Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Life Between the Scare Quotes: Tao Lin's "Taipei"

Young author Tao Lin’s latest novel, the autobiographical Taipei, is being lauded as the Millennial’s most incisive generational statement and as a paradigmatically revolutionary work of literature.  Publisher’s Weekly writes, “…the documentary precision captures the sleepwalking malaise of Lin’s generation so completely, it’s scary” and author Frederick Barthelme states, “There is no mistaking that we live a new, ultra self-conscious life, skating on the surface of things while overlaying that surface with a facsimile of the 'old life' in which traditional values retain their power and majesty. What is fascinating about Tao Lin’s fiction is his willingness, nay, insistence, on sticking to the true life of the new century, as raw, flat, fatigued as it may be". Although Barthelme’s blurb is possibly the most breathtaking blurb ever blurbed (you can read it in full on Taipei’s Wikipedia page), I take issue with both of the sentiments expressed above. Speaking about the book, Lin said, “…in autobiographical fiction, my focus is still on creating an effect, not on documenting reality- so ‘autobiographical’, to me, is closer in meaning to ‘fiction’ than autobiography.” Despite the relentlessly dry prose, the book makes no claim to objective reality. It isn’t an exposĂ© on the hollowness of the facebook generation, and it isn’t committed to representing the “true life”- it can’t be neatly analyzed in terms of the estrangement between the new life and the old life (whatever that means).
Tao Lin

Taipei follows Tao Lin’s alter-ego Paul around the country, through 3 (2 1/2?) romantic relationships and eventually to the titular city where he reunites with his parents. The tone throughout the book is uniformly literal and unsentimental. Lin frequently deploys clever similes and metaphors, but these are always in the service of a more emphatic representation, rather than whimsical association: “he… moved toward the room’s iPod with the goal-oriented, zombie-like calmness of a person who has woken at night thirsty and is walking to his refrigerator and changed the music to ‘Today’ by Smashing Pumpkins.”  Emotions are placed in scare quotes- everything feels “sad and beautiful”, Paul feels “grateful to be alive”—they are disinterestedly recognized instead of vitally described. These plaintive recollections seem to mimic the language of the twitter-sphere, scrupulously confessional and formally anonymous.

That kind of neutrally affected prose finds its most direct manifestation in a recent book by another young author: Eat When You Feel Sad by Zachary German. Here is a representative passage:
Robert plays the song “I’m Insane” by Sonic Youth. He nods his head. Robert looks at his cat. He puts on his shoes. He puts on a light sweater. He looks at his apartment. He walks out of his apartment. He walks downstairs. He walks outside. He walks to a thrift store. He looks at a children’s book about time.

The novel maintains that tone throughout, until the end, when there is an emotional catharsis and the undercurrents of romantic longing and helplessness are brought to the fore. Prior to the ending, it seems that generational “malaise” is embodied by the book’s formal commitment to blandness. The ending’s abrupt shift in tone and content serves to redeem the rest of the work, and reward the reader who has just put up with 100some pages of “Robert does this. Robert does that.” Taipei also has an intense closing sequence, in which Paul, tripping on mushrooms and thinking articulately about death, seeks the embrace of his girlfriend Erin instead of hiding in the bathroom. Nonetheless, this intense experience doesn’t override Lin’s style—the book ends not with Paul feeling grateful to be alive, but “grateful to be alive”. If this book were a millennial cry for help, or an example of the schism Frederick Barthelme blurbed about, there would be a change in tone, and there isn’t one. This is what makes Taipei so brilliant; it doesn’t offer the reader a respite from its neutrality. And, as Lin makes clear, its neutrality shouldn’t be mistaken for objectivity. Just like the neutral gaze of a security camera is more emblematic of power relations than objectivity, Lin’s neutral tone is emblematic of a frame of mind. When Paul asks his drug dealer about the special processes used on the batch of MDMA he was buying, his dealer responds,

 "They do it twice...it goes through once, and they dip it again," he said unenthusiastically, with unfocused eyes and a subtle movement of his upper body that somehow effectively conveyed an additional, unrequired action within the process of an assembly line.
This description dehumanizes the drug dealer; comparing him to a mechanical process reveals an arbitrary similarity, not the beautiful symmetry imaginative description usually uncovers. Tao Lin is deeply creative, but also alienated and bored; he sees the world through a gray lens, his imagination working within the anonymity bestowed upon him by his afflictions. Anyone who has read "The Stranger" knows that the perspective of an anonymous, cryptic person isn't afforded special access to reality and truth; the stranger experiences the radical absence of those things.

