“[B]eing productive in a low-level manner,” or, thoughts on Taipei

I’ve never had a very long list of living authors I liked well enough to reliably read their books on publication. Even Haruki Murakami, faithful as I was to him since high school, has fallen by the wayside, an unread copy of 1Q84 on my shelf. These days, it seems, Tao Lin is the only such writer left.

I never expected to like Lin’s work; when Shoplifting from American Apparel first came to my attention I assumed it was all annoying hipster gimmick that might be fun to make fun of. I believe I was wrong about that, but two novels later, the Lin-hate can seem almost reflexive.

Lydia Kiesling’s review of Taipei in The Millions, for example, makes clear her total revulsion at Lin’s writing right in the lede:

When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?

This was Kiesling’s first experience with Lin, and she did not like it. After a brief summary of some of the hipster-annoyingness in the novel, she gets down to business: she hates Lin’s style. Which is good for me, because it’s what I love.

I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting words as possible. Tao Lin seems to aspire to a prose I can only describe as “affectless.” When an adjective is required, and sometimes when it is not, Lin often adds a “y” to a noun (see: “soil-y”). Some traditionally formed adjectives and adverbs are enclosed in quotation marks; I believe to communicate the overarching theme of the book, which is that the majority of Paul’s powers of observation are absorbed in the business, not of something so studied as introspection, but of prolonged self-gazing from an external vantage. His quotation mark tactic achieves this effect, but it also communicates an embarrassment about words and what they can represent or mean.

The idea of a novelist writing under “strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest” is hardly a bad one to me—or the members of Oulipo. Admittedly, not everyone appreciates formalism, but we realize it is a thing to appreciate, if you want to, and not a sign that you “hate words.” (It seems to me there’s a good chance formalists would argue they do what they do because they love words.)

Kiesling correctly identifies these strict parameters as affectlessness—something past readers of Lin will find familiar. But it’s far more than just the affectless words and phrases that Kiesling objects to: it’s the ideology that style represents, affectlessness itself. The review becomes a clash of ideologies. Kiesling believes that “really great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Her reaction to the bleakness of Taipei is to be made

to want to hug your lover, have a baby, go to work, call your mom. But maybe you’ll rethink that novel, that personal essay. In the cold ruthless scheme of things, that might not be such a bad thing. But it makes me look upon this novel as dangerous and threatening to life, like as the anti-choicer looks upon the abortionist.

It’s hard for me to imagine a surer sign of Lin’s success than the existence of a review like this. As Kiesling states, in summary, she is “aesthetically or philosophically opposed to” the novel, which means she should hate it if it’s done well. If it’s done poorly, she might not even know how thoroughly they disagreed, after all.

tao lin taipeiIn a way, I think, Kiesling’s review takes the novel more seriously than the more positive (though not exactly positive) piece in the LA Review of Books, “The Drugs Don’t Work: Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’ and the Literature of Pharmacology.” Audrea Lim presents an engrossing history of the treatment of drugs in literature and popular culture, and where exactly Taipei fits into this (though she also notes that “[i]n fact, Taipei is only incidentally about drugs”). Lin’s novel neither condemns nor glorifies drug use; it is “conspicuously blasé” on this point. But this focus on whether the drugs “work,” on whether Paul (Taipei‘s narrator) and his friends are hedonists, presupposes that it would mean something for them to work. To call Paul’s lifestyle hedonism is to reduce hedonism to something just above oblomovshchina, Bartlebyism, anhedonia even. When Sam and his friends in Shoplifting from American Apparel Gchat to each other, “We are fucked,” they’re talking about everyone, about pure existential bleakness—and what Amateur Reader describes in Oblomov as “a protest against existence.”

This condition of Lin’s narrators makes life into an activity they are aware of doing—they don’t simply live. Deciding what to do with your life is no different from deciding what to do with your afternoon. Taipei‘s Paul

gradually began to view the months until September, when his second novel would be published and he would go on a two-month book tour, as an “interim period,” during which he would mostly be alone, “calmly organizing things”….Until then he would calmly focus on being productive in a low-level manner, finding to-do lists and unfinished projects in his Gmail account and further organizing, working on, or deleting them, for example.

Paul may be an artist, a real one, but the planning, the approach is that of one to dead-end nine-to-five drudgery.

That’s not to say Paul actually keeps such promises to himself. If you’re making plans for something that doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter if you break them. So when Paul does go to parties, or doesn’t work, or does or doesn’t do anything else he initially intended, it’s just the way things go. How glamorize or moralize about drug use in such a world?

As to whether the drugs “work,” Lim comes closest to what I see in Lin’s work when she describes Michel Foucault’s outlook on the matter. For him, drugs are

“technologies of the self” — techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves. Drugs can help us to adapt, to be more productive, and even to excel within our circumstances, to make our lives more bearable, and in some cases, to radically reconfigure our subjectivity, if not the world.

After a conversation with a man who “had sounded ‘really drunk’ on the phone but had sent witty, insightful, elaborate texts of mostly long, elegant sentences,” Paul describes the event to the man’s girlfriend. She explains simply that “Daniel was like that when on Klonopin.” Cause, effect, simple. Later in the novel, Paul is on another such technology—several, I’m sure—and as he freaks out, even inhabits the cause and effect at once: “‘I think I am where you were twenty minutes ago, so you need to console me,’ he said while thinking ‘that’s exactly what I would tell a projection to do if I were dead’”—simulataneously realizing he is freaking out on drugs and also thinking it further proof that he is dead. Earlier, the narrator made Paul’s thoughts on it all pretty explicit:

Paul tried, with Erin, who agreed with him, he felt, to convey (mostly by slowly saying variations of “no” and “I can’t think right now”) that there was no such thing as a “drug problem” or even “drugs”—unless anything anyone ever did or thought or felt was considered both a drug and a problem—in that each thought or feeling or object, seen or touched or absorbed or remembered, at whatever coordinate of space-time, would have a unique effect, which each person, at each moment of their life, could view as a problem, or not.

That last paragraph is radical. The average person believes that the hard drugs Paul does should be prohibited, and Paul thinks there is absolutely nothing materially different between such substances and every single thought or feeling that same average person has throughout the day. And as Lim points out, that’s not because Lin comes out on the hippie-dippy side, saying life is a beautiful bacchanal—that would be sympathetic, if countercultural. Taipei is, instead, “haunting,” just as Lim admits.

While Lim ends on a note more sympathetic to Lin’s style, calling Taipei “undoubtedly beautiful,” she believes the novel suffers a “failure of imagination”—basically, Kiesling’s ideological rejection in other terms. Calling it that, though, seems to be a failure of imagination itself, and a failure to see the style of the novel as more than superficial.

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