Wednesday, July 10, 2013

some rough thoughts about Tao Lin's Taipei

About a month ago I read Tao Lin's new novel Taipei. The month since then has been one of the busiest I can remember (although evidently not in terms of blog productivity or anything), so much so that at first I wrote "a few months ago I read" etc with some confidence. Despite that, I found that I never really stopped thinking about Taipei, and moreover, that it (and Tao Lin in general) had actually changed the way I think and act in a lot of circumstances. I'm gonna try to write about those changes and the book and Tao Lin's other work in almost a "therapeutic" sort of way, which means this is probably going to be more personal than most of these posts.

My main "goals" in this essay were:
-describe how Tao Lin either has changed the way I think or has reflected how I think in his writing with eerie accuracy, specifically wrt quotes and thoughts of the form "feels... something"
-say something about Taipei to the effect of "I liked it, this is why, these were my favorite parts" etc
-say something "definitive" about what I perceive to be the more interesting "themes" of the novel, comparing it to Almost Transparent Blue and Tao Lin's essay on Almost Transparent Blue
-say something about Tao Lin's portrayal(/contribution towards?) the personal/cultural feeling of being "fucked"

The first two goals are elements of the third, the first and the third contribute to the fourth, I think...

I wrote ~2500 words fairly quickly then went and ate two Whoppers at Burger King and returned to find that I had no idea what I was trying to say a lot of the time. If you're reading this now I must have said "good enough" or something and published this post anyways... hopefully as some sort of rough draft. I feel "motivated" to work at something like this a little harder and try to get it organized/coherent/relevant but who knows if I actually will...

Chronological Experiences with Tao Lin

The first time I heard about Tao Lin is when he was "crowdsourcing" Richard Yates, sometime in 2009 I guess. Shoplifting from American Apparel had recently come out and I remember halfheartedly pirating it since I was pirating a lot of ebooks at the time. I didn't read it until 2010 sometime after I had gotten my kindle. I read it in one afternoon and finding it surprisingly unpolarizing given the memetically rabid fanbase/hatebase that Tao Lin was beginning to get on /lit/. I thought it was good but "not for me" in that I felt the appeal must lie largely in identifying with the characters, which I couldn't do. In my "year end books I read this year review round up" I gave it like a "B+" or something... also, the day I read Shoplifting from American Apparel, I made a thread on /lit/ about "having to throw the Tao Lin" (i.e. a VERY CLEVER joke re: throwing the towel in) which is now a pretty popular joke and I swear to god I invented it on that day, I was on /lit/ a lot in those days and it was a slow board, if someone else made it before I would have known, I invented that joke 100% I swear to god.

Anyways so I was pretty indifferent to Tao Lin and remained so despite big Tao Lin-centered argument threads cropping up on /lit/ basically every day. He was like Neutral Milk Hotel on /mu/... it was so abstracted from an actual artistic entity at this point that sometimes I found myself surprised that his books actually existed. Occasionally I would read some of his shorter stuff - I really liked a Vice piece he did about Justin Beiber and LSD - or watch an interview or something but I didn't really get interested in him until I read Richard Yates.

I pirated Richard Yates at some point and forgot about it... I found it one day when the internet was down in a /books folder I forgot about. I started reading it with the intention to stop when the internet was back but I was engrossed really quickly... I felt almost "perversely" engrossed, in the same way that I did waaaay back when I first started listening to hip hop, like, it was something I almost didn't want to find good/interesting, because then I would retroactively have been wrong about being disinterested? But uh I had to throw the Tao Lin on that one ha ha ah shit ugh.

But yeah I enjoyed Richard Yates and right after I went and pirated Eeeee Eee Eeee and read that, and then read everything I could find of his online, and then I ordered all the books he had on (and looked elsewhere for Richard Yates but gave up) and preordered Taipei. I read that the day it came, and then again, and then reread a bunch of his stuff, and after all that I reflected on my "Tao Lin fever" with a sort of melancholy, feeling like I had really enjoyed myself but maybe not that much had changed, and maybe I didn't even think they were very good, or maybe I hadn't learned anything, but now, a month or so later, I really feel like those books - Taipei especially - were very good and really taught me something.