The first part of Taipei takes place during what Lin calls his “interim period”, the handful of months before his book tour during which Paul indiscriminately does drugs and is generally aimless. Once his tour begins, his drug use (which he planned to decrease) only increases, along with his sense of aimlessness. Both consciously spiraling towards death and practically distancing life, Taipei is a timeless expression of hipster repose: the cool indiscernibility of death and interregnum. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Talking About Talking About My Generation: Millennials Vs. The Zeitgeist

I'd like to center this around the infamous quote from Girls that goes, "I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice—of a generation." Like most of the main character's bumbling hubris, it's played for laughs, the joke being the very idea of The Voice of Our Generation. Despite charges to the contrary, I think it's obvious that the characters of Girls, privileged as they are, are at least aware that they exist in a very specific milieu (young, white, New York, privileged poverty), and that there's nothing intrinsic in that milieu that makes it any more worthwhile than another. So when Hannah says she might be the voice of her generation, she immediately has to walk her claim back, which leads her to the absurd title of "A voice of a generation"—which means she's exactly like everyone else. Ha ha.

There's more to the joke, though, because Hannah's deference to inconsequentiality is a very familiar maneuver. We've been seeing it on television for years, in one form or another, from the passive-aggressive schlubs of The Office to the preening idiots of Arrested Development. These are people who, like Hannah, believe intuitively that they are the centers of the universe, but constantly find themselves in situations where they have to confront their own averageness; the only development in Girls is that we have a character who's smart enough to hold the two concepts in her head at the same time. In a supposedly pluralistic world, the pluralism of which has been drilled into her head for years by the liberal arts philosophy, Hannah desperately maintains her selfish egotism. This kind of millennial doublethink is best expressed in the old demotivator bromide that "if everyone is special, then nobody is." But Girls, in embodying that sentiment, and putting it into the wishy-washy parlance of our times, is not only proving itself formally proficient, but also truly, deeply in touch, which is to say that it's the voice of the generation.

There was an article on Opinionator a few weeks ago about treating prints by Andy Warhol like they were paintings by Jackson Pollock. I think Lena Dunham—and most other people who are attracted to speaking for a generation—are doing the same thing, which is to say applying a modernist concept to a world that no longer accepts it.

It's not difficult to see how the idea of "the voice of a generation" requires the exclusion of most people in that generation; the whole idea of a single, monolithic generation would be incoherent without some degree of cultural hegemony. Most Americans in the 1920s weren't alcoholic expats, but we know Hemingway in part as the voice of the Lost Generation. Being The Voice of a Generation has always necessitated both a broad understanding of the Zeitgeist and a willingness to ignore certain of its features when they contradict one another. Which is to say that it's always been as much about imposing one's will on the culture as it's been about having one's finger on the pulse. (I'd make that metaphor more consistent, but I don't have a crash cart handy.) Put differently, a prospective Voice has to focus on the semantic elements of their generation and then tell us what they mean. In The Sun Also Rises, alcohol, which was particularly prominent in the 20s, refers to simultaneous needs to escape oneself and to connect with others; we have the signifier, alcohol, and the signified, lonely self-hatred. The problem is that after the 60s and postmodernism, it's no longer easy to make a judgment about which set of signifiers to privilege, to say nothing of what's befallen those easy structuralist ties between signifier and signified, so it becomes impossible for anyone to call themselves the voice of a generation without a lot of qualification. 

Hence the joke: it's as absurd for Hannah to call her tiny, unfinished book of essays a major generational statement as it is for Lena Dunham to call her show a major generational statement. Yet that's exactly what they're doing; by putting their self-awareness on display, they're reducing it to a symbol, a soundbite that speaks to the confusion and self-consciousness that, we're encouraged to believe, are key features of the Millennial Generation. Never mind the arrogant rich kids, oblivious nerds and enthusiastic vegans we're familiar with from TV shows, books, movies, comics and everyday life; this is the real generation. Girls comes right up to the absurdity of its own raison d'ĂȘtre and then moves immediately in the opposite direction.

