Sunday, April 27, 2014

Taipei - Tao Lin (2013)

Taipei is Tao Lin's third novel, and his fourth book to be reviewed on Flying Houses.  There is a lot I could potentially write about here, but I think once I hit a certain number of books by one author on this site, I need to rank them:

#1: Taipei
#2: Shoplifting from American Apparel
#3: Eeeee Eee Eeee
#4: Richard Yates

Reading all of these past reviews, I am embarrassed.  This is actually a pretty significant milestone because the last one I reviewed was Richard Yates, and I wrote that almost exactly when I started law school.  Now I am done (and have been done for almost 11 months now) and I often say that law school did very little for me except gave me two more letters to put after my name and improved my writing.  So this will be the test.

I have corresponded with Tao a number of times over the past six years, but for some reason, I don't feel like going through the motions and asking him if he would agree to answer a few interview questions.  This is mainly because Taipei doesn't perplex me in the same manner of some his earlier material.  Taipei is, as I'm sure has already been noted, Tao Lin at his most "accessible."  To be sure, it is still "weird" in that it doesn't really concern itself with the trope of a "plot," but it is consistently his most entertaining work to date, and arguably the one most likely to inspire a film adaptation.  However, I don't think that movie would make a ton of money.  So too with this book.  While it is Lin's "major publishing house debut" (I wanted to write "major label debut" but it seemed like something I would do 4 years ago) and while I hope it earns him a greater following and more sales, it's not exactly going to be his big splash that puts him on Oprah's Book Club (I am assuming that still exists).  But it is a step towards that level of fame.


These asterisks signify that I have broken up this review into multiple sittings.  Crucially, this is my 3rd time sitting down to write on it over the past couple of weeks.  My 2nd time, I wrote a lot--perhaps 1,000 words--and for some reason it was not saved, even in this post-security world.  I will whine a fair amount about everything I lost, but I will construct a new rule out of this disaster: from now on, every review that I write in multiple spurts will be marked by asterisks.  It is unfair to pretend that I am as disciplined as it may appear from each post.

But I know I made a few points I want to repeat as I try to unearth the past.  I recounted the plot of Taipei:  Paul is a 26-year-old novelist in November 2009, who goes to parties in Brooklyn and then goes to visit his parents in Taipei, Taiwan.  He then returns to the U.S. and decides that the period between April and September 2010 will be an "interim" period which he has to get through until the book tour for his second novel begins.  He breaks up with his girlfriend, Michelle, during the beginning of the novel; then, he goes out with a girl named Laura for a little while; finally, he reconnects with a girl named Erin, and the story of their relationship is probably the whole point of the book being written.

It should also be fairly obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in Tao that this book is very autobiographical, and I would say his most "personal" book yet.  I say this even though he told me that Shoplifting from American Apparel was "100% autobiographical."  I say Taipei is more personal because, while it still trades in some of the minimalist language of Tao's earlier books, it represents a leap forward stylistically along with a willingness to examine psychological interiority.  Some of the sentences are so long you could mistake this for any number of more "mainstream" authors.

As a corollary to this last point, if Tao's books are drawn from his life, then his friends are the supporting characters.  And there are a ton of supporting characters.  Here let me try to list them, excluding the three girlfriends already mentioned: Jeremy, Kyle, Gabby, Traci,  Anton, Juan, Mitch, Lucie, Amy, Daniel, Matt, Lindsay, Fran, Walter, Taryn, Caroline, Shawn Olive, Harry, Charles, Jeannie, Calvin, Maggie, Cristine, Sally, Mia, Beau, Gary, Alethia, Rodrigo, and Peanut.  From this list perhaps you can tell that this book is primarily a collection of social encounters, which act as a framing device for the three relationships.  None of the relationships is probed very deeply either, except for the one with Erin.

Thus, many of Tao's friends appear here, though I do not.  To be fair, Tao and I have only met twice.  The first time I met him is briefly referenced:

"Paul's book tour's fourth reading--after another in Brooklyn and one at a Barnes & Noble in the financial district--was in Ohio, on September 11.  Calvin, 18, and Maggie, 17, seniors in high school who'd been friends since middle school and were currently in a relationship, had invited Paul and Erin and other 'internet friends' to read at a music festival and stay two nights in Calvin's parents' 'mansion,' as Paul called it." (94)

That reading, I am reasonably sure, took place around September 9 at Book Court on Court St. in Brooklyn.  I had moved there a few weeks earlier, and one of the first pieces of mail I received was a copy of Richard Yates, which I reviewed.  I also received Think Tank for Human Beings in General  by Jordan Castro.  Many people have said that Erin is clearly Megan Boyle, but I have not seen anyone postulate that Calvin is Jordan Castro.  But those are the only two "beat" connections I can make.