Now we actually talk about Taipei

Taipei is a shamelessly autobiographical fiction about roughly a year in the life of Paul, who is basically Tao Lin. The structure of this year is laid out on page 36, which is then followed by a "standalone" section about Paul's childhood which is the part I've seen him read on Youtube at his readings... aside from this section, the rest of the book is pretty tight chronologically and usually moves at a steady chronological pace. The book has six chapters of varying length. I'll detail them here:

1 - pg. 1-16, Paul in New York, dating Michelle
2 - pg. 17-88, Paul in New York, dating Laura
3 - pg. 89-145, Paul on book tour, dating Erin
4 - pg. 146-165, Paul in Las Vegas, dating Erin
5 - pg. 166-209, Paul in Taipei, dating Erin
6 - pg. 211-248, Paul in New York, dating Erin

Already I get some sort of satisfaction from this sort of structure... not just the varying length, but the specific "rhythm" of these particular varying lengths I like. Short "intro", then two long things, then a short-medium-short pattern. I think there must be some album where the songs break down like this (Person Pitch? kinda) or something because I find it very interesting/almost haunting, this sort of chunking.

On the most surface level the chapters are pretty clearly chunked either by location or relationship, as I've detailed above, but they usually all begin and end with with what I feel are important (and usually some of my favorite) scenes that seem somewhat "defining" of the section in a way that suggests the sections are defined by more than location or relationship or even something directly linked the location or relationship... something deeper and more "thematic".

I would say that my understanding of the "themes" of the book are based more on somewhat haunting "impressions" I had of some central argument underlying nearly everything. Occasionally it seems like you can construct somewhat of a "weak thesis" on one side or the other of various arguments in the novel - is Paul's drug use good or bad, are his relationships degenerate or stable, is he a "good person", etc - but these are all presented with such indifference... it's like, in some books, once you wrestle out the main argument, when you hit on what Dostoyevsky wants us to learn from Alyosha's experiences, you get the feeling that Dostoyevsky would get some satisfaction from that, but here, I think if I told Tao Lin something like "I have concluded that Taipei argues that drugs are [whatever]" he would say "sure whatever".

Nevertheless, I feel like there is a point to the whole thing, something nearly ineffable, present more in the very idea of the novel than in any specific content. I think it must be something very personal, something that Tao Lin was trying to prove basically only to himself... I think any sort of lesson you're trying to teach yourself will always seem pretty incoherent from the outside looking in. I don't even think it's important to try to learn what that lesson is, or even to think that such a lesson could be important for a reader. But the knowledge that there is some overarching therapeutic or philosophic quality to the novel, even if it is exclusively personal to Tao Lin, is important because it gives some potential gravity to the rest of the book, i.e. it allows you to feel "justified" in being emotionally invested in what, without this phantom "theme" and the meticulous and throughout and unarbitrary structure that shows its existence, would amount to just voyeuristic snippets of someone's diary...

I'm not sure if I'm making myself clear. This section was supposed to be a broad overview, I planned on exploring these ideas in depth later, but now I might be outpacing myself. Anyways this book is about Paul's interactions with various people. It is described in Tao Lin's characteristic "flat" tone, which, although significantly evolved from Shoplifting etc is still very much the "Tao Lin" minimalism that people find so polarizing. There's been this huge argument about whether what Tao Lin does is real writing or [what?] which is tied into a lot of other junk about "the legitimacy of Twitter as an artistic medium"; this argument invokes both postmodernism and Hemingway; it disgusts me. Furthermore I feel like it's very far removed from what makes his work interesting.

But wait no I will I mean why is it that minimalism in film is so praised by those who seem so disdainful of minimalist writing? I mean realists, I think. They like their Dogme 95 and their mumblecore but then they think the literary equivalent is Calvino neo-realism or Woolfian stream of consciousness?? Which is more the equivalent of Haynes or Bergman or something, or French poetic realism, like... I dunno, maybe I'm not making any sense, I'm using too many terms and I might be arguing the hypocrisy of a person who doesn't exist. I can certainly see why someone wouldn't enjoy how Tao Lin writes but to reject its legitimacy as an aesthetic or an art... that bugs me.

Anyways Taipei though... it's Paul wandering around and talking to people and taking drugs. I really enjoy it because I find it very funny at times, and very touching and sad at times, and I feel like I can relate to the characters - beyond actual personality or lifestyle or whatever, or even specific thoughts, I feel like I can relate a lot to Paul's thought process. He thinks like I do. I'm not sure if that's why I enjoy Tao Lin so much or if I think that way because of Tao Lin... it is very difficult to remember how you used to think, or even if you used to think in a different way.

I am thinking like Tao Lin does?

