Book review: TAIPEI

A literary mind visits Taiwan’s capital city under the spell of drugs and a Macbook

By Dwight Garner  /  NY Times News Service

Tue, Jun 11, 2013 - Page 12

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.

“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.

He’s especially good on extreme self-consciousness. One young woman seemed “appreciative in an affectedly sincere manner — the genuine sincerity of a person who doesn’t trust her natural behavior to appear sincere.”

This fluid novel also posits that the online world is more addictive, more mind-bending and perhaps more destructive than anything you will find in a pharmacy or buy from a dealer. Almost all of this novel’s metaphors and similes emerge from the author’s experience of the Internet and his sense of the way it is colonizing consciousness.

Paul thinks of “the backs of his eyelids as computer screens.” When he wakes in the morning, he feels his memories downloading into his mind, like PDF files. A social interaction makes him feel “a sensation not unlike clicking ‘send’ for a finished draft of a long e-mail.” When he goes to a bar, he senses he is “beta testing the event by acting like an exaggerated version of himself.”

I liked this paranoid observation: “Paul asked if she could think of a newer word for ‘computer’ than ‘computer,’ which seemed outdated and, in still being used, suspicious in some way, like maybe the word itself was intelligent and had manipulated culture in its favor, perpetuating its usage.”

To employ an image that Lin might have, but did not, Paul mostly blinks mutely, like a cursor, in Taipei. The novel can be so desultory that you think: This is an approximation of how Lou Reed must have felt during the entirety of 1972.

At the same time, it’s possible to imagine Taipei as a future Danny Boyle movie, the director’s eager eye soaking up all those drug-addled trips through Whole Foods. The novel is an ostensibly dead thing that turns out to be quite alive.

Lin’s prose has been compared to that of Bret Easton Ellis’ deadpan early work, and Ellis has done a blurb for Taipei. But there’s also a hint of Ann Beattie in Lin, a hint I hope he will be able to cultivate. He’s a social novelist, writing about young men and women who are largely anti-social. He delivers chilly scenes of winter.