Tao would not write about me because I said basically nothing to him at that reading.  He seemed to offer a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned that I ran this blog.  He was friendly, but seemed a bit distant, perhaps because he may have been on drugs.

Tao notably took magic mushrooms before a reading in San Francisco and asked readers of his blog to guess which drug he was on after posting a video of the proceedings.  This is also detailed in Taipei:

"Around two weeks later, in early October, he stayed for eights days in San Francisco in his own room, on the second floor of a house, which Daniel's ex-girlfriend and ex-girlfriend's sister shared.  An employee at Twitter invited him to its headquarters, where he ate from two different buffets.  Daniel's ex-girlfriend'sister's boyfriend sold him MDMA and mushrooms, which he ate a medium-large dose of before his reading at the Booksmith, which was livestreamed on the internet.  His publisher left him a voice mail the next afternoon, asking him to call them to discuss 'some problems.'  He emailed them late that night apologizing for missing their call and said he was available by email.  He met someone from Facebook and ingested LSD, which she declined, before watching Dave Eggers interview Judd Apatow for almost two hours in an auditorium.  On her full-size mattress, three hours after the interview, they watched a forty-minute DVD of a Rube Goldberg machine and kissed a few minutes, then Paul 'fingered' her and, after seeming to orgasm, she rolled over and slept." (110)

There are a lot of drugs in this book (primarily a lot of Adderall and Klonopin) and I noticed Tao writing more about drugs on his blog during this period.

Thus, October 1, 2011, perhaps 4 months after the date where Taipei ends, in the vestibule of the Whole Foods at Union Square, with Slutwalk and a rainstorm going on outside, I met Tao for the first time since the reading, more than a year earlier.  I asked him if he remembered me, and he said yes.  I asked him if he had really done heroin.  He said yes.  I asked him what it was like.  He said it was like a really strong painkiller.  An older woman walked by and said, "Excuse me!" I replied, "Do you know who this is?  This is the greatest writer of our generation!"  Tao said, "Don't say that."

So I am hoping that Tao will write another book (though I read an interview where he said he just wanted to write shorter books from now on) and that he will include this anecdote.  If he doesn't, then I will.

But back to this book and away from my egomania: at one point Tao mentions going to see the movie Somewhere with Erin.  For some reason, I feel this book is a lot like that movie.  It conveys a mood, a feeling, but doesn't really have much of a story.  The relationship with Erin is the main point of the book, but she doesn't appear until page 90 (out of 248).  There is a great short reference to what must be Center on Halsted, too:

"Paul sensed she was busy with college and maybe one or more vague relationships, but allowed himself to become 'obsessed,' to some degree, with her, anyways, reading all four years of her Facebook wall and, in one of Chicago's Whole Foods, one night looking at probably fifteen hundred of her friends' photos to find any she might've untagged."  (109)

There are moments of this book that seem plucked from a work of "award-winning literature," like Paul and Erin's pseudo-breakdown in Taipei, and pages 35 through 43, which recount Paul's childhood in a way that is both charming and heartbreaking.  Also, the friendship between Paul and Daniel, who seems almost like a precursor to Erin, is very nicely sketched.  Overall, this is not a perfect book, but it is definitely Tao's best.  There are six chapters, and it reads pretty quickly.  It's a good place for newcomers, but fans that have been reading from the beginning will recognize it as his strongest work, too.

Taipei may not be "about" much, but it is a pleasant story about relatively carefree days and the daily life of a quasi-famous artist.  I don't know if Tao's prose represents "the future of literature" anymore, but I still think he is at the forefront of 30 or 31-year-old authors and still writes more intellectually honest material than younger writers looking to cash in on a cinematic trilogy adaptation.  I'm sorry I didn't receive this book in the mail and review it about a year earlier, but I enjoyed reading it, and I'll look forward to whatever Tao does next.  The only question I have is why his website has been stripped back to almost nothing.


Anonymous said...

An excellent review.

"Jeremy, Kyle, Gabby, Traci, Anton, Juan, Mitch, Lucie," etc.

These are basically just faceless names. I remember Peanut because he was the drug dealer whose mom drove him, which was interesting and fun. Calvin and Maggie are slightly memorable, as you hear things about their relationship. The others are names more than characters.

Do you think it is a problem that except for himself, his girlfriends, and his parents that Tao seems not interested in people? His protagonists are interesting, but they are Tao, at least in the last three books.

