On Tao Lin’s Taipei

by Tao Lin
Vintage, June 2013
256 pages / $14.95  Buy from Amazon







Tao Lin is a writer whose novels, short stories, poetry, and essays have won many admirers, and inspired what seems like an equal amount of detractors (it’s a conversation being energetically carried out on the Internet, for the most part). His recent novel, Taipei, is his most publicised book. It’s about a young writer living in Brooklyn who ingests lots of illicit and non-illicit drugs, uses his MacBook to ‘work on things’, goes on a book tour, visits his parents in Taipei, ingests more drugs, and tries to connect with people.

Though I’d come across bits and pieces of Tao Lin’s writing online, my response was emphatic in neither a positive or negative direction, and it would hardly constitute a bias. The thrill, therefore, I got from reading the first sentence of Taipei was pure, and due as much to my having an immediate feeling as it was to the sentence being good. I’ll reproduce it here, for the pleasure of doing it, and possibly to annoy anyone who doesn’t agree with me: It began raining a little from a hazy, cloudless-seeming sky as Paul, 26, and Michelle, 21, walked towards Chelsea to attend a magazine-release party in an art gallery. As far as sentences go, it’s accessible, controlled, and idiomatic. Its tone, too, is consistent throughout the novel – which could pass as one definition of good writing. In regards to Tao Lin, whose prose veers so close to ‘bad writing’ that it sometimes reads like parody of bad writing, it’s an important distinction to make.

I’ve read that Tao Lin completed his bachelor’s degree in Journalism. Although it’s a bad habit to speculate on a writer’s influences, I can’t help but draw a connection between this biographical fact and his third novel. For one, Taipei is an autobiographical account covering 18 months. The novel is, for the most part, chronologically linear, and much of what happens finds its genesis in Paul’s (journalistic?) impulse to self-document. There is the absurd, fake documentary Paul and Erin decide to make about the ‘first’ McDonald’s in Taipei; filming themselves on MDMA and other drugs to post on YouTube; live-tweeting X-Men First Class while on heroin; writing accounts of their first ‘drug fight’ (both Paul and Erin render it in a ‘Raymond Carver-esque manner’, as it happens); Paul emailing himself a bullet-point account of a dinner with Erin parents, etcetera.

What’s most interesting, though, is the manner in which Tao Lin uses as a model journalistic prose. In doing so, he upends certain expectations of artistic and imaginative writing. For instance, there is a pretence to objectivity that characterises much reportage, and it results in writing that is cold and impersonal; this is a quality mimicked in Taipei, whose sentences are often flat and literal. However, while this is what the surface of the prose conveys, what it’s actually presenting is a third-person voice so close (and indistinguishable from Paul) that it is radically subjective. Tao Lin adopts stylistic traits associated with the opposite of ‘literary’ writing; a denotive, sub-literary style becomes prose whose innate quality is not what it seems. The agility and nuance of the syntax can balance multiple clauses, and take the reader off-guard with the most unlikely images.

On the plane, after a cup of coffee, Paul thought of Taipei as a fifth season, or ‘otherworld,’ outside, or in equal contrast with, his increasingly familiar and self-consciously repetitive life in America, where it seemed like the seasons, connecting in right angles, for some misguided reason, had formed a square, sarcastically framing nothing -or been melded, Paul vaguely imagined, about an hour later, facedown on his arms on his dining tray, into a door locker, which a child, after twenty to thirty knocks, no longer expecting an answer, has continued using, in a kind of daze, distracted by the pointlessness of his activity, looking absently elsewhere, unaware when he will abruptly, idly stop.

One specific example of a stylistic signature that Tao Lin has made his own is the noting of the age of any person in Paul’s social life (as in the novel’s opening sentence). I’d say this does at least two significant things. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned, it’s reminiscent of purposely bland, direct reporting; and secondly, it satirises a contemporary social reality. Among creatively ambitious people (and the twenties might be its most intense manifestation) age is tied to notions of precocity and perceived achievement. Socially, these are two things many people want to embody, and which are the cause of much anxiety. As trivial though it may seem, the curiosity surrounding a social rival’s precise age, for many of us, is hard to overcome (often it’s the only thing we want to know).

