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 exposé 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. 

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