As the idea of The Voice of Our Generation becomes more absurd, we seem to want it more desperately. Girls is just one example of this; others include Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, anything by LCD Soundsystem, or Zachary German's novel Eat When You Feel Sad (the subject of our next post, which archly declares that it is "a book about a generation" on its back cover). All of these have a violent, conflicted relationship with the presumed Zeitgeist; they're obsessed with expressing it, but they either spend half their time trying to suss out what it is in the first place (Soundsystem) or they're content to hold forth about a received set of semantics (Pilgrim, German). In all of them, though, the absurdity of the concept of the Zeitgeist is the Zeitgeist; the failure of its characters to be generational makes them generational. God knows I've enjoyed all of them, but the search for a generational idiom, in every case, is misguided; I think the need to reconstruct cultural consensus, the first phase of which seems to be the airing of all our grievances about aimlessness and vacillation, must be based on a discomfort with irony that leads in its most extreme form to bullshit like Kimya Dawson.

To everyone who's looking for a Millennial idiom based on the disavowal of a Millennial idiom, I'd suggest John Campbell's brilliant webcomic Pictures for Sad Children, which performs the same fastidious analysis of Millennial semantics (privileged poverty, allergies, thin computers, cube farms and multiculturalism all feature prominently at one point or another) but takes the vacillation about a Zeitgeist one step further, turning it into all-consuming self-hatred. John Campbell's comic constantly criticizes the egotism his main characters display in being main characters at all; they're denied victory, redemption and even self-pity, and in this they're no different from Lena Dunham's characters. But Pictures for Sad Children takes the next logical step and starts killing them off, or simply abandoning them after a few pages, as if the universe's attention span was just too short. A comic that treats everybody with the same hostile apathy is the logical resolution to the problem of Girls; unless we want everything on TV to be that hostile and apathetic, we should get the Voice of Our Generation out of our heads completely.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Our Father, Who Art Irrelevant: The Pitiful Political Tragedy of Yeezus

With the first notes of Yeezus, Kanye West's production team makes sure you know you're not listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

A quick wikipedia search brings up this quote from The Guardian: "With this album, we ain't drop no single to radio. We ain't got no NBA campaign, nothing like that. Shit, we ain't even got no cover. We just made some real music."

This is the central gesture of Yeezus. Kanye fits into a common pattern of mind-boggling success; after ascendance, divergence.  When Cobain saw what he and his friends had wrought with Nevermind, he crafted In Utero in order to try and shake it off.  This is a simplistic interpretation of that record, and a correspondingly fairly childish interpretation of his reaction to fame.  But in its simplicity, and in its childishness, it's a proper analog to Kanye West's move on Yeezus.

After, Kanye assures us with the quote above, he's moved beyond all of the unthinking duplicity of the "mainstream".  When he says "Fuck y'all corporations/ you can't control me" and "Move my family out the country so you can't see where I stay" he sounds about as rebellious as your wealthy, tax-evading uncle when he's had a few too many drinks. The idea that a record released on Def Jam that leaps up to #1 on the charts could in any way be subversive demonstrates what can only be called stupidity.  On The College Dropout, Kanye's political interests sounded intimate and coarsened with a good-humored experience.  What little that does sound interesting on this song comes in the first verse.  This sort of could fit in right alongside the sentiments of his earlier work; for example, "That's that broke nigga racism/That's that don't touch anything in the store/That's that rich nigga racism/Come in, please buy more" could fit perfectly right next to "They take me to the back and pat me/ Askin' me about some khakis/But let some black people walk in/I bet they show off their token blackie." Compared to confrontational honesty of this personal narrative of racism, the inane rhetoric of the second verse sounds even more delirious and paranoid.

