computers and smart phones, seems to be forming a staement, if not an indictment, of Lin’s generation. I am just two years older than Lin, so this is also my generation we’re talking about. And if Taipei is supposed to be a broad critique of our generation, I’m calling bullshit.
Technology, the internet and social media in particular, have had an enormous impact on the way we interact with the world. Something I’ve always thought that’s interesting about the internet and social media is that they can be used to open up the world to you, to greatly broaden your horizons, but depending on how you use them, they can also be used to foster self-absorption and shortsightedness. (As an example, you can use Twitter to follow minute-by-minute updates of social protests in the Middle East, or you can use it to track your experience, minute-by-minute, of getting stoned and going to see X-Men, as the characters in Taipei do.) Lin’s characters definitely seem to do the latter more than the former, and as I said, this is a seductive element of the technology that we have that people often fall victim do.
But as I also said, I’m a part of this generation too, and I don’t believe that such shallowness is nearly as pervasive as the news media, and this novel, make it seem. When I take stock of my friends, I see people who are engaged in the world, people who feel things. Maybe we didn’t all go to the rallies at Zuccotti Park or Taksim Square, but we’re aware of these things and have opinions on them. And in my personal relationships I see none of the emotional stunting of Lin’s characters. When a dear friend of mine died a couple of years ago, 200 people come to the funeral, and many of them cried their eyes out, including many people who didn’t even know her well. Taipei may present a vision of a world that’s flat, but that vision is no truer now than it was before Columbus set sail more than 500 years ago