The title of Tao Lin’s latest novel, TAIPEI (shouted out from a matte black cover in self-consciously kitschy, fat, disco-reflector letters) holds the promise of something brave and exciting, of a context of place, of socio-geographic accuracy. But it’s soon clear that the promise is allusive.
The city of Taipei, to the protagonist Paul, is “a fifth season, or ‘otherworld,’ outside, or in equal contrast with, his increasingly familiar and self-consciously repetitive life in America, where it seemed like the seasons … had formed a square, sarcastically framing nothing.” While Paul does make a trip to to Taipei in the course of the novel, along with love-interest Erin, the visit is significant only in how much it resembles his life in America–the two ingest a panoply of drugs with novel names that look and sound “literary,” and shoot video projects from a MacBook, sometimes feeling euphoria, sometimes nausea.
What’s more revealing appears in the short chapter 1 that serves as a prologue of sorts, when Paul recounts visiting his parents in Taipei (mom and dad having moved back after thirty years in Florida). Only briefly does Paul mention feeling alienated from Taipei, specifically pointing to his lack of fluency in the language as the source of that alienation, as a barrier to socializing (and by extension creating a life, making friends, finding a girlfriend) in an essentially foreign place. Paul, like Lin, was born in the U.S. to parents from Taiwan. And like Lin, Paul doesn’t get into the mess of immigration, expatriate-ism, and displacement much more beyond this admission, at least not overtly. Even though one would expect it from the set-up. Even though one can just about argue that this cultural alienation–with its roots identified in language and reinforced by the English language of the text, as well as Paul’s profession as a writer in English–to be the driving force behind Paul’s meanderings, physical as well as psycho-emotional.
The novel (more knowingly than not) is almost an Exhibit A in the assisted repression of cultural alienation, though “cultural” in this case really emcompasses various terrain, including that of what used to be known as “alternative” but due to its increasing reference to “bad” adult rock music, let’s call “counter-mainstream,” as well as drug culture, readings-and-gallery-going culture, multi-media-content-producing culture, etc. But of all the sub-cultures to which Lin aligns Paul, the experience of inhabiting two parallel worlds, Taipei and the U.S., as the earlier quote suggests, is the one most curiously neglected.
The semi-autobiographical tenor of the novel, fueled by Lin’s “real-life” active online presence, seems to invite psychoanalysis. Tao Lin the person (or at least persona) has become inextricably–here I argue intentionally–linked to his writing.
Paul (and Lin) after all are hip young Americans who have in recent history steadily ascended the social ladder with pockets full of cultural capital (didn’t Bon Iver just appear on Kanye’s album?), comfortable as self-described “weird” and “awkward” (all traits Lin ascribes to Paul), their climb so stunning as to alter the meaning of the word “hipster” from merely descriptive to primarily derogatory.
Paul exists without the complicating, politicizing, qualifying modifiers of, say, Taiwanese American or Asian American, or even Second-Generation something. These identity formations are neither projected by the self nor it seems by others in Paul’s constantly intoxicated, post-racial, post-political world, where the only prejudice is exchanged between East and West Coast, and against nose rings, unless the person hails from San Francisco, which then totally makes sense. Sound familiar? Well maybe to East Coasters, but the idea here is a generally “American” existence in an extended youth culture.
“Taipei” then is less a real location than a convenient metaphor for an originary Eden-esque place that exists but can never be accessed: a faux origin (a twist on Lacan’s Real?). The idea of “Taipei” ultimately proves to be more virtual than actual. That “fifth season,” to break up the monotony of the four seasons or the academic school calendar to which Paul has become so accustomed to living by, never really arrives. Paul’s constant ingestion of drugs reinforces this desire for “freedom” from the mundanity of contemporary life, and evidently like Taipei, it too offers only partial relief.
Compared to Lin’s shorter novel Shoplifting from American Apparel, Taipei falls flat stylistically, bearing more promise than promise fulfilled. Instead of spontaneity of the former, the latter’s language feels as forced, as intentionally excessively convoluted, and as head-aching as an assigned John Barth reading.
Someone once suggested that observation alone cannot make for good art. While some pixel-perfect moments are truly gem-like, more are painfully self-conscious. Taipei shines most spectacularly when Lin via Paul unexpectedly, quietly starts formulating a new understanding–of relations, of technology, of behavior–tiny idiosyncratic but universalist revelations that push the musings of the text forward. Since it’s the musings, not plot, that’s at the center of this novel.
Taipei by Tao Lin, Vintage Books Random House, 2013.
The Substance of Style is a series on new works by “hip young writers.”