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:
#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.