I think the first "corrupting influence" Tao Lin had on me was the use of "distancing quotes", which I picked up from John Campbell's twitter without realizing he had picked it up from Tao Lin (I assume? I think Tao Lin is the first one to use quotes like this). This technique I find extremely powerful... it basically allows you to take any phrase/word/thought/idea and place it away from yourself at a "post-ironic" distance. Look at how I used them with "post-ironic" there: it allows me to acknowledge the "silly", "insufficient" or "totally made up" nature of the term "post-ironic" while still allowing me to get the full functionality of the term post-ironic.

Maybe that example is "too meta"... Basically the idea is that the quotes, like any quotes, indicate that you're using someone - usually hypothetical - else's words, allowing them to become somewhat distant and alien to you, but you still get to say them. Tao Lin uses a "prototype" version of these in Eeeee Eee Eeee when he interjects an actual quote from earlier in the novel into Andrew's thought process as a "foreign element" in his thought process - an example is on page 43. He also uses something closer to the "modern" usage on page 30, using single quotes around "full-blast" and "court"... See, he wants to use what we suppose to be the actual label on the strongest setting of the hose to point out the inherent absurdity in the name, like, highlighting the difference between the full ramifications of the name and what it actually describes, and then he uses it with "court" as if there was some imaginary but authoritative name for what he wants to do with Joanna's sister, which, of course, there sort of is, but he wants to present it as alien and absurd. Is any of this making sense? I have a hard time describing this. Earlier when I used "modern" I wanted to appropriate the use of a "weighty" term like modern which has associations with like "the modern usage of plutonium..." and highlight the absurdity of a similar level of usage history for something like these quotes... ugh, argh.

Okay let's just say these quotes have a "mysterious power". I found myself very readily using them and even "thinking in" them... I think I've sort of toned it down recently, but sometimes I write things "absolutely peppered" with them which creates an aesthetic of "saying absolutely nothing" while also "saying a lot of clear, specific things", which I find "perversely gratifying".

Also powerful is the idea of thinking that things seem or feel like something without knowing what that thing is. Tao Lin is the only author that I have ever seen articulate this sensation. The best example I can think of is on this comment here. I realized that thoughts don't need to end eloquently or sensibly, but, on most occasions, just end. The thought process of "That's interesting, it seems sad" or "That's interesting, it makes me feel happy" is often actually forced and deliberate, and if you let it happen, you might find yourself actually articulating the thought "That's interesting, it seems [end of thought]". I find thinking like this very satisfying, calming, comforting, I dunno.

Recently at a birthday party a friend of mine said "I haven't seen an ice cream scoop in a long time" and I said "that's a good one", not really sure what I meant, thinking like "His not having seen an ice cream scoop in a long time is [end of thought]", merely just reflecting on the idea that I had reflected on it... It reveals that a lot of what you attempt to consciously process has no good motivation for having been chosen over all the stuff you didn't attempt to process. It reveals that it's pretty easy and not even necessarily bad to just fail to process something you "load up" into your consciousness. Another part of Eeeee Eee Eeee I liked a whole lot was how often they say things like "I can't process that statement". I feel like a lot of Tao Lin's writing makes me think "that's...", which I find pleasant.

I also feel like a lot of what's included in the book is stuff that Tao Lin had that sensation with when he first encountered it. It's not like he just had a list of times he felt like that and wrote it out, though. Obviously there's something more defining his selection of memories (which he describes as a "250000 page manuscript"). Some things have been misremembered or changed, sure, but Taipei is about as literal a description of real events as I've ever read. The big question then is "why these memories?" which I guess also leads to "why does this book exist in the first place?".

What Tao Lin was trying to accomplish in Taipei

So in 2011 Tao Lin wrote an essay on Ryu Murakami's Almost Transparent Blue, which he first read in 2009. I think this is his second best essay, after his masterpiece about Koko the Talking Gorilla. It made me want to read Almost Transparent Blue, which I'm reading now and really enjoying. It also has some of Tao Lin's most sincere and straightforward writing on why he writes and what sort of story he wants to tell. At the start of the third page of the essay he gives a breakdown on the threefold role of Ryu in the creation of Almost Transparent Blue. The only difference here between Almost Transparent Blue and Taipei is that Paul doesn't narrate Taipei, but we are certainly privileged to his thoughts and emotions in a way that we don't have for any other character... so it's probably functionally equivalent.

