Tuesday, October 28, 2014
So this is probably her first reaction to the question "What do you think about Tao Lin?": Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
Let me think.
Um. Yes. Okay.
A good way to start is by responding to what others have to say about Tao Lin, specifically the other people quoted on the back cover of her library copy of Taipei, which she is consulting now.
Bret Easton Ellis, for instance.
She types: Bret Easton Ellis says that Tao Lin is the most interesting prose stylist of his generation.
Well, Bret Easton Ellis would say that as Tao Lin is a direct literary descendent of Bret Easton Ellis, a mini Ellis, who writes in the same disembodied, zoned-out, affectless, shadowless style that Ellis shocked everyone with back in the mid-80s. Tao Lin justifies Ellis, proves Ellis's enduring influence on a whole new generation of writers. Tao Lin says that Bret Easton Ellis was right all along.
Paul, the main character in Taipei, might have stepped right out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, if only he dressed better. He sits around a lot, drifts in and out of numberless amorphous parties that always seem to be going on all the time, continuously ingests drugs indiscriminately, has lots of pointless conversations that don't so much end as fade off into mutual confusion, obsesses with status and popularity, his own and others, maintains a philosophical nihilism that masquerades as apathy or vice-versa, thinks about sex a lot but seldom has the energy to actually do it and, generally, displays a self-conscious obsession over the most inane of personal details that borders on the symptoms of mild autism, Aspergers Syndrome, or, at best, terminal narcissism.
The big difference between Ellis and Lin? Ellis dealt with LA, Lin deals with NY. Ellis featured mainly rich kids among his dramatic personae; Lin makes do with upper middle class slacker/literary types. In Ellis there is always an undercurrent of potential violence tugging at your ankles, a dark homicidal menace threatening to pull you under into absolute nightmare; in Lin, maybe the worse thing that can happen is that someone unlikes you on Facebook, but don't underestimate the catastrophic effect of that—it's considered a fate maybe even worse than torture, rape, and dismemberment in a south of the border pornographic snuff film .
Blake Butler calls Taipei a vision so relentless it forces most any reader to respond. Ummm, I guess that's mostly true, Marisa thinks. In any event, she's responding. Sort of. But her response was dependent on her having to force herself to look at the book long enough in the first place. Sticking with it required a certain amount of discipline. The novel wasn't mesmerizing; it wasn't an all powerful, against-one's-will, can't-look away sort of reading experience. A lot of readers take a peek at this "vision" of Tao Lin's, their eyes glaze over, and they easily put it down and walk away.
Frederick Barthelme says you owe it to yourself to read Taipei and to contemplate the world it predicts. Well, she thinks, I don't know about the world it predicts part. Taipei is pretty much an exaggeration, a satire and parody of the world we've been living in for the last fifteen years, Fred. It's nothing terribly new. It's certainly not "the future."
Barthelme claims that Lin presents ordinary life in a way that few writers would acknowledge, let alone champion. Egads! Fred! Fred! Hello? Where the hell have you been the last couple of decades?! People have been writing this sort of self-important, self-chronicling blog-fiction for a long time. Almost everyone with a computer nowadays is "championing" their ordinary life! The big difference is that Tao Lin has been lucky enough or shrewd enough, most likely both, to skillfully network (literally) and ride the academic slipstream to a position in which he and his ramblings are being taken seriously by the late-to-the-party literary establishment as representative of a trend in popular culture that may still be current but is by no means new. Lin may be the establishment face of this sort of text, but the rest of us are its head, arms, torso, legs and backside.
What Lin represents, in part, is the realization of Warhol's prediction that everyone in the future will be famous for fifteen minutes. That future is now. It's a universe where everyone is a star, alright, but in a universe where everyone is a star there's no one left to look up. We all have our own pointless directionless lives to blog nowadays and a forum, aka a firmament aka the web, in which to fix and display the constellation of our "personal celebrity". So the big question becomes why do I care to read about Tao Lin/Paul's, or anyone else's mundane existence, when I have my own?