His style also makes use of what can appear an egregious placement of adjectives.  ‘Dancey’ music, or, a ‘vague’ amount of time: these are just two instances of a writer who might seem bored with writing.  After all, it’s the sort of silly shorthand we use when we’re being lazy in real life.  On the other hand, however, it’s also unsettling close to how many supposedly over-educated people speak, and narrate internally (as Paul is doing).  To me it’s funny for its accuracy.  And more than just comic effect, it captures the way clever, emotionally-isolated people can use language to distance themselves from their concrete surroundings, other people, and their own feelings.  (A similar thing is achieved by the use of stock phrases and cliche, as contained in those now ubiquitous ironizing quotation marks.)

This all being the case, I’m not going to deny there was a point about mid-way through the novel when I put it down with the thought I’d had enough.  Some of the long, diffuse sentences seemed unnecessarily confusing: It had seemed like they would never fight, and the nothingness of the future had gained a framework-y somethingness that felt privately exciting, like entering a different family’s house as a small child, or the beginning elaborations of a science-fiction conceit.  But when I did put it down, I found the novel’s voice was stuck in my head.  There is something about a sentence like the one I’ve just quoted which, to my mind, resembles pre-articulate thought.  The spirit of Henry James hovers over the pages of Taipei.  A Jamesian sentence does the impossible, it gives an impression of the inchoate process of consciousness, and at the same time, it crystallises multiple thoughts (all in what appears to be a single thought).  A Tao Lin sentence makes the journey from inside Paul’s head, onto the paper, untransformed; in other words, it is an underdeveloped version of a Jamesian sentence in which nothing is crystallised.  Tao Lin’s portrayal of the inner life is similar to the common experience of thinking like a genius, and when it comes to articulating the thought, speaking like an idiot (I’m misappropriating Nabokov.)

Which brings me to a final comment.  It is tempting to read Paul (Tao Lin’s fictional avatar) as intended to be representative of an entire generation (or at least one of its more visible sub-groups – namely, Brooklyn-dwelling literary poseurs).  But I don’t think that is the intention.  To me, Paul is strange (and maybe even unique); and despite frequent moments of recognition, reading Taipei is not like looking into a mirror.  For all its representation of a life lived through the internet, the novel’s aim is a traditional one.

…[Paul] uncertainly thought he’d written books to tell people how to reach him, to describe the particular geography of the area of otherworld in which he’d been secluded.


Tim Curtain writes fiction and lives in Melbourne, Australia.  His reviews and stories have appeared online and in print.

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  1. Eric Hawthorn

      This is a really fascinating piece. I especially appreciate the final paragraph about the function of age in the text. In my experience, age is a huge concern of the ambitious 20-something writer (i.e., how old is the writer, how much and where has he/she published?). Maybe that’s a big part of my aversion/fascination toward Alt. Lit. So many of its practitioners are young and successfully published–exhibiting the precocity and achievement Mr. Curtain alludes to–that I continuously monitor the scene’s activities as a way of gauging my “competition.”

      Which doesn’t seem very healthy, but there you go. It’s sort of like scrolling down to the bottom of a published story or poem to see where else the author has been published–before actually reading the story or poem. Am I the only one who does that?

  2. bartleby_taco

      Sarcastically Framing Nothing sounds like a good name for a 90’s-era Midwestern emo band that makes, like, Proust references or something (sort of like Orchid but less snooty / more ‘earnest’).

  3. H2O

      How can a sky be “cloudless-seeming”? If you look up at the sky, there are either clouds or nothing at all.

      The only thing I can see is if he’s implying that the sky may actually have clouds, but they’re out of his view (hazy?) or in a different location. But if either of those are the case, cloudless alone would work because he’s describing his current surroundings as they are at that moment.

      I guess he could be pointing out the arbitrary nature of the universe. I dislike that attitude towards life, but I can understand if that’s the case because that is a common thread in his writing. Anyone wanna help me out?





  5. A D Jameson

      Can’t it be a question of perception? As in, “I could not see the whole sky, but from what I could see of it, it seemed cloudless”?

  6. deadgod

      ZZZZZIPPP’s idea is accurate; Tao Lin thematizes the uncaptured, insecurely known quality of perception-based ideation, beyond even ‘perception’ of the mind’s activity. He’s an extreme phenomenologist: not just ‘It seemed red.’ or ‘He seemed hostile.’, but ‘I had feelings of happiness.’ rather than ‘I was happy.’

