Around halfway through Tao Lin’s latest novel, Taipei, I had the book on a table at a falafel restaurant, my overstuffed sandwich dangerously hovering over the drugged-out lamé-fonted cover that, surely to Lin’s delight, will, in two years’ time, place it on Urban Outfitters sale shelves next to the Position of the Day Playbook and that “put-your-penis-through-this-book” book. As I bit into my sandwich, I noticed a wedge of tomato jutting from a hole in nether-regions of my pita. When I bit again, compressing the contents of the sandwich towards the constipated pita’s backside, the tomato further protruded, an ominous drop of tahini falling a half-inch from the “best work ever” from “the Kafka for the iPhone generation.” I became aware of the fact that if I steadily held the sandwich over the book, and took another bite, the tomato would fall onto and besmirch its pages. I took another bite. Before writing this review, this self-satisfying, minute gesture of protest, akin in a very literal sense to tossing a tomato at a soporific vaudeville act, was the most I could do to show my utter disrespect for Tao Lin’s utter disrespect towards just about everything.
Initially, Tao Lin’s protagonist, Paul (a pointlessly transparent pseudonym for Tao) comes across as a Patrick Bateman of the 2010’s, but without the murdering. Not too far into the book, however, you realize that he is worse than Bateman, because instead of murdering fictional characters by night, he’s murdering you. Suddenly, you understand you’re captive to the book’s merciless monotony, stuck in the dungeon of a literary sociopath, tied to a stake at which you and all books with structure and plot and empathy are burning. And Lin hovers just beyond, reciting a list of groceries and prescription pills he’s bought over the course of two years (as he persistently does in Taipei), interspersed with comments from reviews, which dub him the new Hemingway (as they persistently have). Over the course of 248 pages, you die so, so slowly.
Taipei follows Paul, a popular alt-lit writer, preparing for a book tour by frequenting a multitude of (real-life!) Williamsburg restaurants and chasing his New American cuisine with cocktails of poppable drugs, which, with each popping, the author robotically refers to as “ingesting [blank].” As Paul and his fleeting friends and girlfriends down a litany of [blanks], Paul occasionally mentions his family and their disdain for all of the [blanks] he publicly alludes to ingesting in his writing, and his disdain for their disdain. On his book tour, he begins a relationship with another writer, Erin, based on Lin’s ex-wife Megan Boyle. They take drugs and digest New American cuisine together, and in their listless, flaccid deconstruction of all things people care about, decide to get married in Vegas and honeymoon in Taipei, where his drug-naysaying family lives. Stocking up on enough benzos to kill a thousand Whitney Houstons (but somehow not two waifish young authors), they head to Taipei and film each other with their MacBooks (something Tao Lin and Boyle also did, available for your viewing displeasure on the website of their “production company,” MDMAfilms). And that’s about it.
The hype surrounding Tao Lin’s “enigmatic existence” seems reminiscent of a 2011/2012 media debate regarding an “are-they-lobotimized-or-merely-showing-us-how-uniformly-lobotomized-we-all-are; are-they-worth-talking-about-or-are-we-just-talking-about-them-because-we’ve-been-talking-about-them?” artist. This, of course, is the now unmentionable (by virtue of being over-mentioned) Lana Del Rey. Like Del Rey, the polarizing nature of Tao Lin’s work has a great deal to do with his impenetrable public persona and his reluctance to break the fuck down à la exemplars of self-destructive genius like Van Gogh, Tolstoy, or Amanda Bynes and show that he is, indeed, human. Media fervor has made it nearly impossible to form an organic opinion about his actual work, and it is this joint mythologizing on the parts of the press and the author himself that have turned his existence into an auto-cannibalizing, shitty but through its shittiness “crucial” piece of conceptual art.
So, for the sake of “the work,” for a paragraph at least, I will inorganically try to distance my review from my notion of Paul as a facsimile of Tao Lin, Paul’s green juices as facsimiles of Tao Lin’s green juices, Paul’s AdderallxanaxheroinMDMAmushrooms as facsimiles of Tao Lin’s AdderallxanaxheroinMDMAmushrooms, despite Tao Lin and ex-wife Megan Boyle’s refusals to let us forget that this book is, indeed, based on their bleak realities.
So, when I strip this book of my preconceived notions of Lin’s persona, to my dismay, the author proves, through this book alone, to be a bore and possibly a sociopath. Though he’s certainly not an idiot. Through the deluge of drudgery that is Taipei, we get glimpses of his ability to say something crushing and revelatory, brief moments that abruptly halt the text’s morphine drip and show us that there is total deliberation to that drudgery. For example, let’s compare three passages, the first two representing the vast majority of the book, and the second coming a few pages from the end of the book, a rare moment of clarity and even depth, describing a bad shroom trip that Paul conflates with a heroin OD:
1. On tacos:
“Eight tacos,” said Paul absently.