But none of that is entirely true, is it? Of course not, she thinks, reconsidering. It's true to some degree, though. The fact is that Tao Lin is a lot more interesting and intelligent than the usual blogger recording the usual boring life. Just the fact that he can write so well makes his boring life that much more interesting than 95% of other people's boring lives simply on a linguistic level. Actually, none of what Marisa finds herself writing is definitive with regards to Tao Lin or, for that matter, anything else. In fact, she's writing this review as she's reading the book, reading and writing over a course of several days, while all sorts of other stuff happens in her life that have little or nothing to do with Taipei or Tao Lin but are nevertheless called to mind by the book or color her reactions towards it. Taipei, or any book one takes seriously, does't exist in a vacuum once one begins to read it. Her opinion of the book keeps shifting in alarming and unpredictable ways and as a result has no consistency whatsoever and, to her passive amazement, keeps contradicting itself. She has no control over her reactions or the words that record those reactions. She could control it, she supposes, but that would only falsify her engagement with the book and there is no incentive for her to do so. No one is paying or grading nor even likely to be reading this review. She can freely let her mind unspool. Perhaps she should start revealing her deepest darkest sexual secrets here, or her PIN number, or login passwords; if she ever poisoned anyone or committed some horrible crime that's been weighing unbearably on her conscience this would be the place to come clean. Who would ever find her confession buried in this paragraph itself buried in a pseudo-review about the novel Taipei? Can you even tell that she likes the book? Probably not. She likes it, though, in a vaguely dysfunctional way, the way you like the sensation of a tooth that hurts when you press it with your tongue. It's a good book, reading it is a pleasure you can't explain, like the sore tooth, but it annoys her, too; it annoys her in ways that she's trying carefully to enumerate but the real reason somehow continues to elude her.
Publishers Weekly claims that Taipei's documentary precision captures the sleepwalking malaise of Lin's generation so completely, it's scary. See above. Ellis chronicled this sleepwalking malaise thirty years ago and as she recalls Publishers Weekly, like most of the literary establishment at the time, crucified him for doing so. How can something we've been living with for thirty years still be scary? For that matter, since most of us are actually of this generation does that mean we find ourselves scary? There are a lot more scary manifestations of this sort of writing available. Ellis himself, for one. There's a novel she read once by Nick Caligari called The Maniac Manifesto. The list goes on. In her experience, when Publishers Weekly thinks something is cutting edge you can be almost certain it's been passé for a good twenty to twenty five years. She routinely uses their book reviews as a guide to what to avoid (what they like) and what to read immediately (what disgusts them).
She thought it seemed pithy and clever when the comparison first occurred to her: Tao Lin's writing is like the "War on Terror": it might not make any sense as presented and there were perfectly good reasons for refusing to even acknowledge it with serious consideration, except for the fact that it was there and it wasn't going away and even if it wasn't what it claimed to be, it still said something important about our time, even if what it said was malign, as in the government's ongoing deception from 9-11 forward, or terminally vacuous, as in Tao Lin's writing. She got about halfway through writing this thought down when she realized the comparison was so hopelessly tangled she'd never capture the insight as it had come to her in a flash in the shower with the warm coursing water rinsing the conditioner out of her hair. It required too many clauses, too many clarifications and qualifications, to be pithy or clever or even entirely understandable. The more she went back to rewrite the paragraph the longer and more unwieldy it became. She felt like a centipede with a hundred untied shoelaces.