      And Adam’s point obtains, too: you might see only blue sky, then walk past the skyscraper and only then see the storm clouds rolling towards and raining on you.

      But I agree more with your ‘redundant’: it’s “hazy”, meaning the humidity hasn’t aggregated enough to be ‘clouds’ (or however that happens), and you could say ‘cloudless’ of a hazy (humid, air-polluted) day (cf. Houston, LA), but dang it if it wasn’t actually raining!

      The redundancy (or half-redundancy (???)) particularizes how it seemed “cloudless” (“haz[ily]”) and yet the surprise of rain (it wasn’t just “hazy”, but seemed downright “cloudless”).

      Not an endorsement of the aesthetic or emotive effects he achieves, but Tao Lin writes at this granular level of care.

  7. A D Jameson

      Well said, deadgod.

  8. Jeremy Hopkins



  9. H2O

      I mentioned that possibility in my comment. I also pointed out how meaningless this is, because what he sees is what matters.

      I see this logic as akin to saying it seemed rainy because it’s raining where I am though it may not be raining anywhere else.

  10. H2O

      I did not consider the fact that, while it’s raining, you could expect to see clouds above you and that the lack thereof would be notable. Good catch. But, yes, we can agree that haze is redundant because it can be used as a synonym for cloud.

      Also, I think “I had feelings of happiness” rather than “I was happy” is an OK switch, because the two are concurrent in meaning. The first is more specific than the second, but they’re close enough to the same thing.

      I disagree with A D Jameson’s interpretation; the specifics are in my response to his comment.

  11. H2O

      No need to yell. Thanks for your response.

      The quotation marks gimmick is, I think, meant to show a particular character’s description or feeling.

      I think arbitrary nature of language is a more accurate description of his style than what I wrote; however, I would argue that, thematically, I was right since “cloudless-seeming” is written with regards to the sky. I see it as implying that the sky could be cloudy, cloudless, or anything else and just happens to “seem” that way at this point in time.

  12. A D Jameson

      I meant more if one’s ability to see one’s “current environment” (e.g., the weather in downtown Chicago) were insufficient to allow definitive judgment as to the whole. For instance, if I were standing inside a building downtown, looking out a window, or if I exited the Blue Line station at Monroe and Dearborn and looked up between the skyscrapers. (This wasn’t clear in my original comment, sorry.)

      Another possibility: the sky could have clouds in it and still seem cloudless. In Illinois, we regularly have these clear skies when the sky is a very specific color blue. The sky could be that color and still have clouds in it and therefore be “cloudless-seeming.”

      In first-person narratives, the narrator’s descriptions describe the narrator’s view of things, no?

      Also, it’s not like fiction need be logical.

  13. H2O

      Your example still doesn’t work because unless the weather of the whole downtown Chicago area is integral to the story, you don’t need to do that. The weather around the character’s surroundings are what matter. The reader isn’t so dumb to believe the weather in one spot is uniform throughout a city/town (this an assumption on my part).

      Lin illustrates the weather with this sentence, then doesn’t touch it again. If Paul saw a cloud AFTER passing a skyscraper or whatever, then I’d agree with leaving it in (rephrased). But as I said, the sky isn’t mentioned in the rest of the passage. He does, however, move around outside and mentions the wetness of the street, a callback to the rain. That was good.

      Notice how in my example, Lin says “raining a little”, not “seemed to be raining”.

      To seem is to give the impression of. If you see clouds in the sky, it can’t be cloudless-seeming. You could describe it maybe as “almost cloudless” or “nearly cloudless”. That would fit the Illinois description.

      I would agree with the first-person narrator thing, except that this isn’t a first person narrative. That mistake comes from an early morning post, which is my fault.

      Fiction doesn’t need to be logical unless it’s being written as a realist story. This one clearly is. And even beyond that, I wasn’t even saying Fiction had to be logical. All I said was that POV, in addition to being impossible and meaningless, is illogical.

  14. H2O

      Sorry, I hate writing long comments. I edited as much as I could.

  15. bartleby_taco

      He’s not yelling that’s just how ZZZZZIPPP talks!

  16. H2O

      dat caps lock tho

  17. Jeremy Hopkins




  19. shaun gannon

      are you more of a Left Shift or a Right Shift feller, Z