I wonder about a few things and am interested in your opinion:

Why didn't he keep the same name for the characters in the three novels where the protagonist is a writer not really different from Tao? Haley, Sam and Paul all are basically the same person. Paul is clearly Taiwanese, but they are pretty much interchangeable, with just the differences attributable to the normal changes people have from early 20s to almost 30.

I think about Philip Roth, who seems like the older novelist Tao most resembles, in that he uses a lot of autobiographical main characters. But Roth used the Nathan Zuckerman character a lot as a stand-in, which gave the novels a sense that they were a series. There are also other main characters Roth uses, like Peter Tarnapol, who are slightly different, also in multiple books.

If Tao had been more consistent with the main character -- it wouldn't have been hard -- then you could read Richard Yates, Shoplifting and Taipei as a trilogy in a young writer's development. Though I guess you still could read them that way.

Roth, though, sometimes or often uses the first person. Tao never does, and he has explained that it would confuse people as to who was telling the story. But people aren't fooled. And it's not true that you confuse a novelist with the "I" that he or she creates if the "I" is clearly different than they are. Anyone could give zillions of examples of first-person novels where the "I" is not like the author.

Which is another "problem": Tao seems unable to, or uninterested in, creating characters who have very different voices than his own. A lot of people say that everyone in Tao's books talks the same way. No one has a distinctive voice, not even the parents because he doesn't really give them a chance to talk. Do you think this limits Tao as a writer?

People mostly like interesting, memorable characters. There are really never more than two in any of Tao's books: the stand-in for himself and for his girlfriend. Or maybe you think this is wrong?

Do you think Tao can't create interesting, very different characters -- let's say the way Bret Ellis does in his novels, since Tao is compared to him -- but just isn't interested in doing so?

I have a similar question about the plots. Ellis's books, and Roth's, all are stories, and Tao's books, well, things happen, but it's not so much a "plot." They seem basically based on Tao's life, and whatever happens to him, with some changes in embellishments, happens in his books.

Also, using Ellis and Roth: They can also create books with very, very different characters, things that have nothing do with themselves, like American Psycho or Sabbath's Theater, people with maybe some of the same sensibility, but with very different jobs, living in different places, thinking thoughts and doing things that the authors you are certain would or could never do.

Can a novelist sustain a career out of what Tao does? What do you think? I mean, it's interesting if you're in your 20s and part of a rising generation, but how does it work when you get in your 30s and 40s?

JK said...

Thank you for the comment. This is a lot to take in, but I'll try to respond.

The point regarding the supporting characters is accurate, though I would note that Daniel is a more developed character than any of the others.

Do I think it is a problem that Tao does not seem interested in people? Not really. He seems more interested in the way people define themselves, i.e. by their age and how he knows them, usually involving social media. He's not trying to write some kind of "comedie humaine" with multiple plots, but he is writing about daily life and how technology affects that--generally bringing people together but also forming different zones of privacy that break down until a certain level of intimacy is reached.

Why didn't he keep the same name for the main character in his three novels? I'm not sure. And while I would never suggest Philip Roth "cheapened" his work by having several books with Nathan Zuckerman as a protagonist, I think it comes off like you are writing a "series" or a "trilogy" if you keep the same main character. Perhaps by changing the name each time, Tao is trying to write a different sort of novel. Or it may just be a way to give the appearance of "freshness," as you do point out that they may be read as a "trilogy" in any case.

Do I think that Tao is limited as a writer because no one seems to have a distinctive voice? Potentially, but it remains to be seen. I do think his parents are more distinctive, but, when I've tried writing about "real life," I've felt that most people do generally talk the same way, unless English is their second-language or they speak in some sort of technical code all the time. When writing "pure fiction," maybe more distinct differences arise because of what the characters are motivated to do.

Do I think it is wrong that there are only two memorable characters in each book? No, I tend to agree, and I agree that people "like" memorable characters, but people can also like prose that captures an intangible feeling that's not usually addressed or referenced in everyday conversations.

I think Tao has the capability of creating different, very interesting characters, but isn't interested in doing so at the moment. This is because as social media tends to dominate his work, increasingly social media is dominating our lives, and it seems to have a sort of homogenizing effect. If Tao wants to write a political book, then I would guess the characters would come off as being more "different."

