This Is Not a Book Review: Taipei by Tao Lin
DON’T BELIEVE ANY REVIEW YOU READ
most reviews seem like a combination of vague/abstract/sweeping statements, lies, inaccurate chains of thought, irrelevant information, personal prejudices, blind allegiance to traditions, personal belief in one’s ability to judge for others, passive insults, reluctant/qualified acceptance of talent, asskissing, exagerrated statements, reference to older authors and his/her work as template for how one can be better, unresolved psychological issues, jealously, desire for acceptance/shittalking how ‘cool’ the author and his/her group is, and other insecurities/pettiness.
– Sam Pink’s blog
A few months ago, I asked Vintage for a galley copy of Taipei, Tao Lin’s forthcoming novel, with the intention of writing a book review for a magazine that I solicited. The publicist at Vintage was very kind in her response, and prompt; in a few days there was a package outside of my door. The magazine in question was interested, which surprised me, because they tend toward more ‘esteemed,’ overtly political, and/or ‘international’ authors. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, for a variety of reasons. I’ll say that the fault is more mine than theirs—in reality it was my very first editorial dispute, which I’ll probably fondly remember in the future (or not). Either way, the review didn’t happen.
A part of me was relieved. I’ve written a few book reviews (one for HTMLGiant, in fact), and I’ve found that out of all the kinds of writing I’ve attempted, it’s the form I dislike the most. Maybe I dislike it about the same as I disliked writing papers in college. I was also relieved because the sole reason I had asked for a review copy was simply because I wanted to read the book (I didn’t want to wait until June), and because I didn’t want to pay for it (not a slight; I was working as a stock boy at a liquor store at the time, and was consistently penniless). As I was making my way through Taipei, forcing myself to write notes—something I seldom do when I’m reading ‘just for me’—I realized I was starting to think about my forthcoming review as some sort of punishment for myself, for doing things like this, things that I didn’t really want to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about the book. I like talking about books, actually, with people whom are also interested in talking about books. It’s the reason I started reading HTMLGiant in the first place. The problem was the idea of a review, and what that review would force me into. I had the suspicion that if I were to write it in the way that would be most pleasing to me (which is to say in a way that would resemble a conventional review in the least) the editor at said magazine would probably ask me to revise it. E.g. – I remember reading in an interview a few months ago Tao saying that because the novel is called Taipei as opposed to, say, Macbook, reviewers will likely talk about it in a certain way. If I wrote a review, I wanted it to be for Macbook, not Taipei.
The most attractive thing I’ve found in writing, at least at this point in my life, is the idea of writing as an expression of freedom—freedom to say or describe whatever you want, in any way you deem fit. You’re the writer, after all. It’s the thing that I try to achieve for myself in everything that I write, and it’s the quality that I’ve found threaded through all of my favorite writers: Borges, Bolaño, (Dennis) Cooper, Aira, the Oulipo writers, Markson, et al. My favorite kind of writing sets itself up only to dismantle the edifice, either quickly or slowly, with preamble, or without. Like a stripper that starts naked and eventually puts clothes back on. The criterion only exists when the opposite is being done in its name.
As I was making attempts towards the review, I found that I was writing something in order to fulfill a criterion, forcing myself to speak in a way that made me uncomfortable— something essentially the opposite of that sense of freedom. As if I were a door-to-door salesman shilling plastic knives to people, when I really wanted to talk about how I thought people’s faces looked like on the highway that morning. I can’t explain it for you; I can only talk about my experience, which I’ve pieced together from half-remembered things (the other half being a pile of inventions). Which is then tempered by the perpetually shifting attitudes of what I find interesting. Besides, there are a variety of sources offering explanations for things, if that’s what you’re looking for.