West has clearly not taken Drake's latest axiom to heart on this record; The G.O.O.D. Music clique is conspicuously absent on Yeezus, an album replete with new friends.  Pusha T has no verse on this record. Nor does Big Sean. Kid Cudi's bland vocals could have been performed by anyone.  And the rappers that are included are Chicago locals that have little recognition or appeal outside of the city.  This is a piece in Kanye's "rebellious" puzzle; he has rejected the universalist approach of corporate radio and replaced it with a "defiant" provincialism.  This move, like so many of the human gestures on Yeezus, falls flat on its face.  The performances of King L and Chief Keef, while still incongruent, manage enough of a cold, estranged affect that they make Kanye's earnest vitriol sound even more out of place than it already did.

 The production team on Yeezus is staffed by a caste of current indie darlings, including trap hero Hudson Mohawke, Daft Punk (who we've dealt with elsewhere), and Evian Christ from the experimental label Tri Angle. Among them is Justin Vernon, one of a few stalwarts from MBDTF.  When Vernon talks about Kanye in interviews he's depressingly laudatory, sounding more like an excited frat boy than the same man who demonstrated the lyrical sensitivity of the careful and intimate Bon Iver records.

Despite all my venom for Kanye's presence on his own record, I think that the musical environment of Yeezus is truly beautiful and startlingly composed.  From the simplest and least daring choices on the record to the most thunderous noise arpeggio, Yeezus is full of brilliant stylistic decisions.  Alongside MBDTF, Yeezus demonstrates the profound range and depth of Kanye's aesthetic taste.  Highlights include a revitalization of the spirit of 808s and Heartbreak and his work before it in the beautiful "Blood On The Leaves".  The thunderous contribution of Hudson Mohawke's TNGHT "horn section" is balanced perfectly on the edge of discordant.  It's one of many tracks on this record that sounds like Kanye's vocal track has been stolen from some incompetent single and put over a much more elegant standalone instrumental.

Just as on MBDTF, Kanye has crafted a landscape that outpaces him.  On MBDTF, that environment was at least still on the horizon.  On Yeezus, Mr. West sounds like he found himself on an alien planet and desperately tried to make music there.

Nowhere is that more obvious than on "I Am a God."  This beat is as viciously hostile as it gets on this record and Kanye is as bland as he has ever been.   If I had to imagine what sort of a thing God was, I'd suggest that the sounds behind Kanye on this track were a pretty good pop approximation; monolithically alien, thuddingly repetitive, and wholly impenetrable. Next to this sonic monstrosity going on behind him, Kanye's pronouncement "I am a god" sounds vitiated and weak.  The lyrics and this delivery on this track make him sound a lot more like a coked-up douchebag on his cellphone in an LA parking lot than a pop god. His demands ("Hurry up with my damn croissants" etc.) sound cartoonish and whiny where I can only imagine he is attempting to sound charismatic and dominating.  If this was an attempt at laughing self-parody, it would be a startling success.  But Kanye's monotone "aggressive" earnestness suggests that the truth is far more tragic.

The story of Yeezus is ironically more politically telling than its overt "message."  While Kanye spends a good amount of this album "raging" against corporations, the album itself is an unabashed corporate success. Kanye the artist sounds tiny next to the crushing indifference of his own music, and Kanye the man is made irrelevant by Kanye the brand. This is the operation of abstracting market forces at work; the market thrives on what is new, innovative, and "subversive".  "Innovation" and "paradigm-shifts" have been at the core of corporate practice for decades and an "outlaw" spirit is at the heart of every successful boardroom.  Capitalism thrives on breakdown, revolt, and iconoclasm; its strength comes from its ability to assimilate reactive "challenges" to a status quo into an even stronger and more comprehensive network.

In this spirit, Kanye's impotence to produce something "rebellious" has some instructive societal analogs. His ambiguously adversarial attitude is a mirror of the spirit of Occupy Wall Street; because modern international capitalism is a diffuse system that admits of very few obvious targets, it's often hard to know who one should be decrying.  Just as Kanye's railing against corporations has to be framed by his massive corporate success, Occupy's fiery sloganeering  ("people over profits") has to be framed by the infinitely complex intertwinement of  international banks and modern "democratic" states with their individual freedoms (including, obviously, the right to free speech.) Mr. West has unwittingly held up a crystal clear mirror to our current situation; his personality-driven claims to power and "rebel" screed smash to pieces against the cold walls of his beats just as our "human" political agency is stifled in the swarming indifference of the modern economic situation.