Fiction Review: “Taipei” by Tao Lin

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Much has been, and will be, made of Tao Lin, the twenty-nine-year-old NYU graduate, now three-time novelist, who exists to many as a sort of vacuous, vaguely sassy counterpoint to the Brooklyn-obsessed infantilization of “Millenials” covering the pages of so many New York newspapers, magazines, and websites. But this is always the way that generations in their twenties are reported to the collective imagination: the young are always living, fundamentally, in ways confounding and novel to the old, who’ve gained enough control of the media to frame things how they want to.

So while the increased radar of Lin, following this, his largest release yet, is surely to draw more eyes to his generational specificity—MacBooks, iPhones, Twitter and Facebook inundate the text—than ever before, the meat of “Taipei” actually relies scarcely on technological quirk, and certainly less so than anything he’s yet written. These new-age templates are merely the shapes that his longings, confusions and general metaphysical struggles must wiggle through—“technology,” he writes, “had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness.” And this is the Tao Lin book which easily most deserves the word “metaphysical.” Take this passage, in which he considers the possibility of prison life as a penalty for mailing drugs to himself in his parents’ home of Taiwan: “[He] wouldn’t be removed from his life—only dying would remove him—so he would feel the same probably. He would still be—and be inside—the invulnerable dot of himself, irreducible and unique as a prime number, on or off, there or not, always following itself perfectly.” A writer of such effortless profundity should be evaluated on his own terms—not used as a canvas for limp narratives about the times we live in.

Especially when “Taipei,” his greatest reach toward wider readership, is easily Lin’s warmest, most universal book. It can even reasonably classify as a “coming of age” tale, much against the grain of his previous books (“Richard Yates,” “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” “Eeeee Eee Eeee”) which almost indignantly eschew the semblance of such spiritual progress. There’s a lot of growth here.

This is still no docile adherent to institutionalized expectations of readers, though. Fans of Lin’s previous work may begrudge his rising star, as they realize that scenes will no longer amble into the non-sequiturs of “Eeeee Eee Eeee,” in which Elijah Wood rides dolphins, or feature the silly tagging of “Richard Yates,” in which the main characters are randomly named Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. Lin’s jabs have just become more meaningful: perhaps my favorite part of the book is a running joke between him and his girlfriend Erin, called “the voice.” “The voice” is described as “almost the opposite, especially for Paul, of the quiet and literal and inflectionless voice they normally used to speak to each other,” and as something they use to “feign egregious ignorance, improvise seemingly expert commentary on specific objects, excessively employ academic and literary references.” Their gag perfectly parodies the rhetoric of the book’s own marketplace (and that of Lin’s celebrity), and Lin’s continued prodding of the world he infiltrates, with exponential success rate, makes him a world-class ironist.

More importantly, the bildungsroman of “Taipei” is similarly clothed in humor. Inverting his nostalgia for the popular culture of his childhood and adolescence, manifest here as a poster for “Back to the Future,” Lin uses the image as a symbol for envisioning a future with Erin, the first girl he’s met who could shake him into doing such a thing.That his work can make this transition into more emotionally satisfying territory, while still making us laugh—and only rarely cringe at the corniness of it; his foray into memories of young suburban life in Florida do feel a little Freudian 101—is what suggests, more than anything, that Lin has more room to grow as a writer, yet.

But even if he didn’t, “Taipei” would still come recommended, as just being on the page with Lin is already a delight. His touted economy of language is aimed toward longer, more eloquent sentences than before, and he’s always able to tickle with contemplations big and small; he can surprise you with his thoughts behind the “pawing” of arms, or about the speculative motions of the cosmos. The more generous Tao Lin is in his books—the more flesh he gives, and the less defensive he is with absurdity and detachment—the more there is to like. (John Wilmes)

By Tao Lin
Vintage Contemporaries, 256 pages, $14.95

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