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'Taipei' Is Lifelike — But That's Not Necessarily A Compliment

The novelist Tao Lin, because he is young, narcissistic and computer literate, gets the "voice of Generation Y" treatment a lot. It's a safe way of pinning down the uncontainable paradox that is Tao Lin: On the one hand, he's meek, cripplingly shy and unusually talented. But on the other, he can be remarkably alienating.

He recently accused a journalist profiling him for New York Magazine of stealing his Adderall. He emailed the gossip website Gawker updates on his daily activities until they publicly begged him to stop, writing that he was "perhaps the single most irritating person we've ever had to deal with." He tweets about his drug use, wrote a book about shoplifting, sold shares in an uncompleted novel to pay rent and profiled himself for The Stranger in an article called "Great American Novelist" (mocking Time's Jonathan Franzen cover). His last novel caused a New York Times critic to contemplate suicide.

Taipei, Lin's newest book, is similarly uncategorizable: At once very bad and very good, it swings between dullness and wild, excessive beauty.

Taipei follows Paul — who closely resembles Lin — as he lies in bed, "looks at the Internet," goes on drugged wanderings around New York and Taipei and has relationships with various quiet, broken girls. Most novelists edit life into a more interesting version of experience, but in Taipei Lin refuses, almost sadistically, to entertain the reader. This may be a strategy as much as a failure: Lin pushes the reader into boredom and despair to force a kind of transcendent empathy with the bored, despairing Paul.

The plot is an endless cycle in which Paul 1) feels bored, socially anxious or sad; 2) takes Klonopin, MDMA, Adderall, mushrooms or Xanax; 3) does something embarrassing or rude while on drugs; 4) feels bored, socially anxious or sad.

At one point, Paul emails a friend what could be the novel in miniature:

Writing a novel that blankly relates the events of an uneventful life is a little like filming yourself on MDMA and publishing the results as a movie — which Lin has done.

Tao Lin edits the independent publisher Muumuu House. His previous novels are <em>Eeeee Eee Eeee </em>and <em>Richard Yates</em>.
Noah Kalina / Courtesy Random House Inc.
/
Courtesy Random House Inc.
Tao Lin edits the independent publisher Muumuu House. His previous novels are Eeeee Eee Eeee and Richard Yates.

For one thing, deadpan realism is a clever shield against criticism: If the novel is bad or boring, well, life is bad and boring. At one point Paul thinks, "I was like a bored robot," which, aside from bouts of excruciating social anxiety and shame, is an apt description of Paul's general mental landscape: He's drug-dulled, antisocial and emotionally barren.

That is not to say that there's nothing lovely in Taipei. Moments of real beauty appear, sudden, stark and unexpected as a skyscraper in the jungle, before the narrative retreats back into drugs and ennui and the bright, blank draw of the Internet, Paul's constant companion.

With a funny and sad description of his shy childhood, Lin perfectly captures Paul's horrified and humiliated sense of his own existence:

Writing a novel that blankly relates the events of an uneventful life is a little like filming yourself on MDMA and publishing the results as a movie — which Lin has done.

Or, Lin describes saying goodbye to his mother at the airport and thinks "of how, in the entrance-less caves of themselves, everyone was already, always orphaned." These frustratingly brief moments of beauty (entrance-less caves!) often seem as though they've been copied and pasted from an expansive, dreamy book by someone else.

Lin also beautifully merges images from the real and virtual worlds:

In these rare sentences, Lin gives to buildings, cars and computers the kind of rapturous attention that other writers give to mountains, lakes and trees.

And for all its frequent dullness, Lin's prose is innovative. In novels, characters conventionally think in fully formed paragraphs; real people think in a jumble of images, snatches of words, feelings and even bits of music. Lin captures this with quotation marks around words that Paul thinks to himself:

This is jarring at first, but eventually feels like another step toward putting the reader wholly into Paul's mind.

Unfortunately, Paul's mind, more often than not, is not someplace you especially want to be. That is the riddle of Taipei: It's boring and harrowing; dull and wildly creative.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.