Finally, your last question is probably the most important--is this "motif" sustainable as a writer enters their 30's and 40's? To answer that I have to reference another writer: Kerouac. To me, Tao's work is sort of an offshoot of the literature of the beat movement. Tao's work reminds me of Kerouac's in the sense that the end statement is about individuality. Maybe that's an outdated model, but I still think Kerouac is an important writer, and anytime you are saddled with being the "face" of a literary movement (like Ellis as well), people expect a certain thing out of you and it can be hard to reinvent yourself. That said I think Tao will remain successful, but if he hopes to be very successful (like Roth or Ellis) he will need to write a more traditional novel with different sorts of characters and a more discernible "plot." But I think what he has done up to this point is worthwhile as well.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for taking my comments seriously and writing such an intelligent response. I hope you won't mind if I write back.

I agree with you about Kerouac; he is an important writer, but he really wasn't a very good writer. I guess you are saying that he and Tao are important because they caught/are catching the spirit of the times with the Beats and the current social media generation.

However, Kerouac is a pretty horrible example for a writer to base her or his career on. He had a substance abuse problem and went to an early grave, living with his mother and writing mean conservative screeds against the new generation.

Speaking of substance abuse problems, you write:

***I asked him if he had really done heroin. He said yes. I asked him what it was like. He said it was like a really strong painkiller. An older woman walked by and said, "Excuse me!" I replied, "Do you know who this is? This is the greatest writer of our generation!" ***

Philip Seymour Hoffman was the greatest actor of his generation, but that did not stop him from dying of heroin overdose at 46. (Kerouac died at 47 of a combination of stuff, but mostly from the effects of lifetime drinking.)

Maybe the older woman who objected to Tao's saying heroin was just a painkiller, like most older people in New York, knew people who OD'ed on heroin. It's pretty common. Maybe she had Tao's welfare in mind more than you did?

I don't say this to be mean, but to wonder if fans/friends of Tao's who don't question him on his drug use are "enablers," letting him get away with doing things that are not good for him as a person or a writer because you admire his work. I know some people seem to find Tao's drug antics, like the reading you reference, "entertaining."

Too many talented people have died of substance abuse, and maybe Tao's fans and friends could at least express their thoughts about this. Yeah, you can use drugs for a long time -- look at William S. Burroughs, whose centenary we're celebrating -- but isn't he an exception?

As to the remark you made about "greatest writer of our generation," I would like to know if you have read Karen Russell, Téa Obreht, Chad Harbach, Garth Risk Hallberg, Joshua Cohen, Justin Taylor, Helen Oyeyemi, Daniel Alarcón and other writers under 35?

All of them seem to be able to create characters that talk very differently from one another. To say what you say about thinking people mostly talk the same way -- not to be insulting -- seems to be a failure to pay attention, denied not only by almost every novel and film but by sitting in a cafe and overhearing other people talk.

Of course if you're staring at your phone or tablet, you're not paying attention.

MiraPloy said...

Excellent review brah. I share the commenter's concerns about drug use. I think it's a huge detriment to Tao Lin. I would venture that he would be "several times" more successful if he did not do drugs.

Creating many characters with distinct voices is important but not necessary. I think it's harder and more important to create relatable and interesting characters. That the supporting cast is homogenized is not a big deal I think. One of the big reasons why I enjoy Tao Lin is how relatable his characters feel. More distinctive but less relatable characters would remove the work from this current niche that Tao has carved out for himself. It would be a totally different reading experience, one which I would not enjoy as much I think.

Having only 2 developed characters is a trope that's served him well so far. But I can't guess whether or not he "has to" do something different to go mainstream. I hope he can do it but I'm not sure I would enjoy those books more.

Having people that talk differently puts an emphasis on culture rather than on person. I don't think it's any accident that Taipei said almost nothing about Taipei. The novel is not meant to be an anthropological exercise.

I think different ways of speaking comes down to labeling and stereotyping, aka, deadly dull. Things like this person talks like this because he's a WASP, or he's from the midwest, or he's a techie, or he's a goth is dead horse-y :P and artless.

JK said...

Thank you MiraPloy for the comment. Your response sums up my feelings, though I sometimes have trouble articulating them as such.

As for the above, I believe Kerouac was important, but believe he was a great writer as well. I think maybe today a lot of people will say he was not a great writer, but I think if you put yourself back in the 1950's, he was a true original.

And while his personal demise may have been unfortunate (I'm sure many, many people wish he had lived as long as Ginsberg or Burroughs), I don't believe he's a horrible example for a writer to base their career on, if they intend to emulate his r'aison d'etre (i.e. an update of Proust's). Of course I don't think it's healthy to actively want to be alcoholic and mentally disturbed, but that is not going to stop thousands of college students a year from wanting to be the next him.

I just wanted to clarify the anecdote in the review. I don't think the elderly woman objected to what Tao said abot heroin, because she didn't hear it. She came into the scene after that conversation. She objected because we were ostensibly blocking the vestibule. Also he didn't say it was just like a painkiller--he said that the sensation it provided was similar. (But that said, from what I believe oxycotin is just as addictive as heroin, though maybe with less risk of an OD.)

