I finished reading Tao Lin’s Taipei last night; I loved it, and as I finished I thought to myself, “well, it’s about time.” Tao Lin was more or less my gateway to the internet and to writing on the internet. The first piece I ever read by him was “How to Give a Reading on Mushrooms” in 2011, during a period in which I was intensely aware and analytical of my affect, mental state, and outward behavior while on drugs, which I used infrequently and do not use at all now. The piece was hilarious, but also I thought more accurately captured the pattern of associations and self-reflection that occurs in ‘thinking’ than anything else I’d read before. (“Think ‘Hunter S. Thompson’ and distractedly sense the aesthetic of the movie Aliens.”)
I learned about Tao Lin on the internet during my internship at an Arabic-language radio news station in Amman, Jordan, during my sophomore year of college, in which I was ‘in charge’ of the English version of the AmmanNet website, which mostly consisted of copying-and-pasting headlines from their Arabic site into Google Translate, then revising them, and where I, instead, spent most of my time looking at the internet and downloading Against Me!, Black Flag, and psychobilly albums, and reviewing things for Absolutepunk.net. Through “How to Give a Reading on Mushrooms,” I found Tao Lin’s other writing, and through this exposure I created, in my mind, the admittedly feeble construction that Tao Lin somehow embodied ‘all of internet writing,’ that such writing was a phenomenon leading, by one path or another, back to him. Through Tao Lin, I found Thought Catalog, which I have since used, in several articles, to pour virtually all of my angst circa 2011 through early 2012. (There was a short period of my life in which whenever I would have crippling or sexually anxious feelings, I would think to myself, “I should write this for Thought Catalog; Thought Catalog will accept this.” I had several days I devoted exclusively to writing “Thought Catalog pieces,” all of which were eventually published ).
Having said that, Taipei feels more like ‘real life’ than anything I’ve ever read. Here’s one early paragraph/sentence that I think is particularly beautiful and poignant:
“On the plane, after a cup of black coffee, Paul thought of Taipei as a fifth season, or “otherworld,” outside, or in equal contrast with, his increasingly familiar and self-consciously repetitive life in America, where it seemed like the seasons, connecting in right angles, for some misguided reason, had formed a square, sarcastically framing nothing—or been melded, Paul vaguely imagined, about an hour later, facedown on his arms on his dining tray, into a door-knocker, which a child, after twenty to thirty knocks, no longer expecting an answer, has continued using, in a kind of daze, distracted by the pointlessness of his activity, looking absently elsewhere, unaware when he will abruptly, idly stop.” (p.16)
This ends the first chapter—can you think of a better way to end a chapter? I’ve read Tao Lin’s writing described as variations of affectless or ‘bland’ or something else, but I think those people are misguided and/or stupid. LOOK AT THIS PARAGRAPH. First of all, no one uses adverbs quite like Tao Lin, in the way they were meant to be used. Here, he takes a metaphor—of his repetitive life—and then, to elucidate it, fuses the metaphor into a concrete object (the door-knocker), which he then uses to construct a relatable scene of a child knocking idly on a door, which encapsulates the metaphor of his life. I don’t know how else to say it, but Tao Lin creates perfectly imaginable metaphors—I’ve never experienced a previously-inarticulate feeling in writing with such concrete clarity.
I’ve thought about this passage for weeks, and how measurable and convincing and interesting it is; how could anyone pretend there’s not brilliance in this? Taipei is one of those books I will be able to pick up at any given point and read from an arbitrary page for inspiration. Tao Lin, in his writing, is extremely meticulous, devoted entirely to detailing—with as much effort and as many words as it takes—exactly what happens in someone’s life, and why.
(I mostly write really short things, and over time have been trying to practice expressing things in the most precise way possible; in that respect, I love and appreciate Tao Lin’s dedication to using adjectives in an accurate and satisfying way. He uses ‘vaguely’ just perfectly, for example.)
Here’s another scene, much later, in which, sitting as a passenger in a car, “Paul felt a quaintly affecting comfort and a self-conscious, fleeting urge to ask someone a question or say something nice to someone.
“He thought of how, from elementary through high school, if a girl had been nice to him at school or if he got a valuable baseball or Magic: The Gathering card or if he accomplished something in a video or computer game—if for whatever reason he felt significantly, temporarily happier—he would get an urge to talk to his mother and sometimes would go find her, at her makeup station in her bathroom, or outside watering plants, then reveal something about his life or ask her a question about her life, knowing he was making her happier for a few minutes, before running back to the TV, Nintendo, or computer.” (p. 226-7)
When I read this passage, it almost made me cry, because I—and I suspect most everyone else—has had precisely that same, miniature experience, but I’ve never read it before, and, again, it is perfect, but in a different way. I honestly don’t understand the criticism—aren’t we all seeking, in one way or another, some kind of honesty? ‘Affectless,' are you fucking kidding me? I don’t think there are many writers better at detailing life than Tao Lin.
I’ve read/skimmed a couple of reviews of Taipei, one that was mostly-excoriating but with personal deliberations on the author’s part, and another that was one of those decorative and highly metaphorical, paradigm-y reviews that are almost never entertaining to read but I imagine are very satisfying to write (because, I suspect, as you write it you are fashioning little quote-snippets you’re hoping for someone—probably the author of the book you’re reviewing—to excerpt and use for other promotion), and I’ve decided that to read reviews of Tao Lin is mostly fruitless and generally frustrating; I would much rather read Tao Lin’s response to a review than the review itself. (I also saw an obnoxious what-i-thought-on-every-page piece on Thought Catalog, but this mostly seemed lazy, like a gimmick, and like something that no one could honestly appreciate, except vaguely, for the effort and maybe a nice phrase or two).
I read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station earlier this year, shortly after I moved to New York, and loved its specificity and lack of pretension. Taipei seems like a progression of this mode of writing, which, I think, favors sincerity and exhaustive accuracy over anything overtly ‘stylish’ or flashy (which is not to say that Leaving the Atocha Station and Taipei are not stylish books)—I like that these books seem, in terms of their plot and specific moments, entirely real and autobiographical, without blatant dramatic maneuvering below the surface. (There’s a scene in Leaving the Atocha Station in which the protagonist, Adam, leaves a hotel room one morning and then wanders back and forth for hours, helpless and lost, feeling increasingly disoriented and nervous. In Taipei, Tao Lin knows that no one simply ‘leaves an apartment’; they stop in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, bedroom first. In one very minor way, these books seem real because they know just how much we physically go back and forth.) This is all to say: I don’t think that Tao Lin is given enough credit for his skill at crafting sentences, for his hyperanalysis of just about everything.
I’ve never interacted with Tao Lin specifically, on the internet or in real life; nonetheless, when I was writing this I thought to myself, “I like to see pictures of Tao Lin smiling,” (He’s in a panel on Monday, July 22, at Bookcourt, which I’m going to, so maybe I will find him then.) I’m so happy for his success with this book and I hope it sells many, many copies to strangers. (Though I realize that probably less than 10% of the people reading this blog—if it attracts enough readers to facilitate such a tidy fraction; that is, a factor of 10—are not already familiar with Tao Lin; of course, also by writing it, I hope that Tao Lin himself might read it and feel appreciated in a specific way, which, of course, is the total opposite of ‘spreading the word.’ Imagine if we wrote private blog posts, directed to a single reader, solely focused on books written by that single reader.)