TWO YEARS AGO, I came across a story by Tao Lin in VICE entitled Relationship Story. Although I’d been following and enjoying Tao’s writing for several years, this new work felt like a leap in his progression, almost like a surfer who’d switched to a different board and could now reach new places on a wave.
Published last month by Vintage, Taipei, Tao Lin’s 7th book, is essentially the continuation of this story, and the first book I’d recommend to people who want to read a next-level novel, something akin to space-age journalism.
The story follows the 26-year-old writer “Paul” through New York’s art and literary scenes and trips to visit family in Taipei, all on a kind of psilocybin, Adderall, MDMA, and Xanax-fueled anti-mission. There are lots of parties and shenanigans, psychedelic episodes in Whole Foods, a Las Vegas wedding; Paul’s not averse to occasional shoplifting or shutting down dance parties by switching the music to “Today” by the Smashing Pumpkins.
In many ways the plot feels repetitive and tiresome, almost a substructure for the real action of Taipei, which is the narrator’s minute-by-minute struggle to locate himself. Whether it’s processing childhood memories from suburban Florida or literally trying to extricate himself from a strange sofa, Paul is continuously auditing his environment (and juxtaposed memories, ideas, or associations) almost as if he’s just woken up there at that particular moment in his life and must make sense of the surroundings.
Tao Lin’s work has always explored these feelings and themes of cognitive dissonance and depersonalization, but whereas his previous two books — Richard Yates and Shoplifting from American Apparel — conveyed them via a stripped down, Raymond Carver-esque style, Taipei is woven together with long, hypnotic passages that nest clauses within clauses, as if the narrator is overwhelmed by the infinite number of contingencies represented in each passing second of time. In these grace notes, some of which I found myself rereading several times for enjoyment, Taipei reminds us that while events may “define” one’s life, our daily existence is mostly a stream of cognition, a series of introspective moments.
One of the most innovative aspects of Taipei is how it communicates a sense of place, not through traditionally lush or epic descriptions but the structuring and momentum of scenes. Paul and his friends are constantly walking through different doors, entering and leaving parties, galleries, Mexican restaurants; they’re always standing in front of certain buildings or subway stops or up on rooftops. Without ever outright “describing” New York, these constant referents capture the feeling of being in the city, and the way you’re always (at least it seems to me) walking through another door into another confined, often incongruous space.
In today’s “otherworld,” there’s something that feels at turns binary or dissociative about the way we travel, the way we literally move through places while tracking our own movements through Google Maps and GPS. Taipei is the first book I’ve read which nails this. Whether observing the “distant municipality of the SUV’s lighted dashboard” or having full-blown realizations (“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”), Paul experiences the world almost as an exploded view or cross-section, with each different plane or layer a potential distraction, (dis)comfort, or possibility for investigation.
The “fifth season”
There is also the question of Taipei itself, the “fifth season,” as Paul describes it. Life in Taipei and what this represents to Paul — particularly the possibility of moving there — was the most resonant theme of the book to me, as well as the one I found myself hoping for something more:
To Paul, who’d stayed mostly in his uncle’s sixteenth-floor apartment in previous visits, the vaguely tropical consummating murmur of Taipei, through his parents’ fourteenth floor balcony’s screen door, had sounded immediately and distinctly familiar. The muffled roar of traffic, hazily embellished with beeps and honks and motorcycle engines and the occasional, looping, Doppler-effected jingle or prerecorded message from a commercial or political vehicle, had been mnemonic enough, reminding Paul of the 10 to 15 percent of his life on the opposite side of Earth with a recurring cast of characters and no school and a different language and culture and population, almost fantastically unlike the other 85 to 90 percent, for him to believe, on some level, that if a place existed where he could go to scramble some initial momentum–to disable a setting implemented before birth or disrupt the out-of-control formation of an incomprehensible worldview–and allow a kind of settling to occur, it would be here.
At this point in the novel, Paul and his young bride Erin have recently gotten married, had their first “drug fight,” and are flying to Taipei as a wedding present from Paul’s parents. I found myself wanting more of this “scrambling” / “disrupting” (that the narrator acknowledges as possible) to occur, not necessarily in some momentous, transformational way, but at least as another point of entry into understanding the characters beyond Paul’s hyper-vigilance. There’s a sense throughout Taipei (and all of Tao Lin’s work) of extreme control, of weighing all possible outcomes before acting, and perhaps what I wanted was for things to go wrong — as they so often do in travel — in such a way as to force him to lose that control, to fully break down, if only temporarily.
In the end, however, I believe Tao Lin kept Taipei a close facsimile of his own personal life, which is edifying in its own way. Although I realize it’s an unlikely parallel to draw, there’s an element of the Beats — the way they cataloged their lives over the decades — that I see in Tao and his circle of friends (Noah Cicero, Megan Boyle (Erin), Brandon Scott Gorrell, Sam Pink, and others), an ethic of transparently revealing one’s relationships and progression, which feels inspiring and reflective of our times.