So she mixed a batter for the carrot cake she promised her husband that she'd bake instead. She put the loaf pan into the oven and while waiting the 45-50 minutes it would take to bake she thought of the guy who wrote her an email yesterday wondering if she were still free to meet up for a "date." He remembered what a nice time they'd had together the last time. She had a vague notion of who this guy was, well, let's say there were a few likely candidates, but couldn't remember exactly which one might be him, or even be certain any of them were him; it wouldn't have surprised her if it was someone else entirely, even though he gave her his first and last name. As best as she could recall, "Mike" was some guy she'd given a blowjob years ago. He was only one of many at that particular time in her life—a time when she needed the kind of ego reinforcement only numerous emotionally empty sexual encounters with many different, largely anonymous and meaningless men can provide. It was amazing to her how some of these guys would still occasionally write as if they'd been together only last week, as if time itself had stood still between orgasms. Did this guy—this Mike, whoever he was—suddenly just get horny and she popped into his head? She was no better, really, unable to rememember a guy she'd blown and even exchanged email addresses with and with whom she obviously had some sort of relationship, albeit truncated and one-dimensional. She shrugged and concluded nothing because there was nothing to conclude really. Her experience wasn't so unusual. Many women have had similar experiences with men. Still, it was peculiar. And she had used the material gathered to write a blog about that period of her life that extended to nearly 1500 posts.
Taipei is the sort of novel whose narrator uses the word "vaguely" a lot. Paul looked vaguely at Corrine or at the wall behind her. He stared vaguely out the window of the plane and tried to think about his mother but found himself instead thinking vaguely of cinnamon buns. He felt vaguely. He touched in a vague way. He heard, but vaguely. If a two-ton pay loader tipped over and fell on his head you can almost imagine Paul being crushed—"vaguely."
Thinking vaguely about Tao Lin while the carrot bread baked, his book sitting on the kitchen table beside the computer, this thought tickled the back of her neck like a mild electric shock. Tao Lin's hyperaware prose examination of his fleeting states of consciousness is reminiscent of Proust! Reminiscent of Proust! she thought again, literally with the exclamation point. She wondered if this comparison had occurred to anyone before. It was exactly the sort of provocative statement that gets people's attention. If she were writing a Masters thesis she might propose this as her subject. She wondered what Tao Lin himself might think of being compared, favorably, to Proust. She turned the book over and looked at the pen-and-ink sketch of him in lieu of an author photo printed on the back cover. He looked disapproving. She could imagine that he was the sort of guy who would probably disapprove on some level of anything that was said about him no matter what it was. Then again, she might only have been describing herself.
About 20 pages later, she's thinking, Proustlike? Was I on drugs when I said that? There's nothing Proustlike about Taipei; it's just tedious is what it is. You read 4 complex sentences and two hundred words and all that's happened is that a character has turned his or her head. She remembers having nightmares about writing fiction like this back in graduate school, the kind where you can't get your character to cross the room and answer the door in under 750 pages, compelled to describe everything, from the pattern in the drapes to the firing of neurons in the knee muscles, and do so in tortured, brain-twisting, over-written detail. She suspected that this kind of writing is what a writer is forced to write when he or she doesn't have a whole lot of anything important to say and so is forced to fall back on an overly complex description of the bare mechanics of existence. The whole of Taipei, in one sense, is like a 248 page clearing of one's throat preparatory to saying something that's never said. But Marisa hasn't read all 248 pages of the novel, in fact, she's hardly read half, so that's probably not a fair thing to say, though not necessarily wrong either.
She puts the book down and quickly jots down a poem vaguely in the style of a Tao Lin poem she remembers reading once on the internet.
Thinking & Not Thinking of You
I washed my hair and conditioned and didn't think of you.
I rode my bicycle through the park over a trail matted and slippery with wet dead leaves and didn't think of you.
I cracked an egg and thought about you a little bit.
I boiled water for peppermint tea and didn't.
I stood on the porch in the sun and sorted through the day's mail, sat in the window eating yogurt, fed the stray cat, and didn't think about you while doing any of these things.
I shaved my legs and moisturized and didn't think of you.
I read some poems by Emily Dickinson and thought I might think about you but didn't.
I looked up Alexander Trocchi on the internet and unexpectedly thought of you even though you have no connection that I can make out not in my mind or otherwise to Alexander Trocchi.
I ordered take-out falafel for dinner and ate less than half of it and didn't think of you once.
I lit a candle and didn't think of you.