Maybe his fans and friends are enablers because they want to enable themselves, too. Of course we all care about his welfare, but I think Tao is perfectly aware of what he is doing. Taipei includes its fair number of conversations about being "concerned" about drug use.

The last thing I wanted to say was, as far as we know, unless we are actually physically there doing drugs with him, this could all be a big joke, too. But assuming it's not, I don't find it unusual. Many, many writers have experimented to gain perspective on the nature of existence, etc. I'll agree that it can be dangerous--but mostly when it's heroin shot through needles. I doubt Tao wants to do this, and if it really isn't a big joke, then it's probably more of a phase. I know he is intelligent and will be able to keep it under control, and it won't dominate his life or destroy his talent.

JK said...

Oh and one other thing: I'm sorry but I haven't read any of those 8 writers under 35 you referenced.

Flying Houses is a record of every book I read (with very limited exceptions) - I force myself to review each book. So if I had read them (and particularly if they are "buzz-worthy") I certainly would have reviewed it here.

If you had to pick one book that I should definitely check out from one of them, which would it be? I'm always looking for quality recommendations...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for not taking offense to my comments. I don't mean to come off as a 'hater' because I think Tao Lin is a very good writer -- a lot better than Kerouac, and much smarter. Unfortunately, I have known many smart people who have become victims of substance abuse.

I thought about it and the one book I would recommend to you to read is Adelle Waldman's "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." I recommend this book because it is essentially set in the same world as "Taipei" and "Shoplifting," a world you may know: the Brooklyn/Manhattan scene of ambitious, bright, literary young people.

Waldman's characters could be in the same bars and restaurants as Tao's. She writes in the third person, but the point of view is mostly from the writer and main character Nate Piven. There are a lot of characters, but they are all distinctive, even the ones spotted for a while at a party. She seems to think more deeply and observe better than Tao does. It's not just surface.

I recognize some people prefer just the surface, don't really care about the characters, and like Tao's work because they know it is about Tao. He is extremely shrewd in making himself into a celebrity. You can read Waldman's book and have no idea what she is like as a person, but for me, and I think for most people who read literary fiction (the vast majority of whom are women over 30, maybe over 40), Waldman's book will resonate in a way that Tao's current writing will not.

To reach beyond his current audience -- if he cares to -- he may have to alienate them by doing something completely unexpected. I don't know why, but I think of the uproar Dylan caused when he went electric at the Newport Festival and alienated his purist fanbase.

Tao is talented and smart and aware, so if he does do something completely different in his next book, he won't surprise me.

One last thing (and thanks for letting me go on like this): I think Tao is multitalented in fields other than fiction writing, and eventually he may become more well-known for something other than his novels.

JK said...

Thank you for not being a troll. Plenty of people have called me names for things I've written, and falsely attributed other statements to me, so I appreciate your willingness to contribute to a constructive discussion.

I do take issue with your statements about Kerouac, and I am just curious why you feel this way about him. What books are you basing your opinion on? I'll admit that I think "On the Road" is overrated, but have you read "The Dharma Bums," "Desolation Angels," or "Big Sur?" I don't want to force you to like him or anything, but it's just that I think most students of literature would place him in the top 10 for the 20th century american writers, and I think rightfully so.

I have just put in a request at the library for "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P" and I will look forward to reading and reviewing it. Thank you for the recommendation.

I do agree with you about Tao about needing to branch out and do something unexpected to reach a larger audience. But I also find it troubling that the demographic of women over 30 or 40 comprise the majority of the reading public, and will therefore dictate what agents will represent and what publishers will release.

Anonymous said...

My opinion doesn't matter.

I'd just ask you to google "Jack Kerouac" and something like "literary reputation" or "academic reputation" or "weak writer," and you'll probably get a balanced view.

Check his English Department/MFA/literary scholar reputation. Ask Tao Lin and his own champions what they think of Kerouac, and you'll get the typical view.

It's not the fault of women over 30 that we read and buy more books than anyone else. We don't stop other people from reading.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and it's so nice that you will be reading Adelle Waldman's book. You are very nice. I just finished another novel by a woman who I think may be younger than Tao and which just blew me away: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. Here is a review that tells you what it's about.

Like Taipei, it's partially set in another country, its main character with parents there, but it's just got such a wider scope and an interest in the world, people, and life. Maybe it's a "woman's book"? Maybe Nathaniel P. is, too?

I look forward to your review. Thanks again!