“I said six tacos,” said Daniel.
“Six tacos,” said Paul. “Was it, like . . . a taco platter?”
“No. This place has small tacos.”
“It wasn’t a taco platter?”
“It wasn’t a taco platter,” said Daniel.
“I don’t get it,” said Paul, without thinking.
“Bro,” said Daniel grinning.
Paul asked Fran what she had eaten.
“Enchiladas,” said Fran.
“I can never remember what those are,” said Paul, and went to the bathroom.
2. On orgies:
After the reading, while on the second floor of a bar, Paul stood in a shadowy room, at a billiards table, eating his baguette and soup. He said, “we should have an orgy tonight,” to Calvin, who seemed hesitant but curious. Maggie entered the room and stood with them and Paul said “we should have an orgy tonight.”
“Yeah, seems good,” said Maggie in an uncharacteristic monotone.
“But we should film it,” said Paul.
“No, I don’t know,” said Maggie with unfocused eyes.
“Once we’re on MDMA we won’t care,” said Paul, “about anything.”
3. On writing/a drug OD:
Paul believed again, at some point, that he was in the prolonged seconds before death, in which he had the opportunity to return to life — by discerning some code or pattern or connections in his memory, or remembering some of what had happened with a degree of chronology sufficient to re-enter the shape of his life, or sustaining a certain variety of memories in his consciousness long enough to be noticed as living and relocated accordingly. Lying on his back, on his mattress, he uncertainly thought he’d written books to tell people how to reach him, to describe the particular geography of the area of otherworld in which he’d been secluded.
As indicated, there’s a pervasive, Seinfeldian deadpan with which the characters approach all activities, but without the humor, Jewishness, or the 90s to endear it to us. This deadpan is justified and perhaps even broken in the occasional earnest passage, like the third example above, about the abyss Paul seems to inhabit. Herein lies the noteworthy flaw that undermines the novel’s purpose. By relentlessly immersing his reader into this “geography” of emotional “seclusion,” Lin desensitizes us to his character’s own desensitized, dehumanized nature. He can thus spare us the favor of letting us “reach him.”
A book like this — that is at once so torturous but also, with its obsessive Williamsburg hot-spot name-dropping and its veneration of the latest gadgets and the latest prescription drugs, so self-consciously ensconced in the zeitgeist — seems to want to link its torture techniques to the general torture of contemporary existence. But Paul is not a character universal enough to make his existential horror relatable or relevant: he is so curtly anomalous that one gets a sense of pity and disgust, but it’s aimed at him rather than inwards. I suppose I had grand hopes that the book would make me feel disgusted by my own existence; instead, despite trying to abide by a “death of the author” outlook in these last paragraphs, I cannot help but come out of this experience vehemently disliking Tao Lin himself. For, rather than inducing fear of the zombie-world we live in, or fear of existence devoid of connection, this book makes one realize how much, by contrast (despite our depersonalizing mediascape), a person can still cherish the beautiful things people have always cherished — love, family, friends, sex — everything this book lacks.
Do not buy this book for the traditional reasons you’d buy a book: it will not satisfy with a captivating plot, sympathetic characters, or rapturous prose. But if you haven’t felt malice in a while, or haven’t reevaluated what you never want to be, this may be just the thing for you. I can think of few things bleaker than Paul’s existence, and having been shat out the other end of this text, I realize that, with an inflated and perhaps sanctimonious sense of superiority, I don’t hate myself or my life all that much, for I didn’t believe in the “soul” before being here confronted by its absolute absence, and now can at least convince myself that, at least in comparison to Paul or Tao Lin or whatfuckingever, I have one. And this embarrassing, flailing, self-affirmation is likely exactly the response Tao Lin wanted. He wins. He is a superlative of vacuity, against which one fights with goofy enthusiasm. He has forced himself into importance, and our reactionary distaste for it has further sealed his notoriety. He is the suckiest person in literature, and I, having agreed to review his book, was subjected to two weeks of his sheer suckiness. And wherever he is, shoving kale and meth into a juicer, I’m sure he’s satisfied, but decidedly not satisfied enough to qualify it with anything more than a smirk and a shrug, which he’ll record on a MacBook, call a film, and have reviewed by some other inflamed kid with a much less promising career than his. Bitter much? Yeah.