The tag “cult writer” is easily applied to Tao Lin, the divisive New York poet, publisher and novelist. The Daily Beast has called him a savant, New York magazine described his flat prose as written in a “showy outsider style” and Emily Gould, back in the early days of Gawker, wrote that Lin was “perhaps the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with.” He went on to be officially pardoned, and even published, by Gawker. Later, Lin appeared on Gould’s literary and cooking Web show to promote his novel Richard Yates. Now, he has jumped from the weird world of the self-consciously hip to a major international publisher, and it’s clear that, despite all of his slightly annoying, socially mediated self-promotion, he is now reaching for something bigger.
Taipei, which Lin readily acknowledges draws from a deep well of autobiography, describes a man living in interims. Paul leaves New York and visits his parents in Taiwan, he waits for a book tour to start, he waits for a book tour to end. His relationships develop and dissolve intermittently. He gets high, gets married, waits for the drugs to kick in and waits to come back down so he can snort and swallow his way back up. Where these plotted highs and lows average out to an emotional flat line, Lin’s prose is very much alive.
Where his previous novels have been taken to task for what Charles Bock, in The New York Times, called “ironic distance,” Taipei reveals Lin at his funniest, most incisive best. His early books may have been written for an audience who found themselves depicted within their pages, but this new novel has room enough for a larger crowd. Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel explored the nihilism of a generation more invested in digital signifiers than the friendships they were meant to stand in for; Taipei is a persuasive, if depressed, argument for a return to exploring inwardness, rather than the knock-off version of life that’s disembodied online. It’s a book about how to feel and think in a world increasingly designed to numb both faculties.
But what does it mean to write autobiographical fiction when a reader can just get the story from Google? Or when the writer can himself check back in on the chat logs and the tweets and the Tumblr posts of the characters who populate his life? Paul develops a fascination with both the workings and perpetual documentation of his own memory, and Lin’s prose transports the character back and forth with grace: “He walked toward an F train station, aware of the strangeness of clouds at night – their enveloped flatness and dimensional vagueness, shifting and osmotic as some advanced form of gaseous amoeba – and remembered when he got lodged in an upside-down wood stool, as a small child, in Florida.” In the next sentence, his mother stands there, “alternately grinning and intensely focused, careful not to allow her personal experience of the event impair its documentation” as she photographs the scene.
At another point, Paul and a woman who is also a writer have a fight, and decide to write down their accounts immediately of their disagreement moments after experiencing it. He remarks how strange it is that both chose to narrate the occurrence in a style popularized by Raymond Carver.
Elsewhere Lin name checks Ernest Hemingway, Lydia Davis, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace and Ann Beattie, as if to suggest the difficulty of settling on stylistic referents in an age of over-mediation, of displacement. Lin and his characters are endlessly distributed into the disparate digital (but very real) places of Twitter, Facebook and GChat. Literature is made by people who attune themselves to language and its possibilities, but the limits are set by the world; no matter how imaginative or innovative the work, all we have are the tools we’ve been handed. From drugs, MacBooks and kombucha, Tao Lin has built Taipei, his strongest novel yet.
Emily M. Keeler is the editor of Little Brother magazine.