I started writing this poem after I surprised myself thinking of you while washing my hands and staring blankly at my reflection in the mirror over the bathroom sink and found that by the time I was done writing I had to force myself to think about you and could only succeed by realizing that, strangely enough, even while ostensibly writing a poem about you I wasn't thinking about you at all.
This poem didn't really reflect her day as she only did about half the things she mentioned, the other things she did on other days; neither was she actually thinking about someone she missed, nor was she at all melancholic as the poem suggests. It was a rather good day, in fact, and the "you" that she writes about, who she didn't really think about, or not think about, wasn't even a particular "you" from her past at a time when she was broken-heated, but a kind of generic "you," an abstract composite of a lot of people she or anyone might think about, people who are no longer in one's life for one reason or another, not always tragic, or even sad. That, she figured, would be the universal appeal of the poem, if it had one.
She spends a few seconds wondering what Tao Lin would think if he read this review of his book. She imagines he's the sort of person who Googles his name every day to see who is talking about him and what's being said. Actually, there's a Google alert thing you can subscribe to that will collect and deliver this information for you. She imagines that Tao Lin has this service and may possibly see what she's written about him and his book and almost surely he will not really give a damn one way or another what she has to say about him, which is fine with her.
She begins to type. Some people may assert that Tao Lin has nothing to say. But no one can seriously make deny he says nothing beautifully. As an example, she inserts this passage from Taipei. "He'd think of how his heart, unlike him, was safely contained, away from the world, behind bone and inside skin, held by muscles and arteries in its place, carefully off-center, as if to artfully assert itself as source and creator, having grown the chest to hide in and to muffle and absorb—and later, after innovating the brain and face and limbs, to convert into productive behavior—its uncontrollable,indefensible, unexplainable, embarrassing squeezing of itself. She adds, Anyone who denies that isn't powerful, beautiful, and knee-bucklingly affective writing is either denying, lying, or simply doesn't know what powerful, beautiful, and affective writing is.
But then, let's face it, there are simply huge chunks of this book, thirty, forty pages at a time that are just plain boring, repetitive, and tedious. After a while, you find you're reading without even paying attention, reading because you're in the habit of reading, like other people chain smoke without ever realizing they've even lit up, the ashtray spilling over. Your eyes are just following the lines on the page, your mind wandering away from convoluted serpentine sentences that require a lot of patient detangling, like long fine hair after a shampoo with cotton candy and a ride in a convertible, in order to extract even a simulacrum of a crumb of sense. At regular intervals there is an absurd Dadaesque simile that, if you're still awake, can more than occasionally be brilliant and profound. But you have to have stayed awake through a lot of tiresome lines to catch it.
Every fifty pages or so you ask yourself "Why am I still reading this?" Your answer boils down to some variation of this: "Because it's there."
After a hundred pages you start to get annoyed and testy, you want to wave off Tao Lin and say some variation of, Yeah, yeah, life is pointless and boring. We know that. We've known it since Camus. We've known it since Dada. Isn't that what art and literature are for? To make it less boring? Do we really need you to chronicle how boring and pointless it is? Do we have to do more than wake up in the morning to know that? Instead of droning on about it, adding to the boredom, why not kidnap someone instead? Blow up a bank. Join the War on Terror; after all, it was fabricated to line the pockets of the few and to keep the rest of us useful and occupied: so join in, either side, it makes no difference, because although there's nothing to be done about life being meaningless it doesn't necessarily have to be boring.
This is one way that Bret Easton Ellis was actually a superior writer to Tao Lin. His characters did do something. They committed heinous acts of undirected violence. It wasn't meaningful, but it broke up the monotony.