Further down on that page, he talks about the 7 layers of perception that Murakami uses in Ryu's narration. I think this is also really evident in Taipei. I would mark this as a "big success" for Tao Lin... a lot of criticism of the novel seems to focus on how this sort of style really can't be judged, as it has nothing to succeed or fail at, but I don't think that's right... Everyone in the book seems very real and "accurate" and I was able to imagine them having these "seven threads" at all times.

So really I think that with Taipei Tao Lin was trying to capture the specific sort of realism he found so interesting and powerful in Almost Transparent Blue. That's cool. I think he succeeds on all counts. Good job Tao Lin. But uh it still leaves the question of why he chose these specific memories to include... Well, on the first page of the essay he describes the evolution of his perspective on the book from just a series of scenes that Murakami found interesting to something much more tightly structured. From this he then arrives at what he feels is the "central theme" of the book... it seems to me that Tao Lin is hoping someone will pursue a similar line of inquiry with Taipei. I talked about this earlier, where I said that the important thing was feeling like there was some central theme, even if that theme was too mysterious or personal for any reader to actually gleam... at any rate, I don't think I've studied the book enough to offer anything definitive, but I can talk a bit about I found personally interesting about it.

Or wait no I can't

Mainly because I think the two Whoppers are "hitting me" and I have things to do (in Animal Crossing)... Plus this was the most difficult section anyways, plus I have no idea where else I was going in this, and the "e" key is fucking up on this keyboard.

Here are some rough notes so I don't forget them:

Page 120 of Eeeee Eee Eeeee: Ellen talks about the "it's too hard" mentality (which is closely related to the "fucked" mentality) and ideas of futility/determinism... seems important. There's another section where Andrew walks through an example of the "too hard" mentality but I can't find it atm.

Page 75, Andrew talks about the beauty of rejection, the idea that "if he writes good and funny enough, Sara will materialize in the swimming pool", seems very interesting for personal reasons(?)

Page 103, Andrew talks about writing again, stuff about Schopenhauer, seems very important to understanding Taipei.

Page 102 of Taipei, Paul says he wants to "go for a walk with only Erin, outside", which seems very indicative of a sort of...

Page 132, Paul explains "the voice", which I find very interesting... not just "the voice" itself, but the idea of internally referring to things in quotes like that, I find myself doing it a lot too.

Page 164, description of Taipei, the idea of "scrambling some initial momentum, to disable a setting implemented before birth", seems very significant to the main themes of the book - major "clue" being that the book is titled Taipei.

Page 23, Paul thinks of his male friend Anton as a possible romantic partner, indicative of Tao Lin's simply unparalleled ability to present the sort of confusion that most of us, and most realist authors, ignore... on the idea that most thoughts you have aren't well formed or complete or meaningful.

Page 68, Paul and Daniel accidentally walk from Bar Matchless to Bar Matchless, this is indicative of basically everything I find funny and endearing and sad in the book, worth "exploring" as an example of this difficult to describe humour?

Page 167, Paul thinks of singularity-type questions and asks for a newer word for computer than computer. "I don't think my question made sense. There can't be a newer word...for the same word." strikes me as hilarious/brilliant/indicative of... something.

Page 74, Paul does more drugs and attends less parties, views this fact eventually as a "meaningless placeholder" thought... Seems important. A lot of the reviews seem to view this whole story as like... Paul is spiraling out of control on drugs, and then Erin gives him the opportunity to reinvent himself, or something, but I don't think that's interesting or accurate. I feel like Tao Lin dismisses that sort of reading as basically a "meaningless placeholder" in sections like this.

Page 141, Paul says "In... the future?", seems indicative of the novel being "hyper-present", as does a section where Paul talks about his memory that I can't find at the moment.

Page 159, Paul refers to his life as a "confusing, omnidirectional hierarchy", and how to escape that, I find that really "good", maybe not indicative of anything...

Page 14, Paul mentions how he wants to be in New York to ""do things"", then imagines just "looking at the internet", this seems almost painfully sincere/honest/relevant.

The ending is really important too, of course. It seems to contain a "revelation" but maybe just a "weak" revelation... I'm not sure.

I think I'll try editing/expanding this later but in case I don't I'm posting it now.


eric said...

"I think Tao Lin is the first one to use quotes like this"

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh. David Foster Wallace?

Keatsta said...

can you think of an example of dfw using it?

he uses quotes but i don't think he uses them to distance... in general dfw doesn't try to distance himself from anything.