The Drug-Fueled Existentialism of Tao Lin

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 11:00 AM

No One Is Special

The techy, drug-fueled existentialism of Tao Lin.

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This can be frustrating early on; it’s difficult to remember, or even care about, a string of mostly indistinguishable characters. But it eventually becomes amusing, as it begins to seem like a wink at our youth- and status-obsessed times—a bit like the äppärät device that characters carry in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which helpfully provides a “hotness” quotient. But if Paul distills others into these atomic stats, “a kind of placeholder, auxiliary to an idea of a person,” as he says at one point, he stops well short of condemning others for doing the same. Lin isn’t particularly concerned with how individuals find, or are denied, social acceptance. For a novel titled Taipei, in which the protagonist sometimes lingers on memories of his immigrant parents or of previous visits to the titular city, issues of identity and race also remain purposefully unexamined. Even when Paul and Erin wander the streets of Taipei, their ethnic relationship to the local population ostensibly reversed—her ethnicity, like everyone else’s, isn’t specified, though she doesn’t speak Mandarin, and Paul does—cultural and racial dislocation is never a source of conflict, never connected to anyone’s sense of alienation.

Lin seems to ignore these questions as a way of setting everyone on the same plane, withholding judgment, denying easy justifications. His characters are all alone and adrift for the same basic human reasons. Lin neither satirizes his characters in the manner of Bret Easton Ellis, a writer to whom he’s often compared, nor exalts them as bohemian heroes, in the style of, say, Jack Kerouac. No one is special. No one is exempt.

1306_SBR_TAIPEI_AUTHOR
Author Tao Lin

Courtesy of Noah Kalina

Lin’s tech-inflected imagery suggests that this is a very contemporary condition—or at least has taken a very contemporary form. Paul imagines “traveling alone in the vacuum-sealed tube of his own life” and, having reached some final destination, “being able to click on his trajectory to access his private experience, enlarging the dot of the coordinate … until it could be explored like a planet.” Later, he feels stuck inside the “invulnerable dot of himself, irreducible and changeless as a prime number, on or off, there or not.” If this sounds bleak, there is an understated hope in the mysterious and cyclical nature of things. Early on, Paul observes that Michelle, the girlfriend he broke up with, “liked him enough to not simply leave and never speak to him again, which she could do—which anyone could do, Paul thought, suddenly intrigued by the concept of gratitude.”

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Lin is an existential writer, really, less interested in tracing the contours of his particular social group than in describing the very personal and sometimes unbearable tyranny of one’s own mind—and what it requires (sometimes measured in mg doses) to venture out in search of others.

In the novel’s climactic scene, Paul, after taking psilocybin mushrooms with Erin, believes he has overdosed and died. It’s by turns terrifying and funny—at one point Paul wonders how he could have forgotten an escalating heroin habit, which is, in fact, itself just a hallucination. His low-level freakout over his imagined death builds over a few pages to a revelation that, in its sheer unexpected beauty, recalls the powerfully moving ending of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (a novel that takes the theme of negation and solipsism to an extreme in quite a different way).

I don’t want to spoil either ending here; they’re both worth encountering on one’s own. Taipei has its flaws—scenes in the first act can feel repetitive and drawn out, as if overly faithful to the author’s memory, and some sentences are weighed down with adverbial excess. But if there are still a few kinks to be worked out in the prose, there is also a purposeful maturity, and even a subtle warmth, on display. Lin asks us to take greater care with the messages we leave one another, lest we all forget what it feels like to be heard.

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Taipei by Tao Lin. Vintage.

Chuck Leung is a web producer for the Open Society Foundations. You can contact him at charles.k.leung@gmail.com.

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