Instead Paul/Tao Lin and his friends take video of themselves on drugs and post them to YouTube as a kind of ongoing documentary art project. He gives readings of his work on different types of drugs and encourages potential interviewers to interview him while stoned. He and his girlfriend write and exchange accounts of their fights, they relentlessly interview each other about their sex life, their past partners, their relationship, and their reactions to their own and each other's reactions to whatever they've just experienced. It's a literal application of the old bromide that only an examined life makes life worth living. The way Tao Lin records these activities its hard to tell whether this obsessive cataloguing of personal minutiae is a despairing attempt to escape terminal boredom or an absorbing and creative and ultimately meaningful attempt to erase the boundary between art and life, to make art and life indistinguishable. Maybe it's both. This is one way that Tao Lin is a superior writer to Bret Easton Ellis. While Ellis breaks the boredom of everyday life by fantasizing grotesque acts of misanthropy, terror, and violence, Tao Lin creates realistic strategies to introduce an aspect of play and satire into everyday life. Now that she thinks about it, does Paul/Tao Lin ever actually complain that life—taken as a whole—is boring? Or is it only implied? Or maybe, even more likely, she's the one placing this interpretation on the narrative. Actually, Paul/Tao Lin seems to be having a good amount of fun in his life, more fun than most people, drug-addled or not. He certainly does sound like an interesting, perpetually creative guy, a lot of fun to hang out with.
I don't think I'm giving anything important away by saying that about two-thirds into the book Paul and his relatively new girlfriend Erin impulsively decide on a quickie Las Vegas wedding. Shortly afterwards, they travel to meet Paul's family back in Taipei for Christmas, where he'd gone alone, at the beginning of the book, after breaking up with a previous girlfriend the Christmas before. Hardly halfway into the visit, Paul is thinking about how he can become single again.
From here Taipei takes a left and darker turn. Suddenly, starkly, Paul comes right out and says what one has suspected all along: he is bored and he is depressed. There was a lot more riding on the impulsive, ironic marriage than either he or Erin were admitting to each other or themselves. Paul's drug use amps up dangerously to the point of overdose and he wakes up shorn of fun and games inside the proverbial long dark night of the soul which, as depicted in Taipei, continues for the last thirty or so pages of the novel. What Paul encounters isn't just a personal case of the blues that he can simply film away with his MacBook Air or find alleviated with a Facebook "like", but a kind of impersonal extraterrestrial despair that blows through him like an interstellar idiot wind. There's nothing inside, nothing outside. He describes the depression as a "sadness-based fear, immune to tone and interpretation, as if not meant for humans—more visceral than sadness, but unlike fear because it decreased heart rate and impaired the senses, causing everything to seem 'darker.' Sometimes it was less of a feeling than a realization that maybe, after you died, in the absence of time, without a mechanism for tolerance, or means of communication, you could privately experience a nightmare state for an eternity." This is a cold vision of anti-human emptiness positively Lovecraftian in its unmitigated, unredeemable horror.
In other words, the only thing worse than life is death and, worst of all is the possibility of a half-life after death. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Paul contemplates suicide. He imagines that a suicide with Erin would constitute a real marriage; that by making a private compact to die together, a decision that would defy and exclude the world, they would be making a true commitment to each other and an irrevocable decision that would in itself constitute meaning. Of course, he realizes that even in this act of mutual self-destruction they would still be rendered separate: it's self destruction, after all. They would experience their deaths like astronauts in two separate space capsules, slowing drifting off into eternity in opposite directions. There's no cure for death and there's no cure in death. Yeah, don't get me started.
Fear not, reader. Paul decides to live and Tao Lin decides that life is good. But pretty much because death seems, at least at present, more awful even than a boring meaningless life—it's colder, lonelier, even more boring and even more meaningless. If nothing else, death offers less diversions. Life may suck, but at least there's decent internet connection.
Towards the end of reading Taipei, Marisa gets an email saying an earlier poem she wrote, also influenced by a poem of Tao Lin's she read on the internet, was accepted by a small literary journal. How can she not admit that, mixed feelings or not, despite all her tongue-in-cheek criticisms, her grudging and barely concealed envy, her genuine antagonism toward what often seems his underserved canonization and her sympathy for his equally undeserved literary stoning, her disdain for his unabashed self-advertisement, he's had an influence, and a fairly major-minor one, on her own writing and her way of processing the world. What was it that Blake Butler said? He forces most any reader to respond. Yeah, that. He does.