What struck me as funny, throughout this ‘punishment’-writing process, was how in many ways my aversion to writing a formal review of Taipei was probably something Tao would sympathize with—not wanting to publicly make objective statements in abstract and sweeping ways about the quality of something that by its nature can’t be accounted for objectively. In reality I’ve never completely bought Tao’s ‘total’ subjectivity when it comes to ‘good/bad’ in art—something I’ve read him talking about several times, repeatedly, over the years. I’ll be the first to admit that I probably have said or will be saying abstract and sweeping things deriving from personal prejudices, all of which are stupid and laughable, etc. I can’t help it. The guise of the unimpeachable critical judgment is something that I don’t think I can ever escape: if the voice of authority clears its throat I’ll find my ears prickling, which is of course undoubtedly dangerous (for me, at least). Nevertheless, I’ve always admired the argument, proposed as he’s proposed it, and I’ve found it to be something of a guiding principle by which to understand Tao’s writing: for things to be bad or good, a context and goal has to be established. Otherwise the statement is unintelligible. Yellow can’t be “bad” at running because yellow doesn’t have the capacity for mobility. Therefore: art, in all of its blubbery dumbness, its aloofness, its failure at understanding what’s it supposed to be doing exactly, and for whom, is something that passes through the hall of critical judgment unscathed: it can’t speak to that language. Most people don’t agree with this. There are entire institutions that exist to say otherwise. And I don’t know if I agree with it either. But everyday I find that voice growing fainter, and my ears have prickled less.
Ken Baumann recently wrote something on ThoughtCatalog about Eeee Eee Eeee, Tao’s first novel: he describes the afterglow of his first reading as being “charged with permission”—which I think is a beautiful and appropriate way of describing the effect of the kinds of freedom I’m talking about. It reveals the possibility of something existing in a way that before was indiscernible. It writes a map that then creates the territory, like Borges’ fable. And coming into contact with it gives you the freedom to roam that territory. What I had similarly enjoyed in Tao’s work in the past was the spirit of that will-to-freedom, untethered to “blind allegiances to tradition,” or “the belief in one’s ability to judge for others,” or etc. It’s a principle that has guided the work structurally, as well as in terms of its thematic approach. A certain logical extension of a particular literary attitude made holistic and idiosyncratic, and unerringly consistent. I had wondered before reading Taipei if the anticipation of the fancy tassels of ‘maturity’ endowed by future reviewers (and a large advance) would alter that spirit, or if it would align it with something more properly received, already understood.
Anyway. I had forgotten all about this for a while, writing the review. I read the book in a week or so, enjoyed it, and moved on to other books. I started working at a new job and was focusing on other things. A few days ago I came home from work and saw that I had received another package from Vintage. I assumed I was put on some mailing list and was now going to receive new books of theirs periodically, which excited me. I opened the package to find the trade paperback edition of Taipei—glistening cover—and a publicity pamphlet. I hadn’t asked for it. I assume they sent it out to whomever they had sent a galley to, maybe to remind them of its approaching release date. Well, it worked. I started writing this. Criteria-less.
When I flipped over the book I first noticed Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘blurb’ for Taipei: “With Taipei Tao Lin becomes the most interesting prose stylist of his generation.” It’s funny because it’s a tweet that Vintage cut short, the last half of the sentence being “…which doesn’t mean that Taipei isn’t a boring novel.” Obviously a publisher is going to leave that off. But what I find interesting about Easton’s assessment is that I somewhat agree with it. And I don’t think of that as a bad thing.
Taipei, to refer to my previous analogy, doesn’t take its clothes on or off; it seemingly doesn’t attempt to vacillate from the clip it sets at the outset. Which is to say that I think Taipei’s boringness—its eliciting the reader of the experience of boringness—is in many ways what I found to be the most engaging aspect of the book. It was boring but I was never bored. It seemed to me like one of the most truly phenomenological books I’ve ever read. The sense organs operate like blank, dulled sieves through which the experience of the exterior world is processed, categorized, and forgotten. The prose style of Taipei made me think of a person walking on a beach that stretches out indefinitely, inspecting each and every rock, picking one up momentarily, passing it from one hand to the other, and putting it back down. “Moving through the universe,” as Paul’s walking is described in the first page. Boringness as a consistent side effect of experiencing the world a certain way; not as a brief intermission between ‘events,’ but as a singular, languorous event seemingly without a beginning or an end.
The thing about lacking criteria is that there are no bowties at the end. I won’t let what I’ve said, which is as sweeping and prejudiced as any review, lead you anywhere. All I have are these few thoughts, some words, and I thank you if you’ve come this far. So I’ll finish with something from my reading—Markson—who at the time of the book cited (as a writer at an advanced age, feeling like there’s really nothing to lose or gain), pointedly expresses an attitude about writing that is inspiring to me, and which I continually seek, and maybe have found in some places:
“His last book. All of which also then gives Novelist carte blanche to do anything here he damned well pleases.” (The Last Novel, p. 4).