Tao Lin, Taipei
2013, 256 pages, paperback, $15
You may have heard about Tao Lin’s latest novel, Taipei, and its divisively wordy prose, ironic articulation of hipster boredom, or even the book’s shiny, computer-graphic-inspired cover. Lin’s detractors critique his overly literal narration while devotees laud his meticulous documentation of a generation raised on the Internet. No matter what you’ve heard, my advice would be: Don’t believe the hype.
That’s not to say you won’t have a strong—positive or negative—reaction to Taipei. It subjects readers to challenging, perhaps self-indulgent sentences, many of which pay off in an existential or ironic way, and Taipei definitely achieves the “documentary precision” promised by one blurb on its back cover. I suppose readers’ pleasure in the novel, or their frustration with it, will depend on how interested they find Lin’s autobiographical protagonist, writer/artist/poet Paul.
Paul, 26 (Lin introduces each character by name and age like an online profile), spends much of the first half of the novel on drug-fueled meanderings around New York before his upcoming book tour. He visits restaurants with friends, updates social media on his MacBook, and deconstructs subtle meaning from every text conversation he has with whichever girl he’s focused on at the moment. Paul observes each mundane event with methodical attention, sometimes with less clarity when the drugs obscure his perceptions. These observations give rise to Paul’s ironic musings, most often centered on his sensations or how others perceive him.
While this hyper-introspection might become tedious for some readers, Lin builds a measure of goodwill toward Paul early in the novel with a flashback to his childhood. In less than seven pages, readers get a recap of Paul’s social awkwardness following his Taiwanese parents migration to America, his placement in English-as-second-language classes, which are later followed by gifted classes, and a catalogue of adolescent rejections comprising some of the novel’s most straightforward, unironic writing. In reference to Paul’s experience in his gifted class, Lin writes:
Paul felt alone on Fridays, but not lonely or uncomfortable or anxious, only that he was in a new and challenging situation without assistance or consequence for failure—a feeling not unlike playing a difficult Nintendo game alone, with no instruction manual.
This passage sums up much of Paul’s experience, isolated by over-analysis and steeped in interactive media. At twenty-six, Paul also seeks to understand life through trial and error like a video game. He plays on the Internet much of the day and adjusts the vividness of his insights with drugs, dulling or heightening them with Ambien, Klonopin, Adderall, et al—whether he’s with friends, lovers, or alone. At a certain point, these activities seem repetitive and pointless for both Paul and the reader, and I’ll admit I had difficulty sustaining interest in Paul’s recreation or his ultimately short-lived relationships, no matter how contemplative or ironic his view of them.
Thankfully, for the novel’s sake, Paul stumbles into a new relationship with a woman named Erin and finally goes on his book tour, buoyed in both endeavors by a deliberate drug regimen to appear “normal.” All the while, he’s diligent to maintain his online presence; he tweets his followers and updates his existential status accordingly. From this point on, the novel focuses on Paul’s rapport with Erin, which for all Paul’s analysis develops into a simple, if drug addled, love story. A self-medicated Paul and Erin travel together to Las Vegas and later to the novel’s title locale, Taipei, Taiwan, and what happens along the way raises the stakes for Paul beyond idle malaise and pushes him toward something that just might matter.
Plenty of critics will say Lin captures today’s media-centric and self-medicated generation perfectly, and I can’t disagree. The novel has much to say on the topic. Fans of Lin’s writing won’t be disappointed, but reading Taipei requires most of us to endure rather than relish the author’s wordy prose and often-repetitive plot. He may depict his generation with “documentary precision,” but even documentaries cut the excess from their narratives. I wish Lin had done the same.