A few times a year I’ll buy a book or a CD because of its title alone. Feels Like the Third Time, the Freakwater disc, for example. It happens to be good.
Tao Lin’s (林韜) titles have snagged me more than once. He’s a young American writer, born in 1983 to Taiwanese parents. His novels include Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), and Richard Yates (2010), named after the author of Revolutionary Road.
He’s written a novella called Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009), and a book of poems, You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am (2006). These titles are mischievous; I’ve found them hard to resist.
Lin’s new novel, Taipei, has his plainest title but is his strongest book. At its best, it has distant echoes of early Hemingway, as filtered through Twitter and Klonopin: It’s terse, neutral, composed of small and often intricate gestures. At its lesser moments, it’s hapless, like a poorly lighted mumblecore movie.
I loathe reviews in which a critic claims to have love-hate feelings about a work of art. It’s a way of having no opinion at all. But I love and hate Taipei.
The novel is about Paul, a media-savvy young novelist in Brooklyn who superficially resembles Lin. He and his girlfriend, Erin, who has a tattoo of an asterisk behind her earlobe, are blanks in skinny jeans: they take drugs to feel authentic, or to feel anything.
They ingest Ambien, Seroquel, LSD, Adderall, Oxycodone, cocaine, Flexeril, Percocet, psilocybin mushrooms and codeine. They float up, or down, depending on the day, and then wander through Whole Foods or live-tweet bad movies or film themselves having sex. Reading about their exploits is like watching lissome cows graze in a field.
By Tao Lin
“He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it digressed” is a typical utterance here. If you were to turn Taipei into a word cloud, here’s what you’d end up with: adjectives like “stranded,” “disengaged” and “fetal”; verbs like “dispersed” and “cringing”; past participles like “alienated,” “muffled,” “depleted” and “doomed.”
Lin’s is an easy style to mock, and he often seems to be engaging in something that approaches self-parody. We read about Paul laying on his “temporary charisma, which resulted in what seemed to be intimidation but was maybe an intimidation-based attempt at a non-antagonistic guardianship,” whatever that means.
But Lin casts a spell in Taipei. (The title comes from Paul’s occasional visits to the city, where his parents live.) Paul and Erin’s lives are lived on drugs and, as so many of our existences are now, on their MacBooks.
They click through Gawker and Vice and Jezebel; they constantly refresh their Tumblr and Twitter and Gmail accounts. Smartphone texts are scrutinized for minute layers of meaning. Links to blogs are a form of social currency.
You know that Paul is besotted with a woman when he is discovered “reading all four years of her Facebook wall and, in one of Chicago’s Whole Foods, one night looking at probably fifteen hundred of her friend’s photos to find any she might have untagged.”
Two things move Taipei beyond being merely a drug-sodden and lightly journalistic novel about how New York’s 21st-century literary set flowers now. One is Lin’s deftness with what I’ll call emotional close-up work. Not much happens in this book; it’s about flickers of perception, flickers that the author catches as if they were fireflies.