My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Tao Lin is like a robot who is trying his hardest to understand human emotion. Or maybe a wooden puppet who yearns, more than anything, to turn into a real boy. Paul, the point of view character in Taipei, tries to feel, but he has a hard time pulling it off. He and his friends buy groceries, go to movies, have conversations, do drugs, have sex, get married, go on trips, and film themselves with their Macbooks. No matter what they’re doing, it’s all flat and bloodless. Dramatic emotions, Paul feels, are something you might read about in a book or see in a movie, but not something to expect from real life.
Paul is constantly taking his emotional temperature, trying to gauge how he feels. He’s never simply feeling, completely lost in the drama of his life; his emotions are “vague” (a word that must have appeared more than fifty times in the book), but still, he struggles to identify them:
. . . he calmly turned his head a little and asked if Erin was bored.
“I don’t know. Are you?”
“I can’t tell,” said Paul. “Are you?”
“Maybe a little. Do you want to go?”
“Yeah,” said Paul, and slowly stood.
Some might argue that writing is about finding the story: a good writer needs to take his observations of ordinary life and craft them into a narrative that allows us to make sense of the world around us. Tao Lin doesn’t subscribe to this idea. If his literary influences (the 1980s minimalists like Lorrie Moore, Anne Beattie, and Raymond Carver) taught him anything, it’s that life does not have narrative structure. Life is a series of moments, most of them mundane. (It’s funny and almost impossible to imagine his characters engaging in high-stakes drama: a car chase, a murder, an emergency tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen, a flash mob wedding proposal.)
Tabitha Blankenbiller, in her review of Taipei on Spectrum Culture, says, “In the end, I felt as though I had refreshed my Facebook wall for 260 pages, waiting for a real story to come along. But aside from some grainy selfies and viral videos, nothing ever quite shows up.” The pages of Taipei are bleak and empty, yes. But as repetitive and mind-numbing as it is to refresh that Facebook page all day long, you have to admit it’s addictive. It becomes a way to pass huge chunks of our time, a way to experience life. Unlike, say, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Super Sad True Love Story, or The Circle, Taipei doesn’t present us with a hazily dystopian future, where technology has replaced normal human emotions and interactions. Taipei is trying to show us how we live now. Tao Lin’s vision is depressing, sure. But not altogether inaccurate.