Tao Lin’s newest novel, Taipei, is in many ways a departure from his previous two works – 2009’s Shoplifting from American Apparel and 2010’s Richard Yates – both already classics of the burgeoning internet-based ‘alt-lit’ genre, of which Lin is something of a godfather. While these novels were marked by a thoroughgoing minimalism, which shunned both sensory descriptions and interpretive digressions in order to remain grounded in the (often banal) material facts of the narrative, Taipei turns its attention toward the amorphous terrain of consciousness, and consistently emphasizes the subjective gap that divides each individual human being, irrevocably, from the world we all share. The sentences in Taipei are longer than in the previous novels, the images less concrete and more memorable, but Lin’s characteristic mood of numb detachment and post-ironic resignation is more pronounced than it has ever been. Different as Taipei may be from Lin’s earlier work in focus, scope, and style, it remains a book that no one else could have written.
Taipei follows Paul, a Brooklyn-based twenty-something writer resembling Lin who drifts in and out of parties, relationships, and various chemically induced states of consciousness. The title city is another place where Paul drifts, during annual visits with his parents, but this location is not of central importance to the text. Without a real arc, the story picks up at a seemingly arbitrary point in the protagonist’s life and ends in a similar way, with a description of an epiphany of Paul’s that, occurring as it does during a hallucinogenic comedown, feels unearned and, the reader fears, likely to be forgotten. The loose structure of the novel parallels Paul’s mode of living, which similarly lacks focus and direction. Paul lives day to day, moment to moment, and attends mostly to his immediate circumstances and the convoluted thought processes they engender, showing little concern for his long-term life prospects. Sometimes this dry myopia is played up for humorous effect, such as when Paul sagely tells an interviewer that he is not afraid of being “the next to die” in a string of tragic Megabus accidents that, it turns out, never happened. Other times it seems as if Paul is in the midst of a crisis that he will never summon the energy or motivation to recognize, much less overcome. The scene near the end of the book where he and his friends live-tweet a showing of X-Men: First Class while on heroin is an example of this, as Paul repeatedly stumbles, vomits, and in general displays a disturbing lack of concern for how he comes across to the outside world.
Paul’s numb, passive, lazy mode of cognition is perhaps the central defining feature of his character, and one that indicates his high degree of self-insight and not, as it might first appear, the opposite. Like a modern-day Socrates, Paul is vigilantly aware of the things he does not know, and the result of this is that he is hesitant not only to shape his world, but even to interpret it. “He didn’t feel connected by a traceable series of linked events to a source that had purposefully conveyed him, from elsewhere, into this world,” reads a passage in the first third of the novel. “He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it digressed and was continuing ahead in a kind of confused, choiceless searching.” Devoid of a self-narrative that would meaningfully link the past to the future, Paul is left to wander through what Walter Benjamin once described as “empty, homogenous time,” where moments negate one another in dry succession, and are not lived as much as they are observed and chronicled. In Paul’s experience, even moments of heightened sensory or imaginative richness – like a vision of Manhattan as “an enormous, unfinished cruise ship that had been disassembled and rearranged by thousands of disconnected organizations” or of his own consciousness as an “antlered, splashing, water-treading land animal” – are never privileged, really, or infused with significance. They are simply there, like he is, in a world that, as Lin once said of artworks, is neither good nor bad.
Lin’s writing combines postmodernism’s distrust of realist fiction’s representational devices with a belief that the old realist project of representing private experience remains relevant for writers today. You can see this perspective most clearly in Lin’s prolific use of scare quotes, not ironically, but clinically, to mark those words and concepts he feels he must persist in using despite his awareness of their construction or falsity. This affectation, much imitated and much maligned, basically screams what is Lin’s central artistic conviction, that there is currently no better way forward for artists; no counterculture whose vocabulary we can use to replace the sustaining myths of a society we have long since been disillusioned by. Or to put it another way, Lin’s writing springs from a belief that subversion, as a literary tactic, is no longer enough; that there remains a need for sincerity, even among those who have absorbed enough postmodern theory to find even their own thoughts to be infinitely problematized. To write fiction without the power of conviction – or a belief that what one has to say is especially important or true – is the unique task that Tao Lin has set for himself. If his work can be said to respond to a single question it is this: what does it feel like to live in the world while believing, as Lin wrote in Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger in 2010, that “[e]veryone’s actions and beliefs are based on equally arbitrary assumptions”?
In his brief but prolific career, Lin has employed numerous narrative strategies to respond to this question, but one thing that has remained consistent is his refusal to penetrate the essence of his texts, or to supplement his characters’ lack of answers with answers of his own. This has led some, including Witz novelist Joshua Cohen, to accuse him of merely transcribing the events in his books, rather than properly writing about them. And it is true that Lin’s hyperawareness of his own authorial limitations can cause his books to come across as un-literary, or anti-literary; more like exercises in Zen detachment – to use one of Lin’s favorite words – than deliberately crafted literary objects. However, the fact is that Lin’s consistent relativism is an authentic response to what he perceives as a key dilemma in contemporary fiction and is, in this sense, very much ‘literary,’ or involved in a conversation about form and representation that stretches back centuries.
The question then becomes, where do we go from here? Does Lin’s fiction represent a dead end for the novel, wherein writers retain the avant garde’s traditional weariness with the limitations of old forms without its utopian push toward new, possibly more fruitful aesthetic modes? Here as always, the real dead ends are rigid critical standards. Like punk music once did, Lin’s fiction boldly fails by both traditional and experimental criteria, posing a challenge to reactionaries of all stripes and forcing us to ask new questions about what we want from our artists. So for now, Tao Lin might be the most influential American writer under thirty. (Who else has inspired so many imitators?) But this doesn’t mean that resignation has completely usurped opposition as the rallying cry of the counterculture, or that ‘hipsterism’ has finally brought us to the “dead end of Western Civilization,” as Adbusters infamously claimed half a decade ago. Lin’s work, like that of all writers worth thinking about, represents nothing more or less than a singular voice within a passing cultural moment. Who knows? Maybe the self-reflexive ambivalence of Tao Lin and the alt-lit movement he inspired will set the stage for its antithesis: a new literature of conviction.